Suffragettes and other animals

Posted: by John Meredith on 26/10/15

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Suffragettes and other animals

Votes for women

John and Jess of UAR’s education and outreach team take a look at the surprising historical links between the suffragette movement and animal rights activism. How could the women who were so right about one thing be so wrong about the other?

The recent release of the hit movie Suffragette has provoked a tsunami of media commentary about the meaning and legacy of the suffragette movement and its heroic struggle to win the vote for women. But one thing that nobody seems to have remarked on - and which the movie passes over in silence - is how entangled the movement was with the first organised attempts to ban animals in medical research.

In fact, the very first recorded animal rights ‘infiltration’ in 1903 was the work of two Swedish feminists and campaigners for female suffrage, Lizzy Lind af Hageby and Leisa Katherine Schartau. Their account of educational vivisection performed by physiology Professors Ernest Starling and William Bayliss at University College London fomented a huge scandal and became the cause célèbre later known as the ‘Brown Dog Affair’. The accusations of cruelty made by the infiltrators in their book The Shambles of Science led to high level demands to ban vivisection and protests that frequently descended into riots and street fighting between opposing factions. Suffragettes featured prominently in the disturbances, becoming so strongly associated with the animal rights side that medical students (the main foot soldiers in the pro-animal research camp) would target their properties for attack. 

Even earlier, pioneering feminist Frances Power Cobbe, executive council member of the National  Society for Women’s Suffrage, had founded a number of animal rights organisations including two which fight on: the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS)  founded in 1875; and the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV, now Cruelty Free International), 1898. It is easy to see a certain convergence between organised feminism and animal rights activism even today, something that is occasionally satirised as a sort of natural aggregation of

'crank opinions, the instinctive flocking together of the ‘fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist’,

as Orwell somewhat harshly put it put it, surprisingly leaving animal rights off his list of shame.   

But that won’t do. After all, the suffragettes and feminists, derided as cranks in their time, have been decisively vindicated by history. They were on the right side. And in many ways they were right about the animals too; many vivisection or animal research practices that were unremarkable when Francis Power Cobbe was campaigning would be outlawed today.  It is easy now to see how an acute awareness of the historical injustices that women had been subjected to, an awareness dismissed as ridiculous or subversive at the time, might sensitise someone to the cruelties and injustices being experienced by creatures of other species.

But there is an irony at work here that was necessarily obscure to those early feminists. Because while the early battles for women’s suffrage, political representation and property rights could be fought and won by force of argument and power of protest alone, it would be science that opened the locks for the second wave of feminism that came after, that finally and emphatically carried women’s equality beyond argument over legal instruments and into every corner of social and political life.

Of course the contraceptive pill made the outstanding contribution to this process, sexually and socially, but it was only one drop in a breaking wave of medical breakthroughs that would transform the lives of women in the 20th century. When the first, limited, voting rights were accorded to women in 1918 - a huge triumph for the suffragette vanguard  - maternal death in childbirth was still a major risk, by the end of the century it had become negligible.  Advances in the diagnosis and treatment of breast and cervical cancer saw survival rates turn irrevocably upward and increasing understanding, awareness and treatment of conditions such as post-natal depression gradually de-stigmatised the suffering of countless women and enabled them to take control of their lives again.

It is true that women’s experience of medical science and the medical establishment was not universally positive. Sometimes it was more like a battle being fought on two fronts: women as patients and women as pioneer practitioners forcing change from the inside.  Sometimes the struggle was not for better treatments but to de-medicalise normal and natural behaviours that had been pathologised in a society deeply suspicious of women as women.

But even when it was science that erected the obstacles, it was science that provided the means to knock the barricade down, science that gave women the power finally to set themselves free.  And a great part of that that science was only achievable because of the availability of the animal research models that the first wave of feminism was so keen to ban.

Suffragette the movie reminds us of the power of protest, of passionate commitment to an idea, of the refusal to compromise in a noble cause. But it should also remind of the dangers that too great a certainty can bring, especially when we are making decisions about matters of great complexity that will affect the future in unfathomable ways.

If the suffragettes had been as successful in their campaign against animal research as they were in their other activism, the cause of women’s liberation could have been set back by decades.  If they had succeeded in banning animal research they wouldn’t have ended suffering, they would simply have transferred it from what they could see to the unforeseeable future. And what was true for them remains true for us now.

That should be a caution to anyone who feels too secure in their demands to end a science they do not fully understand. It should, but given what we know about animal rights activists, it won’t.

Still, go and see the movie.


Last edited: 28 July 2022 08:45

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