Kitty Marion

Kitty Marion

Kitty Marion (Katherina Schafer) was born in Westphalia, Germany in 1871. Her mother died in 1873 and when she was fifteen went to live with her aunt in England. After learning English she adopted the name Kitty Marion and became an actress.

In 1889 she was engaged for the pantomime season in Glasgow. Over the next few years she became a star of the musical hall and she was billed as the "Refined Vocal Comedienne". In 1899 she appeared at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Liverpool, on the same bill as Vesta Tilley.

Marion took a keen interest in politics and in 1908 joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). She moved to Hartfield in East Sussex and was an active member of the WSPU branch in Brighton. In June she was arrested during a demonstration outside the House of Commons. She later recalled: "Two policemen, one on each arm, quite unnecessarily pinching and bruising the soft underarm, with the third often pushing at the back, would run us along and fling us, causing most women to be thrown to the ground."

Later that year Kitty Marion joined Elizabeth Robins in helping to form the Actresses' Franchise League. Other actresses who joined included Winifred Mayo, Sime Seruya, Edith Craig, Inez Bensusan, Ellen Terry, Lillah McCarthy, Sybil Thorndike, Vera Holme, Lena Ashwell, Christabel Marshall, Lily Langtry and Nina Boucicault.

Kitty Marion was a supporter of direct action and in 1909 she was arrested and found guilty of throwing stones at a post office in Newcastle. She was sentenced to a month's imprisonment, went on hunger strike, and was forcibly fed. This resulted in her set fire to her cell. In October she joined forces with Constance Lytton, Jane Brailsford and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and wrote a letter to The Times saying: "We want to make it known that we shall carry on our protest in our prison cells. We shall put before the Government by means of the hunger-strike four alternatives: to release us in a few days; to inflict violence upon our bodies; to add death to the champions of our cause by leaving us to starve; or, and this is the best and only wise alternative, to give women the vote." As Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Suffragette Movement (1999), pointed out: "She received a WSPU hunger strike medal in a ceremony at the Albert Hall on 9 December and then went on to do the Christmas pantomime season."

During the 1910 General Election the NUWSS organised the signing petitions in 290 constituencies. They managed to obtain 280,000 signatures and this was presented to the House of Commons in March 1910. With the support of 36 MPs a new suffrage bill was discussed in Parliament. The WSPU suspended all militant activities and on 23rd July they joined forces with the NUWSS to hold a grand rally in London. When the House of Commons refused to pass the new suffrage bill, the WSPU broke its truce on what became known as Black Friday on 18th November, 1910, when its members clashed with the police in Parliament Square. Kitty Marion was arrested during this demonstration but she was released without charge.

Kitty Marion toured the country giving lectures and musical performances. She was billed as the "Music Hall Artiste and Militant Suffragette" and after one meeting in Colchester it was reported: "The awe experienced by the audience was quickly succeeded by delight, for the lady proved a charming vocalist".

In November 1911 she was again arrested outside the House of Commons after taking part in the protest following the defeat of the Conciliation Bill, and was sentenced to 21 days' imprisonment. When in Holloway Prison she again went on hunger-strike.

Christabel Pankhurst decided that the WSPU needed to intensify its window-breaking campaign. On 1st March, 1912, a group of suffragettes volunteered to take action in the West End of London. The Daily Graphic reported the following day: "The West End of London last night was the scene of an unexampled outrage on the part of militant suffragists.... Bands of women paraded Regent Street, Piccadilly, the Strand, Oxford Street and Bond Street, smashing windows with stones and hammers." Kitty Marion recalls in her autobiography that she broke windows of the Silversmiths' Association and at Sainsbury's at 134 Regent Street.

Kitty Marion was found guilty and sentenced to six month's imprisonment. Holloway Prison was full so Marion and 23 other members of the WSPU were sent to Winson Green Prison in Birmingham. She again went on hunger-strike and she was released after 10 days.

In July 1912, Christabel Pankhurst began organizing a secret arson campaign. According to Sylvia Pankhurst: "Women, most of them very young, toiled through the night across unfamiliar country, carrying heavy cases of petrol and paraffin. Sometimes they failed, sometimes succeeded in setting fire to an untenanted building - all the better if it were the residence of a notability - or a church, or other place of historic interest." Occasionally they were caught and convicted, usually they escaped. Attempts were made by suffragettes to burn down the houses of two members of the government who opposed women having the vote. These attempts failed but soon afterwards, a house being built for David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was badly damaged by suffragettes.

In 1913 the WSPU arson campaign escalated and railway stations, cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses being set on fire. Slogans in favour of women's suffrage were cut and burned into the turf. Suffragettes also cut telephone wires and destroyed letters by pouring chemicals into post boxes.

Kitty Marion was a leading figure in the WSPU arson campaign and she was responsible for setting fire to Levetleigh House in St Leonards in April 1913. Two months later she and 26 year old Clara Giveen were told that the Grand Stand at the Hurst Park racecourse "would make a most appropriate beacon". The women returned to a house in Kew. A police constable who had been detailed to watch the house, saw the two women return and during the course of the next morning they were arrested. Their trial began at Guildford on 3rd July. She was found guilty and sentenced to three years' penal servitude. She went on hunger strike and was released under the Cat & Mouse Act. She was taken to the WSPU nursing home, into the care of Dr. Flora Murray and Catherine Pine.

As soon as she recovered she went out and broke a window of the Home Office. She was arrested and taken back to Holloway Prison. After going on hunger strike for five days she was again released to a WSPU nursing home. According to her own account, she now set fire to various houses in Liverpool (August, 1913) and Manchester (November, 1913). These incidents resulted in a series of further terms of imprisonment during which force-feeding occurred. It has been calculated that Kitty Marion endured 232 force-feedings in prison while on hunger strike.

Although Elizabeth Robins and Octavia Wilberforce disapproved of Kitty Marion's arson campaign they used their 15th century farmhouse at Backsettown, near Henfield, as a hospital and helped her recover from her various spells in prison and the physical effects of going on hunger strike. On 31st May 1914, with the help of Mary Leigh, escaped to Paris.

On 4th August, 1914, England declared war on Germany. Two days later the NUWSS announced that it was suspending all political activity until the war was over. The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort.

Emmeline Pankhurst announced that all militants had to "fight for their country as they fought for the vote." Ethel Smyth pointed out in her autobiography, Female Pipings for Eden (1933): "Mrs Pankhurst declared that it was now a question of Votes for Women, but of having any country left to vote in. The Suffrage ship was put out of commission for the duration of the war, and the militants began to tackle the common task."

Kitty Marion was one of those members of the Women's Social and Political Union who disagreed with the policy of ending militant activities. She resumed her career as an actress but continued to campaign for the vote. As she had been born in Germany, the government decided to deport her from Britain. After protests from figures such as Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, she was allowed to go to the United States.

In America she immediately became involved in politics and worked with Margaret Sanger, Lou Rogers and Cornelia Barns in publishing the Birth Control Review. She was arrested several times for violating obscenity laws in New York, and was imprisoned for 30 days in 1918. While in prison Kitty Marion met two other radicals, Mollie Steimer and Agnes Smedley. In 1921 Marion joined Sanger in establishing America's first birth-control clinic. However, the clinic in Brooklyn was closed by the police.

In 1930 Kitty Marion returned to London to work with Edith How-Martyn at the Birth Control International Centre. Later she returned to New York City and lived there until her death in 1944.

Primary Sources

(1) In her unpublished autobiography, Kitty Marion complained about the way she was treated when she was arrested by the police.

Two policemen, one on each arm, quite unnecessarily pinching and bruising the soft underarm, with the third often pushing at the back, would run us along and fling us, causing most women to be thrown to the ground.

(2) Letter to The Times signed by Kitty Marion, Jane Brailsford, Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (10th October, 1909)

We want to make it known that we shall carry on our protest in our prison cells. We shall put before the Government by means of the hunger-strike four alternatives: to release us in a few days; to inflict violence upon our bodies; to add death to the champions of our cause by leaving us to starve; or, and this is the best and only wise alternative, to give women the vote.

We appeal to the Government to yield, not to the violence of our protest, but to the reasonableness of our demand, and togrant the vote to the duly qualified women of the country. We shall then serve our full sentence quietly and obediently and without complaint. Our protest is against the action of the Government in opposing woman suffrage, and against that alone. We have no quarrel with those who may be ordered to maltreat us.

(3) Sylvia Pankhurst described the start of the WSPU arson campaign in her book The Suffrage Movement (1931).

In December 1911 and March 1912, Emily Wilding Davison and Nurse Pitfield had committed spectacular arson on their own initiative, both doing their deeds openly and suffering arrest and punishment. In July 1912, secret arson began to be organised under the direction of Christabel Pankhurst. Women, most of them very young, toiled through the night across unfamiliar country, carrying heavy cases of petrol and paraffin. Sometimes they failed, sometimes succeeded in setting fire to an untenanted building - all the better if it were the residence of a notability - or a church, or other place of historic interest. Occasionally they were caught and convicted, usually they escaped.

(4) Christabel Pankhurst described the arson campaign in her book Unshackled: the Story of how we Won the Vote (1959).

Many militants had been restive for some time, considering that it would be more dignified to anticipate the sorry outcome of the Government's now broken pledge than await it passively. As leaders, we had felt bound to restrain this eagerness, but now there was no reason for delay. The ingenuity and the pertinacity of the Suffragette guerillists were extraordinary. Never a soul was hurt, but the struggle continued.

Golf greens suffered on one occasion by the carving on the turf of "Votes Before Sport" and "No Votes, No Golf'!" The editor of Golfing complained on the plea that "golfers are not usually very keen politicians." "Perhaps they will be now," said the Suffragettes.

The damage done to property was more spectacular than serious. Museums began to be closed, here and there, with preventive caution, to the vexation of American visitors. Mr. Lloyd George's house at Walton Heath paid the price of its owner's deed.

(5) In her book My Part in a Changing World (1938), Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence described why she left the WSPU.

Mrs. Pankhurst met us with the announcement that she and Christabel had determined upon a new kind of campaign. Henceforward she said there was to be a widespread attack upon public and private property… This project came as a shock to us both. We considered it sheer madness to throw away the immense publicity and propaganda value of our present police. They were wrong in supposing that a more revolutionary form of militancy, which attacks directed more and more on the property of individuals, would strengthen the movement and bring it to more speedy victory.

Emmeline Pankhurst agreed with Christabe. Excitement, drama and danger were the conditions in which her temperament found full scope. She had the qualities of a leader on the battlefield. The idea of a 'civil war' which Mrs. Pankhurst outlined in Boulogne and declared a few months later was repellent to me.