nonviolent militancy and Romanticism – Charlotte Despard

Perhaps it demands a real personality to shake the dust from tired complacency?!
This does not necessarily require violent militancy however but only the creative imagination of a colourful soul…

Mrs._Despard_(suffragette)Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) was one of the most flamboyant figures in the entire first-wave feminist movement: an English-born, later Irish-based suffragist, novelist, convert to Roman Catholicism, pacifist, Irish Republican activist, later communist, vegetarian and anti-vivisection advocate.  From a high ranking military family, her brother, John French, was a leading commander during the First World War and later Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.  Widowed at an early age, she herself took up charitable work and was radicalised by the experience of poverty.  Attracted by the ideals of Shelley, Mazzini and others, she was the most striking example of the significant influence of Romanticism on many first-wave feminists.

Within the women’s movement, Charlotte Despard’s greatest achievement was in creating Wfreedom1an effective alternative to the mainstream suffrage movement on the one hand, which remained entirely ‘constitutional’, and the Pankhurst led militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) on the other hand.  Despard, no stranger to prison for her nonviolent witness to the cause, originally joined the WSPU.  Following continuing disagreements with the autocratic leadership however, she then broke away, with Teresa Billington-Greig and others, and formed the Women’s Freedom League in 1907.

cropwmThe Women’s Freedom League (WFL), to which several leading Church feminists were attached, had a much broader series of aims than simply the vote, the increasing obsession of the WSPU.  The WFL thus, for example, took on campaigns for better social and labour legislation and against unjust laws and judges’ rulings.  Following Charlotte Despard’s  meeting with Gandhi in 1909, new passive resistance strategies were also formulated: including women chaining themselves to gates at the Palace of Westminster and a ‘No taxation without representation’ campaign which saw Charlotte’s own household furniture repeatedly seized in lieu of payment.  The WFL also did not hold with WSPU disruption of meetings, seeking to avoid retaliation and holding free speech highly.  The ‘soul-power’ of civil disobedience rather than the sensationalism of violence was their means.  For, as Charlotte Despard outlined in 1914:

We believe that there have been moments in history of every nation when laws had to be broken in order to prove that they harked behind the conscience of the people..
Therefore we resist taxation, we refuse to submit to the Insurance Act, we make protest in public places against the orders of the authorities…
But we use no violence, and we do not, at any time, or in any way, damage private property or inflict suffering and loss on our fellow human beings. 
(‘The Militant Policy of the WFL’ in The Vote, 6 Feb 1914)

She was typically vibrant in her call to women:

Hypnotised (she said) by a false presentation of morality, religion and duty, we women have been cajoled or forced into a false conception of ourselves.  We ask for enlightenment.  We wish using our own capacities, seeing with our own eyes, and not with the eyes of men, to understand our true position, to see clearly what are our true duties and our rights.

Writing in the 1913 Christmas edition of the WFL paper The Vote, she proclaimed typically and dramatically:

One of the most significant signs (of the Son of Man) is the resurrection of women…
That new and wonderful thing (the sign those of old looked to see) is a Social Conscience.  It has had its spiritual birth in the sense of unity which marks our age…
Herien lies our hope… the conception of a new mankind…  And – a new religion.

Almost indefatigable, she remained actively political well into her 90s, even addressing several anti-fascist rallies in the 1930s.


God of Passionate Imagination,
we give thanks for Charlotte Despard,
and for all who have exercised your divine creativity
in seeking peace and justice.
Grant to your people similar warmth of love,
generosity of feeling,
and determined gentleness of nonviolence.
So may your shalom be known in all the world, Amen.

About blessedimp

Anglican priest, theologian and peace, justice & inter-religious activist, seeking wholeness in a fragmented world, transgender female
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