The women’s suffrage activists in China faced similar challenges to their sister suffragettes around the world—including, whether or not to use violence to press their case and if so, how much? China’s women’s suffrage campaign grew out of an explicitly violent struggle—the rebellion aimed at overthrowing the Qing dynasty in 1911. The core women’s suffrage activists were all members of Sun Yat-sen’s (1866-1925) Revolutionary Alliance where they had honed their radicalism as weapons smugglers, bomb-makers, and assassins. Many had attended or taught in the new Girls’ Schools that trained their students in military drills and parades of female armies that were key to the profile of the “public women” of a modernising China. The radical women in the Revolutionary Alliance anticipated that their involvement in the military action that overthrew the Qing would demonstrate their fitness for equal citizenship with men in any new Republic that would emerge. But as the national constitution was formed in the early months of 1912 it became clear that women were not to be included in those citizens eligible to elect their new national political leaders. The sense of betrayal among the women was acute.
Leading feminist figures not only advocated violence as part of their anti-Qing rebellion but also as part of their feminist struggle as well. They drew upon a centuries-old tradition of women warriors, like the legendary Hua Mulan, who stepped out of the domestic sphere to fight—but this time the fight was for sex equality (Edwards 2016). And they did both use, and threaten, violence in their bid to secure equal citizenship with men. In March 1912, with the opening of the new provisional parliament in Nanjing, the women stormed the chambers, smashed windows and beat up a security guard. In December of the same year, when the new electoral laws were released, they marched again on parliament with their leader, Tang Qunying (1871–1937), declaring: “During the armed uprisings, women took on responsibilities as spies, we organised bombing squads and undertook a whole host of dangerous tasks—risking both life and property—just like men. How is it that now that the revolution has been successful women’s interests are not taken into account!” She continued saying that if the laws continued to deny women political equality with men, then “women and others will have no choice but to use military force to resolve this problem”.
In August of 1912, the women faced a further humiliation as their own political party was absorbed into the Nationalist Party (GMD/KMT). The new party constitution even removed sex equality provisions that had existed in the Revolutionary Alliance’s. The women were so enraged that they stormed the executive meeting and another leading suffragist, Wang Changguo (1880-1949) assaulted party leader, Song Jiaoren (1882-1913). Later, Tang publicly slapped the faces of both Song and another senior male party leader, Lin Sen (1868-1943), in front of the 3,000-4,000 delegates gathered to approve the Nationalist Party constitution. These demonstrations of their willingness to use force continued into 1913 when in February, Tang’s supporters ransacked the offices of the Changsha daily news after the newspaper published what the women felt, was slanderous gossip about the widowed Tang—a story of a supposed love affair. The newspaper equipment was so badly damaged that the paper was unable to operate for a few days.
Ultimately, however, a more organised and lethal form of violence would push the suffrage activists into hiding. President Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), threatened by Song Jiaoren’s increasing popularity, had him assassinated in March 1913. In November, Yuan issued an edict banning Tang Qunying’s Suffrage Alliance—forcing the women into hiding. Their militancy was no match for the state violence orchestrated by Yuan’s regime. The women’s suffrage movement re-emerged after Yuan’s death in 1916 and amidst the general political disarray of the mid-1910s—the activists found a society much more open to reconsidering the roles of women and their use of violence diminished accordingly. Formal success quickly followed with sex equality provisions secured in numerous provincial constitutions in the late 1910s and early 1920s—vis. Guangdong, Zhejiang, Sichuan and Hunan. Success at the national-level would come in a 1936 draft constitution that explicitly included sex equality (Edwards 2008).
Despite the frequent use of force by suffrage campaigners, the public commemoration of their victories around the world downplays women’s use of violence. Stories that present violence as an effective means to produce political change pose a risk to social stability—and most modern nation-states are, in Anthony Giddens’  terms “internally pacified”. The monopoly over “legitimate” violence rests in the hands of the current governing state. After the political agenda secured through violent action, (in this case, sex equality), has been subsequently incorporated into the nation-state’s governing fabric, historical incidents of anti-state violence become problematic.
Even historians of the suffrage movement, in Fern Riddell’s view, have been reluctant to explore the full scope of the violence of the British suffragettes. Their activism is primarily remembered as the smashing of windows rather than their bombings and arson attacks. Greater emphasis is given to their suffering as victims of state violence through imprisonment and forced feedings (Riddell 2015). Yet, women’s suffragists’ militancy is also minimised in the public consciousness in order to mitigate what Sharon Crozier-De Rosa calls “The shame of the violent woman”. She explains that, in the years of the women’s suffrage campaigns of Britain, Australia and Ireland, violence underpinned male codes of honour. On this logic, a woman’s use of violence was a “gross misappropriation of masculine honour codes” and “brought shame to both the feminine and the masculine national communities” [Ibid 232-33]. The ongoing, widespread influence of this gendered notion of shame, results in the lionising of activists as noble victims rather than repugnant aggressors.
Together with the modern nation-state’s desire to sustain domestic stability, these factors cause the minimisation of female militancy in the Anglo-world suffrage histories. In contrast, China’s militant suffragettes did not face accusations that they had shamed their nation simply because they dared to use violence. But, their militancy, and indeed their very existence has been largely overlooked for myriad other reasons. Why, then, do we not know more about China’s suffragettes, violent or pacific? In large part the answer lies in the fact that the current nation-state of the PRC has little reason to celebrate the histories of antagonistic movements fighting for a parliamentary form of democracy based on multi-party elections. Where the histories of the suffrage campaigns of New Zealand, Britain or Australia serve to consolidate the legitimacy of their current national political systems, the same is not true for the PRC. But it is significant that even multi-party, democratic nations are uncomfortable with the idea that sometimes, militant violence is part of the history of their treasured democracies and that sometimes, women choose violence too.
Louise Edwards is Scientia Professor of Chinese History at UNSW, Australia and the author of many books and articles on women and gender in China and Asia. Her current projects explore gendered cultures of war in twentieth century China. Her most recent books are Gender, Politics and Democracy: Women’s Suffrage in China (Stanford University Press, 2008) and Women Warriors and Wartime Spies of China (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Image credit: Pinterest.