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October 21, 2009

‘A gude cause maks a strong arm’

These are the words that emblazoned a banner at the head of a march by the Women’s Suffrage Movement along Princes Street 100 years ago. Back then around 4000 protesters took part. More recently, a similar number marched through Edinburgh again to commemorate the anniversary. The event was organised to draw attention to the struggle and the sacrifices that were made in order to win the vote for women. The organisers are worried that too many people nowadays take their right to vote for granted

Scotsman, By Alice Wyllie

A gude cause – The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Edinburgh

PERFECT weather conditions made for “a fine spectacle”, according to The Scotsman’s report of a march on 10 October, 1909, where hundreds of women took to the streets of Edinburgh to demand votes for women.
“Everything was in its favour,” said our account of the Women’s Suffrage Movement’s procession along Princes Street in Edinburgh. “Better weather conditions could not have been chosen; the streets were in perfect condition and although the southerly breeze may have troubled standardbearers, it was agreeable to the enormous crowds who came to witness the scene.”

Fast forward a century and the people planning to recreate that historic march tomorrow afternoon to mark the centenary are just as enthusiastic as their predecessors – even if the conditions might not be quite so ideal. The unpredictable weather aside, tram works mean that the streets are far from “in perfect condition”, and the thousands of women, men and children expected to pound the pavements tomorrow won’t be able to follow the exact route of the original march. But even though they’ll be forced to skip the Princes Street stretch, it promises to be quite a spectacle.

More than 3,000 people are expected to turn out for the Gude Cause March, which is named after a banner shown in one of the photographs of the 1909 demonstration, which read: “A Gude Cause Maks (sic] a Strong Arm.” Tomorrow’s commemoration has been organised by volunteers, women’s historians and community workers, in association with The Edinburgh Peace and Justice Resource Centre. It kicks off at noon at Bruntsfield Links and wends its way to Calton Hill.

Anyone can take part, and participants are encouraged to make banners and dress up if they wish, in order to help celebrate a century of women’s activism and achievements, while also paying tribute to the pioneers of female suffrage. Gude Cause co-ordinator, Helen Kay, explains that the idea for the march came two years ago, just ahead of the 2007 Scottish elections. “Research published in The Scotsman described how less than 45 per cent of Scottish women who were registered to vote were considering voting in the upcoming election,” she says. In the end, an estimated 60 per cent voted.

“This was significantly less than the percentage of men who were planning to vote. We thought that the centenary of the march would be the perfect time to remember the work and the suffering of the suffragettes and suffragists, because it seems that some younger people don’t know the work that went in to women gaining the vote. We also wanted to mark women’s achievements over the past century, right up to the present day, and to draw attention to what still needs to be done.”

The theme for tomorrow’s march is Past, Present, and Future. The past will be represented by a walking timeline, featuring people dressed in period costume. Groups such as Engender, Women’s Aid, and female writers and musicians will make up the “present” portion. Finally, the future will be represented by groups highlighting what still needs to be changed and the new challenges facing equality campaigners.

The goal is to recreate the original march in all its glory, while drawing attention to the problems that still need to be faced up to around the world, including tackling domestic violence, forced marriage, sex trafficking and equal pay. The procession will stop at the City Chambers where a group of councillors past and present will join the march, and council leader Jenny Dawe will address the marchers. MSPs joining the procession include Fiona Hyslop, Sarah Boyack, Marilyn Glen and Patrick Harvie.

Many of the marchers will be particularly keen to take this opportunity to remember, and honour, the women who paved the way and eventually secured votes for women in 1928. Accounts of the original march, one of the biggest suffragette marches the country would ever see, describe the sea of women in the suffragette’s colours, green, violet and white, bearing banners while a large crowd looked on, somewhat bemused.

“Interest in the show was keen, but of other feeling – enthusiasm for example – there was none,” read The Scotsman’s report. “Occasionally there was a slight vocal exhibition of hostility, and once in the vicinity of Castle Terrace a bag of peasemeal burst over the heads of the immediate lady processionists. At intervals where groups of sympathisers had assembled there was cheering and waving of handkerchiefs. But the vast majority of the onlookers exhibited no other sentiment than that of mere curiosity.”

The leader of the British suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, along with her daughter, Christabel, were keynote speakers and guests of honour on the day, while marchers included some of the first female graduates from Edinburgh University and a group of fishwives from Musselburgh. A number of women elected to dress up as figures out of the pages of Scottish history, including Mary Queen of Scots, Flora Macdonald and Black Agnes of Dunbar Castle.

The banners which, according to our report, “had to be entrusted to stout masculine arms”, were emblazoned with witty phrases. One read: “What’s guid for John is guid for Janet.” Another, aimed at the Prime Minister H H Asquith, said: “Ye maunna tramp on the Scotch thistle, laddie.” Still others read “The langest day has an end” and “Nae gain without pain”.

Crowds clogged the pavements six deep and spectators leaned out of windows and clambered on top of tram cars to get a better look at the procession, led by the imposing Flora Drummond, riding astride a horse – much to the amazement of spectators more used to seeing women ride side-saddle – wearing a flat cap and waving her whip. “The imposing display achieved its object,” read the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch the following day. “It advertised to tens of thousands the aim and objects of the suffragettes, and it made it abundantly apparent to all who had eyes to see, ears to hears and minds to understand, that behind this movement there is a solid phalanx of resolute and unflinching womanhood bent upon obtaining the vote, and fully determined that they will triumph over every obstacle.”

• The Gude Cause march will assemble at Bruntsfield Links, west of Whitehouse Loan, from noon tomorrow, with the procession departing at 1pm and marching towards Calton Hill. For more information call 0131-229 099 or visit

How it was reported at the time

WHEN the first of the processionists arrived at Waverley Market few persons were inside the large hall, which had been specially fitted up for the accommodation of the suffragists and their supporters. Seating accommodation for over a thousand persons had been provided, and all the seats in this barricaded area were filled. Outside the barriers there was a large crowd, and it was estimated that altogether there was in the meeting between 4,000 and 5,000. Prior to the start of the meeting selections were played by the women pipers who had taken part in the procession. To the left of the platform were grouped together the members who had represented historical personages in the women’s movement, and in their varied and picturesque attire they formed a pleasing and attractive picture.

Punctually at four o’clock, Mrs Pankhurst and the other members of the platform party took their places on the platform. The company in the reserved area rose from their seats and gave the speakers a rousing welcome. Mingled with the cheering, however, was a considerable volume of booing from the back of the hall.

Mrs Pankhurst, who took the chair, apparently found the acoustics of the hall to trouble her, for she began her speech in strained and strident tones. Frequent though the interruptions were from the rear, they did not interfere with her flow of oratory, and she continued her address with vigour. “Lead, Kindly Light,” was at one time struck up by the noisy section. Amid the din Mrs Pankhurst held forth, and concluded by moving a resolution expressing “profound indignation at the recent disgraceful development of the Government’s policy of coercion towards women who are demanding that taxation and representation should go together,” and calling upon the Government “to put an end to this deplorable struggle by giving tho vote to duly qualified women”.

Mrs Pethick Lawrence, who was the next speaker, roused the antagonism of the noisy section of the audience by her references to the presence of supporters of the Government, and her declaration that the women on the platform were far better Liberals than the interrupters. She had not proceeded far before the uproar became so great that her voice was drowned. A good deal of jostling went on behind the barriers at the rear of the hall, and many in the reserved area, unable to hear a word of the speaker, rose in their seats to ascertain the cause of the disturbance.

Mrs Pankhurst intervened, and counselled the audience not to trouble about “a handful of irresponsible boys.” The “irresponsible boys,” however, were not so easily put down. They apparently made an attempt to rush the barrier placed round the reserved seats, and a large number of ladies who were in the vicinity were badly crushed. The stewards, who were inside the barriers, were unable for the moment to quell the disturbance, and a large force of police which had been in reserve outside the building made their appearance. They took up positions among the rowdy section, and the disturbance quickly ceased. Several young men who had been in the thick of the row left the hall.

Mrs Lawrence thereafter proceeded with her speech, which was listened to without further interruption. Appeals for Scottish support for the movement were made by Mrs Pankhurst and Mrs Drummond; and after a collection was taken, an address in support of the resolution was delivered by Miss Christabel Pankhurst. The resolution was carried by an overwhelming majority, the dissenters numbering about a score. Led by Mrs Drummond, who waved her riding whip, the audience gave three cheers for the pioneers of the movement, and for the prisoners at present in jail.