The paper explores a little-known aspect of Edwardian suffrage militancy: its political and cultural inspiration by Britain’s ‘amateur military tradition’. This historical institution relied primarily on units of civilian auxiliary troops to defend Britain from attacks and was revived regularly at times of real or potential danger. Such revivals during and after the Boer war coincided with and shaped the rise of suffrage militancy. Recent scholarship has traced the roots of the militant campaign to wartime debates which argued that if state violence was legitimate to enfranchise British subjects in South Africa, women could also resist the government by force to challenge their political exclusion. The paper argues that the Boer war and its aftermath had a deeper institutional impact on the suffrage campaign due to the role of civilian auxiliary units in the conflict and in postwar military reforms. This included the mass wartime enlistment of Volunteer and Yeomanry troops and the 1908 formation of the Territorial Force with a nursing corps which opened up auxiliary service to women. These units offered suffrage activists a flexible organisational model for their new militant strategy, complete with a martial institutional culture, including uniformed parades with regalia, marching bands and flags. Appropriating the amateur military model enabled suffrage campaigners to tap into a radical political tradition stretching back centuries. It also provided organisational benefits, such as popular publicity methods, instant political agency and the means to inculcate members with camaraderie. The second half of the paper explores the outcomes of combining suffrage activism with the model of amateur soldiering. These included the growing militarisation of all suffrage societies, including law-abiding ones, and the further re-gendering of the amateur military paradigm, providing the inspiration for women’s auxiliary military units in the First World War. The discussion draws on theories of ‘new institutionalism’ and questions the possibility of gender transformation without institutional change.
Dr Krisztina Robert is a Research Fellow at the University of Roehampton. Her research interests combine the social, cultural and military history of First World War Britain with a focus on women’s wartime work and experience, especially in military organisations. Her publications in edited volumes and journals have explored constructions of martial femininity through visual, material and performative representations, the production and discursive meanings of uniforms, spatial approaches to women’s war work and the contribution of these processes to the newly developing concept of the ‘home front’. She is currently completing a book on the wartime Women’s Corps movement.
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