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OPINION PIECE: How might the suffragettes have dealt with vile social media attacks on women?


In Scotland we have a female First Minister and female leaders of opposition parties. In the UK we have a female Prime Minister. However, it seems that we hear about vile attacks and threats of violence against women politicians and others in the public eye on a daily basis.

In 2013, Stella Creasy MP spoke out about the rape and death threats she had received for her participation in the campaign to put the image of a woman on the £10 note. In 2014 a man was jailed for his part in these attacks. Yvette Cooper chairs the cross-party #Reclaim the Internet campaign, which aims to challenge abuse online by group-sourcing new policies and action against abuse.

The campaign was launched in May this year at the same time that research by Demos was released revealing the huge scale of misogyny on social media. The study monitored the use of the words ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ by UK Twitter users over three weeks in May. It found that 6,500 individuals were targeted by 10,000 aggressive and misogynistic tweets using these words during that period – and more than half the offenders were women.

Research we conducted at RGU during the televised Scottish Referendum debates certainly opened my eyes to the casual insults directed at politicians by a minority of Twitter users. Using the @ character in order to direct comments directly at the politician they were discussing, insults and aggression were used by a small group of commentators on both sides of the debate.

Such tweets were rarely about the actual political issues being debated but instead focused on the person of the politician, making nasty comments on their appearance or threatening them with violence. For female politicians in particular some of these comments included sexual slurs. What I found amazing was that many of these tweeters did not hide behind an anonymous pen name. We could click on their Twitter name and found out so much about who they were, where they worked and where they lived.

My recent work on the suffragettes in Scotland has made me wonder how they would have dealt with this sort of abuse on social media.

Caroline Phillips was a journalist for the Aberdeen Daily Journal, the forerunner of today’s P&J, at the start of the 20th century. As such, she was very unusual – in 1900, the Society of Woman Journalists had only 69 members in the whole of the UK. Phillips was also unusual in the fact that she was a suffragette.

As secretary of the Aberdeen branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Phillips led the suffragettes of the north east in their campaign for the vote, which included holding meetings on the subject of woman’s suffrage as well as more militant tactics such as chaining herself to railings in the centre of Aberdeen and the overnight replacement of all the flags on the Balmoral golf course with ones bearing the WSPU colours of white, green and purple. In 1908 Phillips worked with Mrs Pankhurst to disrupt a meeting held by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Herbert Asquith in the Music Hall.

While Phillips’ raid on Balmoral was done anonymously, the rest of her exploits were very public ones – particularly because of her employment by the conservative Aberdeen Daily Journal. She received letters from the editor warning her that too close a relationship with the suffragettes would put her job in danger. Phillips’ brother was also a journalist at the paper, and sometimes he would only know what his sister had been up to when he arrived to report on another stunt by those ‘hysterical women’.

We know so much about Caroline Phillips because she left a collection of valuable correspondence, which is now held at the Aberdeen Art Gallery. In it we find letters to and from leading members of the WSPU such as Mrs Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel as well as many Scottish suffragettes. I am delighted that Caroline Phillips’ contribution to women’s suffrage in Scotland has now been recognised by the editors of the new edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, to be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2018.

As I write about Caroline Phillips, however, I wonder how she would perceive the world of politics today. Women over the age of 30 achieved the vote in 1918, and women received an equal vote with men ten years later. I imagine Caroline Phillips felt very happy about that.

The world has changed a great deal since Phillips and other suffragettes had to deal with the taunts and jibes of crowds who laughed at them, called them ‘hysterical’, ‘childish’, ‘the shrieking sisterhood’ or desperate old maids who wanted to be arrested by big burly policemen because it was the only way they would get to feel a man’s arms around their bodies.

The suffragettes were threatened with violence by the crowds that came to jeer – mud was thrown at them, they were dragged off platforms, their clothes were torn and they were threatened with ducking in nearby ponds – an approach to unruly women that dates back to the days when we feared witches.

So Caroline Phillips might not have been surprised by the ferocity of the attacks on politicians via new communication channels such as Twitter. When it becomes normal for women in the public eye to be abused in this way, we create an environment where it also becomes acceptable for any woman to face such attacks whenever they step into the public sphere of online debate. We now read news reports of women MPs installing safe rooms and being given police protection in relation to threats of death and rape sent to them via social media.

Women like Caroline Phillips argued that the introduction of women into politics was a matter of justice. They used the old Liberal slogan of ‘No taxation without representation’. They endured the jeers and assaults of crowds in order to champion the cause of woman’s suffrage. Social media appears to have enlarged those jeering crowds and allowed them the safety and security of attacking the women and men who are working in public life from behind a computer screen.

Sarah Pedersen is a Professor of Communication and Media in the Department of Communication, Marketing and Media and 4th year tutor for the BA (Hons) degrees in Media, Journalism and Public Relations.