One of the best things about working at The National Archives is stumbling across items you never knew were there. My most recent discovery was a police report into the suffragettes’ use of motor cars. At the time this did not fit the role generally expected of women, at worse it was often perceived as masculine and an act of subversion. It seems that the history of women driving has always been a little bit controversial.
The file MEPO 2/1566 shows the Metropolitan Police requesting a motorbike to keep up with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) drivers. Essentially the suffragettes were able to use these vehicles to outwit the police. The document notes that the members of the WSPU were using a least two cars ‘in connection with their numerous acts or attempted acts of incendiarism, also for the purpose of escaping arrest’ (MEPO 2/1566). From 1913 firebombing and arson attacks had become common suffrage tactics, our records hold many examples of suffragettes arrested for these types of offences.
The physical freedom that driving, and indeed cycling, provided women near the turn of the century was radical. It gave women a freedom they were previously not allowed. Bicycles were associated with caricatures of the ‘New Woman’, a defiant figure representing female emancipation. The image opposite shows a ‘New Woman’ caricature, switching the traditional domestic roles of husband and wife. Cars often meant women could not be chaperoned, they had a degree of freedom of movement they were often not able to have before. In practice it often meant women had to change their clothing to more practical trousers, and more ‘masculine’ wear. It held a fear of subversion: women acting like men were seen as a threat because they questioned the accepted social hierarchy.