How the Suffragettes influenced Mahatma Gandhi

Feb 24, 2018 06:16 PM IST

Their struggles left a mark on the techniques of protest used by the Mahatma in South Africa

In February 1918, a hundred years ago this month, the King of England gave his assent to a bill permitting women over 30 and with five pounds worth of property to vote. The anniversary has sparked a flood of articles and books in Great Britain, remembering the popular movement that led to this (at the time only partial) enfranchisement of women.

Mahatma Gandhi at Boulogne station, on the way to England to attend the Round Table Conference .(Getty Images)
Mahatma Gandhi at Boulogne station, on the way to England to attend the Round Table Conference .(Getty Images)

This article is about the impact of that struggle on an influential Indian. In 1906 and 1909, Mohandas K. Gandhi visited London to lobby for the rights of the diaspora in South Africa. Both times, his visit coincided with street protests by activists known as ‘suffragettes’. In an article published in his journal Indian Opinion in November 1906, Gandhi wrote: “Today the whole country is laughing at them, and they have only a few people on their side. But undaunted, these women work on steadfast in their cause. They are bound to succeed and gain the franchise, for the simple reason that deeds are better than words.”

Gandhi was impressed that the suffragettes courting arrest often came from established families. They included the sister of the war hero, General French, and the daughter of the Liberal statesman Richard Cobden. Gandhi hoped that their example would inspire Indians in South Africa to go to jail in their struggle against racial discrimination. “If even women display such courage,” he remarked, “will the Transvaal Indians fail in their duty and be afraid of gaol? Or would they rather consider the gaol a palace and readily go there?”

In January 1908, back in Transvaal, Gandhi himself went to jail for the first time. His imprisonment was short, but he knew it could be the first of many. In April of that year he wrote again in Indian Opinion of how “the brave women of England are continuing their campaign. They started their movement earlier than we did ours, and no one can say when it will end. But their courage and their capacity for suffering are inexhaustible.” He quoted from a jail diary of a suffragette, which spoke of the dreadful food and living conditions, the humiliations poured on them by the jail staff, etc. Gandhi told his readers these experiences “ought to shame us and inspire us to greater courage. Our sufferings are nothing compared to what she has had to go through.”

Gandhi was back in London in 1909, and saw the suffragettes at work again. “The British women who have been demanding the franchise,” he wrote in Indian Opinion, “are putting up a wonderful show. They are not deterred by any kind of suffering. Some of these ladies have suffered in health, but they do not give up the struggle. Every day a number of them keep standing the whole night near Parliament gate with the intention of handing in a petition to Mr. Asquith [the Prime Minister]. This is no ordinary courage. What great faith they must have! A great many women have been ruined, in this struggle, but they do not yield. Their campaign has gone on for a longer time than ours. We can learn quite a few things and draw much inspiration from it.”

Gandhi’s admiration, however, was not unqualified. When the suffragettes, desperate for results, resorted to violence and arson, Gandhi remarked: “There is no room for impatience in satyagraha. … If demoralised by suffering they [the suffragettes] take to extreme measures and resort to violence, they will lose whatever sympathy they have won and set the people against themselves. We must draw a lesson from this case.”

While Gandhi was in London, there was a ‘very big gathering of suffragettes’ in the Albert Hall, where £3000 was collected in cash on the spot. He was deeply impressed by “their courage, their unity, their readiness to bear pecuniary losses, their intelligence—all these deserve to be admired and emulated.” The “franchise is nowhere in sight,” he wrote, “but they refuse to accept defeat and go on fighting. This is surely no ordinary spirit.” It “will be enough if the Indians follow their example,” he added: “Only, we should avoid imitating them in their use of physical force. We may be sure that no good will come out of it.”

It is not clear whether Gandhi knew of the wing of the women’s movement in England which opposed violence too. Known as the ‘suffragists’, unlike the ‘suffragettes’ they relied rather on petitions and peaceful demonstrations to make their point. In June 1913, these suffragists organised a march from London to 17 cities in the United Kingdom, garnering support and signatures along the way. Earlier that year, Gandhi had organised a long march of his own, crossing provincial boundaries between Natal and Transvaal. Before and during this march, many Indian women courted arrest.

The British women activists being remembered afresh this month had a profound impact on Gandhi. Their willingness to sacrifice their lives and families to go to jail inspired him and his fellow Indians to do likewise in South Africa. Back in 1913, the incipient freedom struggle in British India was entirely male; if in Transvaal and Natal, Indian women were on the streets defying racial laws, it was in part because their leader had seen women doing similar things in London in 1906 and 1909.

The struggle of the suffragettes and the suffragists may largely be a British story. However, it influenced the techniques of protest used by Gandhi in South Africa, and it also influenced his decision, when back in his homeland, to support the Congress’s commitment to universal adult franchise when the country became free. This is a British anniversary with global resonances, hence this article marking its relevance to India.

Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India

The views expressed are personal


    Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include India After Gandhi, A Corner of a Foreign Field, Environmentalism: A Global History, and Gandhi Before India. He tweets as @Ram_Guha

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