Right of Petition pamphlet


One of the methods employed by women's suffrage groups was to approach politicians directly. In August 1909, eight members of the WFL (Women's Freedom League) were arrested at different times in Downing Street when they attempted to present a petition to Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister. They were charged with ‘obstructing the police in the execution of their duty’. This extract from a report of their trial recounts the address to the court by T M Healy KC, MP who spoke on behalf of the defendants.

In his address, Healy draws on ancient rights whereby people are empowered to petition members of Parliament (p. 2). Referring to the Statute of Charles II and the Bill of Rights, he argues that the police have no right ‘to come between the subject and his Sovereign [King]; to come between the subject and the Sovereign’s chief officer [Prime Minister]’ (p. 3). Healy goes on to say that, as the women did not obstruct the highway, and were not charged with any such obstruction, they were innocent petitioners and that it was the police who were obstructive in the discharge of their duty, which is to facilitate the carrying out of the law (pp. 4–5).

The Women’s Freedom League

In 1907 tensions within the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) came to a head. Teresa Billington-Greig, Charlotte Despard and a significant number of WSPU members rejected Emmeline Pankhurst’s autocratic style of leadership and broke away from the organisation to form the Women’s Freedom League. The WFL favoured non-violent forms of protest including non-payment of taxes and refusal to cooperate with the census, rather than attacks on property.

Where the WSPU was run like an army, with Pankhurst its permanent leader, the WFL was organised along democratic lines. Its constitution, included at the back of this pamphlet, outlines its methods which include:

  • opposing whatever government is in power until the franchise is granted
  • organising women all over the country to express their desire for political freedom
  • educating the public through meetings, demonstrations and debates.

Although the WFL claimed to be non-party, it had strong links with the Labour party.

Full title:
Votes for Women. [Speech in defence of members of the Women's Freedom League at Bow Street Police Court, August 19th, 1909.]
1909, London
Women's Freedom League
Timothy Micheal Healy
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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