Olive Malvery with family, c.1912
'A Convert Worth Having'
“It has come home to me that the mothers of men must take part in the affairs of the nation in order to protect, not only the women victims of vice and injustice, but to shield and protect their own sons and the men whom they love.”
Olive Malvery was passionate and active member of the movement for the parliamentary franchise for women. But her relationship with women’s suffrage was by no means a simple one, and her involvement and experience of the campaign was often turbulent.
Olive was an unlikely suffragist. For many years, she was a self-confessed ‘anti-suffragist in many respects.’ In October 1903 when speaking for the Global Temperance Society at Reigate, she strongly denounced the efforts of women to enter the Parliamentary world. A month later while touring in the United States she told the press “personally, I do not want to vote, or to go to Parliament.”
In earlier writings, she could be dismissive and disparaging towards the campaigners for women’s suffrage. For example:
‘She was a sort of "Women's Rights" person, and having failed to secure a husband herself, was of course exceedingly bitter against the whole race of men.’
Olive’s relationship to the campaign for the vote over the first decade of the 20th century was succinctly summarised in suffrage publication the Common Cause in 1910; 'She has hitherto stood somewhat aside from the Suffrage movement, and some of her remarks seemed to those present to indicate that she has hardly understood it.'
That Olive could be such a vocal champion of women having a greater role in public life and yet hold this position on suffrage is potentially difficult for people today to appreciate or understand. However, it may in part be due to her long held and deeply rooter scepticism she had for all parliamentary politics.
During her time on the lecture circuit for the Temperance Movement she attacked the corruption of politicians. In particular, the taxing of tea over beer was to her evidence of the influence of ‘too many brewers in Parliament.’ In her writings, she presents politicians as figures too elitist and out of touch to effectively tackle poverty:
'If I were a Cabinet Minister, with the control of many thousands of pounds, and a pretty velveteen suit and an ornamental sword to put on at Court, I might be in danger of forgetting that at one time in my career I believed that a thousand pounds a year was an extravagant income, and that the poor actually endured hunger and cold and desolation.'
In 1904, she told audiences of a time she was asked - if given the opportunity - would she go to Parliament? (An interesting question when considered it would take a further 106 years for a women of Asian heritage to do so). She replied ‘that there were enough fools there already (laughter).’
Her own justification for how long it took for her to publicly come out in support of the vote was simply that 'the question of women's suffrage loomed large in the public eye. Personally I happen to be a very busy woman, and my work has lain in other directions, so I have not connected myself with this movement.'
The changing point for Olive came with the creation of the Church League of Women’s Suffrage in 1909. Within the first year, Olive was not only a member, but was headlining an event from them at Steinway Hall. Olive made quite the impact, appearing in beautiful 'oriental' robes in the purple of suffragettes. Here she told the audience filling the hall decorated with the white and golden banners of the League that she come to realise that the granting of fuller freedom to women was the only means by which the terrible things some women suffered could be prevented.
Despite publicly coming out in favour of suffrage, she still stood apart somewhat from the movement, focusing instead on her campaign to build a night shelter for women. She continued to argue for providing for people’s urgent physical needs first, despite her religion and political ideals. For example, when she spoke at the National Council of Public Morals in April 1911, Olive – a fervent Christian – mocked the idea of preaching the love of God to the desperate women spending their nights London’s embankment. Similarly, she told her audience ‘working for such shelters better work than working for a vote. The vote might not bring all they wanted.'
These reservations are nowhere to be found however by the time of her publication of the ‘The White Slave Market’ (1912), co-written with William Nicholas Willis. In her introduction Olive states the need for women to have the vote, as 'you will see in these pages how corrupt and how altogether horrible a Government without women's influence can be.' Throughout the books there are repeated angry comparisons between the differences in sentencing between men who profit from the sexual exploitation of vulnerable women, and 'those inflicted on mothers and daughters, respectable women, for breaking windows in the suffragettes' raids.' Finally, the book pleas to the reader 'Surely it is time women had votes or our law-makers had sense, and made up their minds to exclaim with Voltaire, Ecrasez l’iname! [Crush the infamous]'
In July 1912 she wrote the following letter which was published in the publication Votes for Women:
'I have lately felt that it is the bounden duty of all women who wish to bring about the advancement and uplifting of all women, and the downfall of sweating, and the overthrow of the White Slave Traffic in women, to join in the fight for political freedom. My heart has been stirred at the heroic and patient suffering of women for the cause…I honestly confess that if I was called upon to face the horrible torture of forcible feeding, I would go mad or die. I simply could not do it. I am now so eager to show my sympathy and admiration for these magnificent women, who endure such shocking and indecent brutality, that I shall do all that in me lies to help on the cause of women's suffrage. My time, my brains, and such money as I can spare will be used for the cause of women's suffrage. I see and realise now what I have hitherto been unable to be sure about, and that is that until women have the vote nothing real will ever be done for those who need our protection, our help, and the nation's justice.'
She took these pledges to heart, donating 25% of her share of the profits from the White Slave Market to the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies’ Election Fighting Fund, stating 'our only hope for progress and social reform is by making our influence felt in elections. The White Slave Traffic and other cruelties to women will never be killed or cured till women have the vote. I see that now. It has taken five years' study and work to convert me to this view.’
In response to this, the Common Cause declared ‘Suffragists will feel Mrs. MacKirdy is a convert worth having.’