Have you heard about the grille that became famous in women’s suffrage history? We’re not talking about barbecue grills for veggie shish kabobs — although this post concerns skewered politicians, barbed comments, and heated arguments. Read on.
INTERRUPTING FOR A CAUSE
It didn’t take much for suffrage activists to be considered hecklers in early 1900s England. Bold activists like mill-worker Annie Kenney and privileged Christabel Pankhurst united across class lines to interrupt male politicians and ask, “When will the government give women the vote?” Outraged blokes cursed, shook their fists, and threw stuff — dead fish, rotten eggs. The women often got roughed up and arrested. Still, nothing stopped them.
A favorite target was Winston Churchill who sneered, “NOTHING would induce me to vote for giving women the franchise.”
LAUGHING AFTER A LONG DAY
In April 1906, when a resolution on women’s suffrage was presented for debate in the House of Commons, women converged on Parliament. Unfortunately, they had to sit in the Ladies’ Gallery, out of sight, behind an ornate metal screen that obstructed their view.
The grille was an apt symbol for women’s invisibility and exclusion from the decision-making process. Male visitors to Parliament sat in the Strangers’ Gallery, which had no grille.
Suffrage activists waited for hours that day to hear men debate the resolution. Instead, they heard condescending jokes and raucous laughter.
Just before the debate was scheduled to close, the women, dead set on serious consideration, began to shout, demanding that the legislators vote on the suffrage resolution.
Police, primed and waiting for such an outburst, rushed the women. To their horror, the women laughed in their faces. As Sylvia Pankhurst, Christabel’s radical pacifist, socialist sister, remembered, “We laughed as the police came rushing down over the tiers of seats to drag us out; it was fun to show our contempt.”
DISMANTLING THE GRILLE
The women continued to swarm men’s meetings, heckle the speakers, and laugh. On October 28, 1908, a suffrage activist and professional actress from Australia, Muriel Matters, interrupted the proceedings at the House of Commons to deliver a speech from the Ladies’ Gallery. When guards rushed to evict her, they found that she had chained and padlocked herself to the grille.
As men pondered what to do about Muriel, a second woman began to deliver a suffrage speech. She too, it was soon discovered, had attached herself to the grille with a heavy chain.
As sounds of struggle came from the Ladies’ Gallery, a male ally in the Strangers’ Gallery shouted, “Why don’t you do justice to women?” Several activists began flinging suffrage leaflets into the air.
Work continued to dislodge Muriel and her friend from the grille. Pieces of it had to be partially dismantled before the women could be removed (although it would not be permanently retired until 1917). The next day, Matters and a dozen other activists were found guilty of willfully obstructing London police and were sentenced to a month in Holloway jail.
But, this wasn’t the end of Muriel. A few months later, on the day King Edward opened Parliament with a grand procession, Matters hired an airship bearing the words VOTES FOR WOMEN, stepped into a basket on the balloon’s underside, and, once aloft, floated over London, tossing leaflets overboard. She meant to drop the pamphlets on the King’s head, but was blown off course. Nevertheless, she won lots of publicity for the suffrage cause and had a good time doing it.
Today, there is a Muriel Matters Society in Australia; a “Muriel Matters Room” at the South Australian Parliamentary Library; and a plaque in her honor in Hastings, England. Her story has been told on stage and screen. The chain she used to attach herself to the grille, as well as a piece of the ironwork and her prison badge have been displayed in museums in England and Australia.
TO GO DEEPER
“Muriel Matters: An Australian Suffragette’s Unsung Legacy” by Amy Fallon, The Guardian, October 10 2013.
Muriel Matters Society (founded in 2009) website
AUDIO CLIP & ARTICLE “The Suffragette Airship”: To hear Ms. Matters’ distinctive voice as she describes floating over London in a balloon, listen here: (@3 mins.)
VIMEO: “Muriel Matters” by Louie Joyce, with clips of the performance Muriel Matters! written and directed by Sonia Bible. (1 1/2 mins)