The question of Woman's Suffrage had always interested
Dr. Inglis, for the justice of the claim had from the first appealed to
her. But it was not until after 1900 that the Women's Movement took
possession of her. From that time onward, till the Scottish Women's
Hospitals claimed her in the war, the cause of Woman's Suffrage demanded
and was granted a place in her life beside that occupied by her
profession. Indeed, the very practice of her profession added fuel to
the flame that the longing for the Suffrage had kindled in her heart. A
doctor sees much of the intimate life of her patients, and as Dr. Inglis
went from patient to patient, conditions amongst both the poor and the
rich—intolerable conditions—would raise haunting thoughts that followed
her about in her work, and questions again and again start up to which
only the Suffrage could give the answer. The Suffrage flame with her, as
with many other women and men, was really one which religion tended; it
was religious conviction which mastered her and made her eager and
dauntless in the fight. She always worked from the constitutional point
of view, and was an admirer and follower of Mrs. Fawcett throughout the
"As she threw herself into this new interest she found a gale of
fresh air blowing through her life. It was almost as if she had
awakened on a new morning. The sunshine flooded every nook and
corner of her dwelling, and even old things looked different in the
new light. Not the least of these impressions was due to the new
friendships; women whose life-work was farthest from her own, whose
point of view was diametrically opposite to hers, suddenly drew up
beside her in the march as comrades. She felt as if she had got a
wider outlook over the world, as if in her upward climb she had
reached a spur on the hillside, and a new view of the landscape
spread itself at her feet.
"As she had once said, fate had placed her in the van of a great
movement, but she herself clung to old forms and old
ways—a new thing she instinctively avoided. It took her long to
adjust herself to a new point of view. But here, in this absorbing
interest, she forgot everything but the object. Her eyes had
suddenly been opened to what it meant to be a citizen of Britain,
and in the overpowering sense of responsibility that came with the
revelation her timorous clinging to old ways had slackened.
"Not the least part of the interest of the new life was the feeling
of being at the centre of things. People whose names had been
household words since babyhood became living entities. She not only
saw the men and women who were moulding our generation: she met them
at tea, she talked intimately with them at dinners, and she actually
argued with them at Council meetings."
Thus Elsie Inglis describes in her writings her heroine Hildeguard's
entrance into "the great crusade." The description may be taken as true
of her own feelings when caught by the ideal of the movement.
The following words which she puts into the mouth of a Suffrage speaker
are evidently her own reflections on the subject of the Suffrage:
"'I don't think for a moment that the millennium will come in with
the vote,' she smiled, after a little pause. 'But our faces, the
faces of the human race, have always been set towards the
millennium, haven't they? And this will be one great step towards
it. It is always difficult to make a move forward, for it implies
criticism of the past, and of the good men and true who have brought
the people up to that especial point. However gently the change is
made, that element must be there, for there is always a sense of
struggle in changing from the old to the new. I do not think we are
nearly careful enough to make it quite clear that we do not hold
that we women alone could
have done a bit better—that we are proud of the great work our men
have done. We speak only of the mistakes, not of the great
achievements; only I do think the mistakes need not have been there
if we had worked at it together!'
"The salvation of the world was wrapped up in the gospel she
preached. Many of the audience were caught in the swirl as she
spoke. Love and amity, the common cause of healthier homes and
happier people and a stronger Empire, the righting of all wrongs,
and the strengthening of all right—all this was wrapped up in the
In the early years of this century Suffrage societies were scattered all
over Scotland, and it began to be felt that much of their work was lost
from want of co-operation; it was therefore decided in 1906 that all the
societies should form a federation, to be called the Scottish Federation
of Women's Suffrage Societies.
During the preliminary work Mrs. James T. Hunter acted as
Hon. Secretary, but after the headquarters were established in Edinburgh
Dr. Inglis was asked and consented to be Hon. Secretary, with Miss
Lamont as Organizing Secretary. There is no doubt that after its
formation the success of the Federation was largely due to Dr. Inglis's
power of leadership.
She cheered the faithful—if sometimes despondent—suffragists in widely
scattered centres; she despised the difficulties of travel in the north,
and over moor, mountain, and sea she went, till she had planted the
Suffrage flag in far-off Shetland. In her many journeys all over
Scotland, speaking for the Suffrage cause, Dr. Inglis herself penetrated
to the islands of Orkney and Shetland. A very flourishing Society
existed in the Orkneys.
The following letter from Dr. Inglis to the Honorary Secretary there is
characteristic, and will recall her vividly to those who knew her. The
arrival for the meeting by the last train; the early start back next
morning; the endeavour to see her friend's daughter, who she remembers
is in Dollar; the light-heartedness over "disasters in the House"
(evidently the setback to some Suffrage Bill in the House of
Commons)—these are all like Elsie Inglis. So, too, are her praise of the
Federation secretaries, her eager looking forward to the procession, and
the request for the "beautiful banner"!
"Yes, I had remembered your daughter is at Dollar, and I shall
certainly look out for her at the meeting. Unfortunately, I never
have time to stay in a place, at one of these meetings, and see
people. It would often be so pleasant. This time I arrive in Dollar
at 6 p.m. and leave about 8 the next morning. I have to leave by
these early trains for my work.
"It was delightful getting your offer of an organizer's salary for
some work in Orkney. Our secretaries have been most extraordinarily
unconcerned over disasters in the House! Not one of you has
suggested depression, and most of you have promptly proposed new
work! That is the sort of spirit that wins.
"I shall let you know definitely about an organizer soon.
"At the Executive on Saturday it was decided to have a procession in
Edinburgh during the Assembly week. We shall want you and your
beautiful banner! You'll get full particulars soon.
"Yours very sincerely,
One of the Federation organizers who worked under Dr. Inglis for years
gives us some indication of her qualities as a leader:
"Though it was not unknown that Dr. Inglis had an extraordinary
influence over young people, it was amazing to find how many letters
were received after her death from young women in various parts of the
kingdom, who wrote to express what they owed to her sympathy and
"To be a leader one must be able not only to inspire confidence in the
leader, but to give to those who follow confidence in themselves, and
this, I think, was one of Dr. Inglis's most outstanding qualities. She
would select one of her workers, and after unfolding her plans to her,
would quietly say, 'Now, my dear, I want you to undertake that piece of
work for me.' As often as not the novice's breath was completely taken
away; she would demur, and remark that she was afraid she was not quite
the right person to be entrusted with that special piece of work. Then
the Chief would give her one of those winning smiles which none could
resist, and tell her she was quite confident she would not fail. The
desired result was usually attained, and the young worker gained more
confidence in herself. If, on the other hand, the worker failed to
complete her task satisfactorily, Dr. Inglis would discuss the matter
with her. She might condemn, but never unjustly, and would then arrange
another opportunity for the worker in a different department of the
"From those with whom she worked daily she expected great things. She
was herself an unceasing worker, well-nigh indefatigable. It was no easy
matter to work under 'the Chief's' direction; the possibility of failure
never entered into her calculations."
One of the finest speakers in the Suffrage cause, who with her husband
worked hard in the campaign, frequently stayed with Dr. Inglis. She
writes thus of her:
"With me it is always most difficult to speak about the things upon
which I feel the most deeply. Elsie Inglis is a case in point. She was
dearer to me than she ever knew and than I can make you believe. She is
one of the most precious memories I possess, the mere thought
of her and her tireless devotion to her fellows being the strongest
inspiration to effort and achievement.
"She was the Edinburgh hostess for most of the Woman Suffrage
propagandists, and we all have the same story to tell. Doubtless you
have already had it from others. Every comfort she denied herself she
scrupulously provided for her guests, whom she treated as though they
were more tired than herself. Usually she was at her medical work till
within a few minutes of the evening meal, would rush home and eat it
with us, take us to the meeting afterwards, frequently take a part in
it, and bring her guests home to the rest she was not always permitted
to take herself. And through it all there was no variation in her
wonderful manner—all brightness, affection, and warm energy.
"The last time I saw her was in the Waverley station. She was returning
shortly to her work abroad, while I was on my way to address a public
meeting in Dundee on the need for attempting to negotiate peace. It was
the time when everybody who dared to breathe the word 'peace,' much more
those who tried to stop the slaughter of men, were denounced as traitors
and pro-Germans. It was the time when one's nearest and dearest failed
to understand. But she understood.
And she broke into a busy morning's work to come down to the train to
shake my hand. What we said was very little; but the look and the
hand-clasp were sufficient. We knew ourselves to be serving the same God
of Love and Mercy, and that knowledge made the bonds between us
indissoluble. I never saw nor had word with her again.
"It is easy to say, what is true, that the world's women owe to Dr.
Elsie Inglis a debt of gratitude they can never repay. But I am
convinced in my own soul that the reward she would have chosen, if
compelled to make the choice, would have been that all who feel that her
work was of worth should join hands in an effort to rid the world of
those evils which make men and women hate and kill one another."
Dr. Inglis did not see with the pacifists of the last five years. But in
this tribute to her is shown her open-mindedness and tolerance of
another's views, even on this cleaving difference of opinion.
A woman of great distinction—and not only in the Suffrage
"When I was working for the Suffrage movement in the years before the
war, one of the most impressive personalities that I came into touch
with was that of Dr. Elsie Inglis. She was then the leading spirit in
our movement in Edinburgh, and when I went to speak there, or in the
neighbourhood, she always used to put me up. I have never met anyone who
seemed to me more absolutely single-minded and single-hearted in her
devotion to a cause which appealed to her. She was eminently a feminist,
and to her feminism she subordinated everything else. No consideration
for her health, for her position, for her practice, ever stood in the
way of any call that came to her. She was untiring, and that at a time
when our cause was not popular everywhere, and when her position as a
medical woman might easily have been affected by its unpopularity.
"I remember one night especially, when we were going out in a motor-car
to some rather remote place, in very stormy weather. It howled and
rained and was pitch dark. Suddenly we ran, or nearly ran, into a great
tree which had been blown down across the road. It had brought with it a
mass of telegraph wire, and altogether afforded an apparently complete
'barrage.' We were still some six or seven miles from our destination,
and were wearing evening frocks and thin shoes. We got out and wrestled
with the obstacle, and when at one time it seemed quite hopeless to get
the car through, and I suggested that she and I would have to walk, I
shall never forget the look of approval that she turned on me. As a
matter of fact, I doubt very much whether I really could have
walked. I am a little lame, and the circumstances made it almost an
impossibility. But the determination of Dr. Inglis that somehow we shouldget
to our meeting infected me, and, like many others who have followed her
since, I felt able to achieve the impossible.
"It is true that Dr. Inglis seemed to me—since, after all, she was
human—to have the faults of her qualities. No consideration of herself
prevented her complete devotion to her work. I sometimes felt that there
was an element of relentlessness in this devotion, which would have
allowed her to sacrifice not only other people, but even perhaps
considerations which it is not easy to believe ought to be sacrificed.
It is extraordinarily difficult to judge how far any end may justify any
given means. It is, of course, a shallow judgment which dismisses this
dilemma as one easily solved. Rather, I have always felt it exceedingly
difficult, at any rate to an intellect that is subtle as well as
powerful. I am reminded, in thinking of Dr. Inglis, of the controversy
between Kingsley and Newman, from which it appears that Charles Kingsley
thought it a very easy matter to tell the truth, and Newman found it a
very difficult one. One's judgment of the two will, of course, vary, but
I personally have always felt that Newman understood the truth more
perfectly than Kingsley; understood, for instance, that it takes two
people to tell it (one to speak and one to hear aright), and that this
was why he realized its difficulty. So with Dr. Inglis; I do not suppose
she ever hesitated when once convinced of the goodness of her cause, but
I confess that I have sometimes wished that she could have hesitated.
"It is a graceless task to suggest spots in so excellent a sun, and we
feminists who worked with her and loved her can never be glad enough or
proud enough that the world now knows the greatness of her quality."
Again, an organizer who worked constantly with Dr. Inglis before the
war, and who later raised large sums for the Scottish Women's Hospitals
in India and Australia, writes:
"You have asked me for some personal memories of my dear Dr. Elsie
Inglis, for some of those little incidents that often reveal a character
more vividly than much description and explanation. And to me, at least,
it is in some of those little memories that the Dr. Inglis I loved lives
most vividly. What I mean is that her splendid public work, in medicine,
in Suffrage, in that magnificent triumph of the Scottish Women's
Hospitals—they were her hospitals—is
there for all the world to see and honour. But the things behind all
that, the character that conquered, the spirit that aspired, the
incredible courage, optimism, indomitability of that individuality, the
very self from which the work sprang—all that, it seems to me,
had to be gathered in and understood from the tiny incident, the word,
"There stands out in my mind my first meeting with Dr. Inglis. The scene
was dismal and depressing enough. It was an empty shop in an Edinburgh
Street turned into a Suffrage committee-room during an election. Outside
the rain drizzled; inside the meagre fire smoked; there was a general
air of lifelessness over everything. I wondered, ignorant and
uninitiated in organizing and election work, when something definite
would happen. Giving away sodden handbills in the street did not seem a
very vigorous or practical piece of work.
"Suddenly the doors swung open and Dr. Inglis came into that dull place,
and with her there came the very feeling of movement, vitality, action.
She had come to arrange speakers for the various schoolroom election
meetings to be held that night. The list of meeting-places was arranged;
then came the choice and disposal of the speakers. Without hesitation,
Dr. Inglis grouped them; with just one look round at those present, and
another, well into her own mind, at those not present who could be
press-ganged! At last she turned to me and said, 'And you will speak
with Miss X. at ——' I was horrified. 'But I must explain,' I said; 'I am
quite "new." I don't speak at all. I have never spoken.' I can imagine a
hundred people answering my very decided utterance in a hundred
different ways. But I cannot imagine anyone but Dr. Inglis answering as
she answered. There was just the jolliest, cheeriest laugh and, 'Oh, but
you must speak.'
That was all. And the remarkable thing was that, though I had sworn to
myself that I would never utter a word in public without proper
training, I did speak that night. It never occurred to me to refuse.
Confidence begat confidence. It was during this time of work with Dr.
Inglis that I began really to understand and appreciate that wonderful
"Another incident runs into my memory, of desperate, agonizing days in
Glasgow, when Suffrage was unpopular and the funds in our exchequer were
very low. How well I remember writing to Dr. Inglis at the ridiculous
hour of two in the morning, that we must get some money, and that I
should get certain introductions and do
a lecturing tour in New York and try to make Suffrage 'fashionable.' The
answer came by return of post, and was deliciously typical. 'My dear,
your idea is so absolutely mad that it must be thoroughly sane. Come and
talk it over.'
"It was a happiness to work with Dr. Inglis, for her confidence, once
given, was complete. There were no petty inquiries or pedantic
regulations. 'Do it your own way,' was the one comment on a plan of
organization once it was settled.
"Dr. Inglis was one to whom the words 'can't' and 'impossible' really
and literally had no meaning; and those who worked with her had to
'unlearn' them, and they did. It did, indeed, seem 'impossible' to leave
for India at ten days' notice to carry on negotiations for the Scottish
Women's Hospitals and raise an Indian fund, especially when one had been
in no way officially or intimately connected with the Hospitals' work.
And to be told on the telephone, too, that one 'must' go. That was
adorably Dr. Inglis-ish. I laughed with glee at the very ridiculous,
fantastic impossibility of the whole thing—and promptly went! And how I
looked forward to seeing Dr. Inglis on my return! When she saw me off at
Waterloo in 1916, and, still fearfully ignorant of what awaited one, I
wailed at the eleventh hour (literally, for we were in the railway
carriage), 'But where am I to stay and where am I to go?' 'Don't worry,'
said Dr. Inglis, with that sublime faith and optimism of hers; 'they'll
put you up and pass you on. Good-bye, my dear. It
will be all right.' And so it was. But one has missed the telling of
it all to her; the hard things and the good things and the dreadfully
funny things. For she would have appreciated every bit of it, and
entered into every detail."
During the years of that great campaign, Dr. Inglis spoke, pleading the
cause of Suffrage, at hundreds of meetings all over the United Kingdom.
At one large meeting she had occasion to deal with the problem of the
"outcast woman." She referred to the statement once made that no woman
would be safe unless this class existed.
Then she said: "If this were true, the price of safety is
too high. I, for one, would choose to go down with the minority."
It is difficult to declare which was the more impressive, the
silence—one that could be felt—which followed the words, or the burst of
applause which came a moment later. But to one onlooker, from the
platform, the predominant feeling was wonder at the amazing power of the
woman. Without raising her voice, or putting into it any emotion beyond
the involuntary momentary break at the beginning of the sentence, she
had, by the transparent sincerity of her feeling, conveyed such an
impression to that large audience as few there would forget. The subtle
response drawn from those hundreds of women to the woman herself, to the
personality of the speaker, was for the moment even more real than the
outward response given to the idea. More than one woman there that day
could have said in the words of the British Tommy, who had heard for the
first time the story of Serbia, "It would not be difficult to follow