In 2020 I wrote a piece for the WHN blog about the biography I’m not writing. In ‘Giants and Geniuses’ https://womenshistorynetwork.org/giants-and-geniuses-by-lucienne-boyce/ I explained my decision not to write about someone very famous, or someone who’s described as a ‘giant’ or a ‘genius’, or someone who is regarded as ‘the most important’ or ‘the greatest’ in their field. In this blog, I am going to look at the biography I am writing.
My subject is suffrage campaigner Millicent Price (née Browne) (1881–1975). As I suggested in ‘Giants and Geniuses’, she is not particularly well known. She was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, but she does not fit the popular perception of the ‘suffragette’. She broke no windows, assaulted no MPs, never chained herself to anything, and never set fire to anything. She was only arrested once, during a deputation to the House of Commons, but her case (and that of other women arrested on the same occasion) never came to trial. She never went to prison, she never went on hunger strike, and she was never forcibly fed. In fact, she abhorred these violent methods, and as the WSPU’s campaign became increasingly violent, she resigned from the WSPU.
Millicent was one of many women who fell by the WSPU wayside along the way. Like them, she shared the fate of those who leave a movement, abandon a cause, or drop out of a struggle. They come on stage, say a few lines, perform a bit of business, and exit stage left, right or centre. When they have gone, the action carries on without them. And so they are tainted with irrelevance by the grand narrative. As someone once said to me, “But if Millicent didn’t go to prison, she couldn’t have been very important, could she?”
In fact, it was Millicent’s decision to leave that first drew me to her. I was interested in why she made that decision, and thinking about what it was like for women who lived through the necessity of making the same difficult choice. It can’t have been easy to move away from something that had been such a big part of her life, where she had found friends, fulfilment, and a cause she believed in.
Her choice was both personal and practical. Like other women, Millicent had to consider how militant actions might affect her family. If she went on hunger strike, for example, how would her husband feel? On a practical level, she questioned the usefulness of militancy. Did it aid or retard the campaign? Was it counter productive? Did it alienate sympathy? Did it, as she put it, draw attention to the cause or to itself?
Above all, it was an ethical choice. For Millicent, as a pacifist, this was crucial. In the end, it was her pacifism, which became more pronounced as she grew older – her husband was a Conscientious Objector during the First World War, later they were both members of CND, they were both Quakers – that I think largely informed her decision. It is an ethic I share, and so naturally I am interested to discover what form her pacifism took and how it affected her feminism.
I am also interested in how she struggled to balance all the various demands of sometimes competing stances – her condemnation of violence with her loyalty to her former comrades; her support for the cause with her unwillingness to blindly follow leaders; her anxiety to do the right thing although she knew she was often perceived to be doing the wrong one. Her position was sometimes too subtle for her critics. In her home town, Letchworth Garden City, she was characterised by some WSPU members as a “chameleon suffragette” who was constantly changing her opinions.
Millicent’s story, then, is one which brings out all too often overlooked complexities within the movement. Her dithering between support and criticism is the point at which I first meet her. She faced issues that many of her contemporaries faced. In triumphalist accounts of the suffrage movement (women campaigned for the vote and won it) their experience is usually overlooked. It is here, though, that their experiences may most closely resonate with us today, for those ethical questions are still with us. Questions of loyalty, personal responsibility, the use of violence whether against property or persons, whether pacifism is a valid response in the face of appalling injustice, and where we find the inspiration for social action – in Millicent’s case it was rooted in her spiritual life.
Her story also illustrates how other elements are woven into the experiences of the suffrage campaigners. They were not just suffragettes or suffragists, they were pacifists, socialists, conservatives, patriots, war heroes, Anglicans, Quakers, atheists. They had lives outside suffrage, and they had lives after suffrage.
I’ve always been interested in the “after life” of the suffrage campaigners in Britain – especially since so many histories about them stop at the point when their involvement in the campaign came to an end. Sometimes, because women’s war work during the First World War is associated with (and often cited as a direct cause of) the eventual enfranchisement of British women, these accounts extend into the war, and sometimes into the Second World War. Thus we hear of women working in munitions, medicine or quasi-military organisations. We might also hear that they joined other women’s organisations, such as the Suffragette Fellowship or the Six Point Group. Often, though, you’d think that most women suffrage campaigners’ lives came to an end when the franchise campaign ended.
Millicent Price is not a suffrage ‘Everywoman’ (Everywoman: Her Pilgrimage in Quest of Love, incidentally, is the title of her father’s most successful play, which ran for nearly 200 performances on Broadway). No one is. Yet it is in telling individual stories, in trying to draw out the particular, that our grasp of a wider perspective may be enhanced. As June Hannam remarks in the introduction to her short biography of Mabel Tothill (1869–1964), “An in-depth look at the lives of individual women, in particular those who are less well-known, is one way to build an understanding of the complexities of political choices made in this period”. Through writing this biography I hope to add to our understanding of those complexities.
Lucienne Boyce is an award-winning historical novelist, women’s suffrage historian and biographer, and blogger. Her books include The Bristol Suffragettes, and contributions to Suffrage Stories (Stevenage Museum); Bristol and the First World War (Bristol Festival of Ideas); and The Women Who Built Bristol (Tangent Books). Lucienne is a member of the Historical Novel Society, and is on the steering committee of the West of England and South Wales Women’s History Network. She is grateful to the Women’s History Network for awarding her an Independent Researcher Fellowship which has enabled her to carry out research for her biography of Millicent Price. www.lucienneboyce.com
WSPU From Prison to Citizenship Procession, 1911: the Women’s Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions
 June Hannam, Mabel Tothill, Feminist, Socialist, Pacifist (Bristol: Bristol Radical History Group, 2019).