Using newspapers as a source when researching suffrage history

DOWNLOAD WHS Suffrage Scotland – Using newspapers as a source

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Prof Pedersen giving a talk about suffragettes and the press at Aberdeen Central Library

Newspapers are a very valuable source for information about the suffrage campaign in Scotland.  The suffragettes offered newspapers the potential of stories about violent conflict, criticism of elite persons such as politicians, and entertaining descriptions of meetings and demonstrations. In return, the newspapers offered the suffragettes the oxygen of publicity – although at a price. Militant acts, rather than reasoned argument, sold newspapers. Scottish newspapers’ reports about the suffrage campaign are particularly useful in offering an alternative viewpoint to the dominant England and London-centric version of history.

The on-going digitisation of newspaper archives means that it is easier than ever to access information about the campaign for votes for women in local and national Scottish newspapers. When I first started investigating the way in which the suffrage movement was portrayed in the Scottish press, it was a question of visiting libraries and archives and pouring over original copies of newspapers in the hope of spotting an article, editorial or letter on the subject. Reading through the yellowing pages of newspapers is an exciting way of getting close to the past – and I often became side-tracked into following a particularly exciting crime story or report from a royal wedding. However, it is also a time-consuming and very dirty pastime (I would finish for the day covered in printer’s ink and cobwebs).

It is now possible to access the digitised versions of many Scottish newspapers and use search engines to quickly find stories about ‘suffragists’, ‘suffragettes’ and ‘anti-suffragists’. The Scotsman Digital Archive is freely accessible via the National Library of Scotland if you are member, as is the Times Digital Archive. I have also made good use of the British Newspaper Archive.

Using such digital archives is a quick way of establishing whether the Scottish press covered a particular suffragette in whom you are interested or to discover whether suffrage campaigners held a meeting in your town or village. However, it is important to remember that newspaper reports are not necessarily objective – every newspaper comes with its own subjectivities and bias, particularly in reference to politics. It is also important to try to read the report or letter that you have found in the context of the entire newspaper rather than as a stand-alone piece. For example, in my book The Scottish Suffragettes and the PressThe Scottish Suffragettes and the Press, I suggest that reports of suffrage meetings in the later 19th century were often be found on the women’s pages of newspapers. Such pages were a comparatively recent phenomenon, added to newspapers in recognition of the demand for a female audience from advertisers such as the new department stores. There was an assumption that female readers would not be interested in general news or politics and therefore women’s pages were filled with articles about the latest fashions, childcare, recipes and the servant problem. Many newspapers hired ‘lady reporters’ to fill these pages – and these women were often expected to report on the meetings of women’s suffrage societies. However, the advent of the suffragettes in Scotland in the early 20th century, and their meetings aimed at persuading men to vote against the Liberal party, meant that suffrage meetings were more frequently reported on the news pages of local newspapers.

You may also find that your knowledge of the suffrage movement is more detailed than that of the journalists writing for local newspapers. The terms ‘suffragette’ and ‘suffragist’ are sometimes applied with a broad brushstroke, with members of the WSPU called suffragists and law-abiding constitutional suffragists frequently accused of being suffragettes, particularly in the years directly before the war. Members of the Women’s Social and Political Union are also frequently confused with members of the Women’s Freedom League, although of course it was possible to be members of several different suffrage organisations at the same time.

The Scottish press was keen to offer readers personal information about the suffragettes. Items such as interviews, sketches and even photographs were part of the revolution of the popular press brought about by ‘new journalism’ and aimed at a mass readership. Mass-market dailies such as the Daily Record soon passed older newspapers in terms of sales because of the sensationalist nature of their reporting and the ‘human interest’ stories offered. For such newspapers, the suffragettes offered exciting possibilities.

The advent of the suffragettes in Scotland posed considerable problems for the more liberal newspapers in the country, such as the Aberdeen Free Press and the Dundee Advertiser. The editors of such newspapers had considerable sympathy for the campaign for women’s suffrage as part of a general liberal project. However, the attacks on leading politicians with Scottish constituencies such as Asquith and Churchill put these newspapers into a quandary. Should they report the suffragettes’ criticisms of Liberal Cabinet Ministers and their calls for electors to vote against the Liberal candidate in by-elections? Conservative-leaning newspapers, meanwhile, could gleefully report the suffragettes’ attacks on the government while at the same time condemning their demands for the vote.

One way of tackling the problem was to allow space for both pro- and anti-suffrage opinion in the newspapers via the correspondence columns. Newspapers ran letters both praising and condemning the suffragettes in the same columns. The suffrage leadership used letters to the editor to further explain their agenda or to attempt to correct misinformation. An anonymous letter to the editor also offered the opportunity for a suffragette supporter to step into the public sphere – albeit with a pen name – and state her support for the cause. In a small Scottish town, such an act of bravery might necessarily be anonymous for fear of the reaction of family and friends. Anti-suffrage correspondents similarly claimed the cover of anonymity in real or pretend terror of what militant suffragettes might do to them. Thus pro-suffrage letters might be published in anti-suffrage newspapers and vice versa. There is little evidence of any editorial gatekeeping at this time, and the general policy seems to have been full publication of all letters as long as they were accompanied by a name and address, although the writer could choose to remain anonymous in print.

While the digitised archives are very useful, sometimes the page that you wish to read is not clear enough, or the story is at the edge of the page and therefore badly photographed. In addition, not all newspapers in Scotland have yet been digitised. You may therefore have to seek out the originals in an archive or library. Some newspapers have useful indexes, which can help to identify suffrage-related articles [https://www.nls.uk/collections/newspapers/indexes/areas/?id=Grampian].

 


Women’s History Scotland exists to promote study and research in women’s and gender history, particularly for those working in Scotland or working on Scottish themes. It has a commitment to history at all levels and aims to provide a network of information and support to all. Browse our website for news of activities and projects concerning women’s and gender history in Scotland.


 

Professor Sarah Pedersen, Robert Gordon University

Professor Sarah Pedersen is the author of The Scottish Suffragettes and the Press (Palgrave Macmillan 2017) and Caroline Phillips: Aberdeen Suffragette and Journalist 

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