After a five-day journey from Britain that left her “more dead than alive,” Edwardian England’s most dangerous Suffragette stepped off the White Star Line’s Cymric on Nov. 7, 1915, and onto American soil for the first time. Having been ordered by police escort onto a dangerous wartime crossing that had already seen another passenger ship, the RMS Lusitania, torpedoed by a German submarine, her departure allowed the British Government to heave a sigh of relief. Finally, they had been able to rid themselves of Kitty Marion, one of the most violent feminist campaigners history has ever known, and the woman who had helped to orchestrate a nationwide arson and bombing campaign, in the fight for women’s rights. Now, she was America’s problem.
Strikingly beautiful, with blue eyes and a shock of red hair, Kitty Marion didn’t look like the Brooklyn Daily Eagle‘s version of the “martial militants,” that their cartoonist, Nelson Harding, was so fond of drawing. An ex-music-hall star turned suffragette, Marion had spent 20 years of her life campaigning against the sexual harassment of actresses in her industry. Over one hundred years before the TimesUp and MeToo movements, she had attempted to fight back against the regular sexual assaults she had suffered as a female comic singer and actor, from agents and managers who believed they had a right to her body in exchange for legitimate work.
It was society’s failure to listen that had led to Marion joining the Suffragettes, bound together under Emmeline Pankhurst’s new directive of direct, violent action: “Deeds, Not Words.”
As the First World War broke out, the fact Marion had emigrated from what we now call Germany as a child in 1886 was used by the British government as a justification for attempting to remove her from the country. She was accused of being a German spy, hunted by the police and threatened with deportation until a group of suffragettes managed to scrap together enough money to buy her passage to America. Yet even though Marion was sent with a number of letters of introduction to the American Suffrage leaders, on her arrival she discovered they wanted nothing to do with her, far too concerned that Marion’s violent reputation would damage their own cause.
Disillusioned by her rejection from a movement that had become her life’s work, as the war raged on Marion searched for a new purpose. And, in 1916, she found it. Leafing through a newspaper one day, she came across an article on Margaret Sanger’s fight to reopen her Brownsville Birth Control clinic. From this Brooklyn base, Sanger printed and distributed family-planning information in multiple languages. Her leaflets contained information on diaphragms and condoms, as well as the importance of sexual pleasure in happy marriages. Distributing such information was illegal under Section 1142 of the Penal Code. Sanger and her sister, along with the clinic’s interpreter, Miss Fania Mindell, had been arrested and imprisoned.
To Kitty Marion, the idea that sex was somehow a dirty secret was absolutely ridiculous. Her life as a young woman in the music halls had shown her that sex could be a joyous and beautiful act, something to be celebrated for its intimacy and pleasure. But she was also acutely aware of how sex could be used as a weapon by men, especially to restrict women’s lives. She held a long-standing belief that the only way a woman could be free and independent was not to marry. To discover that there were methods and information that gave women control over their bodies, protecting them from the threat of an unwanted pregnancy while still allowing them to enjoy sex, was revolutionary. She set out to join Margaret Sanger’s fight, and discovered, to her joy, that in this movement the reputation of a Suffragette who had endured over 232 force-feedings in U.K. prisons, and who had bombed the houses of government leaders and set fire to racecourse pavilions, was cause for celebration, not revulsion.
Birth control was a radical ideal, a challenge to the status quo that held that giving women access to contraception led only to moral corruption. It was a campaign in desperate need of courageous, stubborn and determined fighters.
Within a few years, Marion became a cornerstone of Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Movement. She had the courage to stand on New York’s streets to sell the Birth Control Review, something Sanger herself described as “torture.” Marion faced multiple arrests and even served time in the New York City jail notoriously nicknamed “The Tombs,” yet never wavered in her commitment to the cause. Marion had experienced the perverse sexual double standard of the age: that a woman seeking information on birth control, abortion or family planning could find herself arrested, yet a man who raped his wife was not seen as a criminal. “I have often read of prosecutions for abortions,” Marion wrote in her unpublished autobiography, “which struck me as unjust” since the blame was put solely on “the woman who was seeking relief, which it should be her right to receive”.
Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s Marion campaigned tirelessly from her home in New York to legalize access to Birth Control, splitting her time after the war between both the U.K. and the USA. She became the most recognizable face of the movement, eclipsing even Margaret Sanger. “Many people still think I must be Kitty Marion,” Sanger wrote in 1938.
Yet in the years since Marion’s death in 1944, history has forgotten her name. As British Suffragettes began to sanitize their own history, the violent actions of women like Kitty were actively hidden by a movement now concerned with presenting a respectable face to society. Worse still was Marion’s support for birth control. The vote for which the suffrage movement fought would come, in 1920 in the U.S. and in 1918 in the U.K. But women across America are still fighting for access to contraception — something freely provided in the U.K. — and the bodily autonomy Kitty Marion knew was so crucial. And so, it seems, Kitty’s war still needs fighting today.
Fern Riddell is the author of Death in Ten Minutes: The Forgotten Life of Radical Suffragette Kitty Marion, available now in its American edition from Quercus Books.