CLIO TALKS BACK: Clio commemorates an English suffragette, Constance Lytton

Constance Lytton, Prisons & Prisoners (1914)
Lady Constance Lytton, Annie Kenney, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst - all of the Women's Social and Political Union
Women’s campaign for the vote in England ranks as one of the most hard-fought of all time. Many groups and factions participated, but the most militant was the Women’s Social and Political Union, known as the WSPU, founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters. The WSPU attracted a huge number of supporters from every social class and developed a philosophy of militant non-violence that was highly admired by Gandhi.

One of the more improbable militants was Lady Constance Lytton (1863-1923). A genteel aristocrat, she grew up in a family of highly-placed diplomats; her father had served as Viceroy of India and her brother held a seat in the House of Lords. Her mother became a Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria.

Yet Constance, often sickly and unmarried into her 30s, lived a sheltered existence in the countryside. She became keenly interested in the plight of women of the lower classes, women prisoners, and others who she felt were victimized by English society in its current form. Sympathizing with animals, she also became a vegetarian.

At the age of 40, after many internal struggles and questioning, Constance joined the campaign for woman suffrage, becoming a “foot soldier” in the WSPU. At one point she disguised herself as a woman worker, alias Jane Warton, and was arrested and force-fed eight times before the authorities discovered her real identity and released her.

In fragile health, Lytton became half-paralyzed following a serious heart attack in 1912 and learned to write again with her left hand. She then began writing her memoirs of her suffrage activities. In this selection, composed during the climactic years of the militant suffrage campaign, Constance Lytton describes the moment in which she became conscious of women’s plight and determined to fight for the political representation of all women.

Constance Lytton, Prisons & Prisoners (1914)
Artist's impression of forcible feeding, 1912, from Illustrated London News, 27 April 1912

“During my stay at Littlehampton I witnessed a scene which produced a great impression upon my conscience. One morning, while wandering through the little town, I came on a crowd. All kinds of people were forming a ring round a sheep which had escaped as it was being taken to the slaughterhouse. It looked old and misshapen. A vision suddenly rose in my mind of what it should have been on its native mountain-side with all its forces rightly developed, vigorous and independent. There was a hideous contrast between that vision and the thing in the crowd.

“With growing fear and distress the sheep ran about more clumsily and became a source of amusement to the onlookers, who laughed and jeered at it. At last it was caught by its two gaolers, and as they carried it away one of them, resenting its struggles, gave it a great cuff in the face. At that I felt exasperated. I went up to the men and said, ‘Don’t you know your own business.’ The men seemed ashamed, they adjusted their hold more efficiently and the crowd slunk away.

“From my babyhood I have felt a burning indignation against unkindness to animals, and in their defense I have sometimes acted with a courage not natural to me. But on seeing this sheep it seemed to reveal to me for the first time the position of women throughout the world. I realised how often women are held in contempt as beings outside the pale of human dignity, excluded or confined, laughed at and insulted because of conditions in themselves for which they are not responsible, but which are due to fundamental injustices with regard to them, and to the mistakes of a civilisation in the shaping of which they have had no free share. I was ashamed to remember that although my sympathy had been spontaneous with regard to the wrongs of animals, of children, of men and women who belonged to down-trodden races or classes of society, yet that hitherto I had been blind to the sufferings peculiar to women as such, which are endured by women of every class, every race, every nationality, and that although nearly all the great thinkers and teachers of humanity have preached sex-equality, women have no champions among the various accepted political or moral laws which serve to mould public opinion of the present day.”

Clio wonders how many of you have experienced such a moment of awakening and unnatural courage. What has it led you to do? Clio welcomes your comments.

Source: Constance Lytton and Jane Warton, spinster. Prisons & Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences (London: Heinemann, 1914; reissued by Virago Press, 1988, with a new introduction by Midge Mackenzie), pp. 12-14.

Further Reading: Midge Mackenzie, Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary. The Stirring History of the Militant Suffragettes: The Voices, the Faces, the Deeds, the Memories, the Personal Testimony of the Remarkable Women Who Fought – and Won – the Battle for the Vote (New York: Knopf, 1975; reissued by Random House, 1988) ; June Purvis, Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography (London & New York: Routledge, 2002).