Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Elsie Inglis
Chapter VIII - The Suffrage Campaign

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 campaign.

"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 vote."

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"!


"Dear Mrs. Cursiter,

"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,        
"Elsie Maud Inglis."

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 encouragement.

"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 work.

"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 movement—says:

"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, the glance.

"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 character.

"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 her!"


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus