Two brave women campaigners should learn from

14 Nov 2014 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 18 Dec 2014

The long forgotten Violet van der Elst

Doing good work is not always the same as doing work that has widespread popular support.

Charities that work with offenders and their families are perfect examples of this. There is a widely held belief that prisoners and their families are treated too softly – that sentences are neither long enough or harsh enough and that those who commit crimes are not deserving of sympathy or support in any circumstances. And the press often run stories to that effect.

It is so bad that we often have policies implemented that run directly counter to all the evidence about how best to reduce crime and rehabilitate offenders. The work of criminologists is often discarded or simply ignored.

Is it any wonder that some organisations in the sector are in a state of near despair? Should they just “stick to their knitting” and hide under the sofa if the press comes calling?

Or do they have a duty to their clients to speak out without fear?

You can sense the dilemma. Yet there is incontrovertible evidence that public campaigning even on the most difficult issues can and does work. It’s just a pity that in the most difficult cases the burden has often been picked up by passionate individuals rather than charities.

Let’s take two examples and two passionate women who were prepared to stand up and be counted on difficult issues and see what we can learn from them.

Violet van der Elst is a long forgotten campaigner against the death penalty. Yet for decades in the last century she was a household name, reviled by many, admired by a few.

She was the daughter of a washerwoman who started her own cosmetics business and made a fortune overnight when she invented the first brushless shaving cream. When her husband died in 1935 she dedicated her entire fortune and the rest of her life to getting rid of what she saw as state murder.

A brilliant publicist she broke the mould in in what had been up to then a dry and dusty, almost underground, approach to changing the law.

Public Executions

The UK favoured hanging as a means of execution for men and right up until 1868 these were carried out in public. Women were burned at the stake – the last such execution was of a fraudster named Catherine Murphy in 1792.

Until the late 19th Century 222 offences carried the death penalty, ranging from petty theft to murder.

Throughout this period capital punishment was universally popular – so much so that executions became like macabre carnivals with scenes of public drunkenness and violence. The most distressing incidents were the frequent fights over the corpses between relatives and thugs hired by doctors to retrieve bodies for dissection.

Campaigning was muted. The Quakers conducted a campaign throughout the 19th Century that would be recognised by many charities today – one of quiet lobbying of MPs, away from the public gaze. What had the most impact was a revolution that was going on in the court rooms. Jurors who would to a man be in favour of the death penalty often refused to convict people even when the suspect was obviously guilty. And judges used a lot of ingenuity to avoid passing the sentence.

This was the first strong evidence that when you humanise an offender, hear him or her speak, listen to the full circumstances of the crime it is possible for even the most hardened people to soften their view.

In 1925 the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment was formed. It was to prove instrumental in securing abolition 40 years later, again this was a lobbying organisation that devoted a lot of energy to recruiting politicians to its cause. It had no discernible impact on public opinion.

Then Violet van der Elst entered the fray. She was not a quiet lobbyist.

Raising the stakes

Violet was determined to get attention. She had an eye for a spectacle, knew how the press operated and had no fear of getting into trouble.

She held demonstrations outside prisons when executions were held: she hired brass bands to play funeral music, paid for planes to fly overhead with banners carrying the slogan: “Stop the Killings” and got supports to kneel and recite the Lord’s Prayer at the moment of execution

This was designed to get headlines and she got them – even appearing in Time magazine. Violet had raised the stakes.  Over her lifetime she was arrested more than 50 times paid multiple fines and was even followed and tracked by Special Branch which concluded that she was insane.

She was shunned by the more respectable campaigners in the NCACP and until very recently was ignored by criminologists as an irrelevance in the repeal of the death penalty.

Maybe some of these experts don’t understand how the press works, because her impact was actually huge.

The stunts heightened interest in the grisly drama of judicial executions and this was picked up by the press. She did not use logical, reasoned arguments but entirely emotional ones backed by direct action. Human interest is of course what the papers are after and soon they were reporting murder trials verbatim, and every day people would devour the huge pieces written up covering every twist and turn of the case. This served to bring the general public into the court room and brought all the characters vividly to life. It humanised them.

Notorious Trials

Three of the most notorious murder trials of the 20th Century brought all this to a head in the early 1950s.

In 1950 Timothy Evans was convicted and hanged for the murder of his wife and daughter. A couple of years later six female bodies were found at his neighbours house 10 Rillington Place home to John Christie who was later convicted of mass murder. This caused a collective trauma. There was similar outrage over the execution of Derek Bentley for his role in the murder of a police officer. Bentley had a reading age of four and did not even fire the weapon. He was finally pardoned in 1998.

 But the real tipping point came when Ruth Ellis was executed for murdering her lover David Blakely. Ellis was a night club hostess and regarded as glamourous and her trial was one of the great sensations of the 1950s.

There was no dispute as to her guilt: the only issue was whether the death sentence should be carried out. A petition with 50,000 signatures was sent to the Home Secretary. There were thousands of letters as well, the vast majority being against the sentence. Some argue against the death sentence per se, but most show strong empathy for Ellis: as a mother of two children, as a female about to be executed in cold blood, as the perpetrator of a crime of passion and as a victim of abuse both by her father and Blakley. Many of these will have been written by people who, if asked by opinion pollsters, would have said they supported capital punishment.

There was no reprieve for Ellis but the tide had turned. Public opinion had shifted. Politicians did not want the personal stress of deciding whether another person should live or die. Suspension followed 10 years later. Violet by now severely mentally ill and living in poverty, died the same year. Her contribution was unrecognised and emotional arguments against the death penalty dismissed. The Howard League for Penal Reform was very vocal in this dismissing much of the press coverage and public outrage at the Ellis trial as sentimental.

What we can learn

So what do we learn from this.

  1. To change public policy having a strong, coherent evidence based argument is a good start but it is not enough.
  2. To have any real chance you need to combine quiet lobbying with high profile campaigns.
  3. There was not and never will be any public sympathy for de-humanised offenders, especially murderers.
  4. However, by humanising the issue opinions on specific cases can start to shift the debate and open the window for change.
  5. For campaigns to be successful it is imperative to concentrate on those cases which will elicit public support and sympathy.
  6. For all this to happen you have to engage with the press and media, taking the rough with the smooth.

There is more recent evidence too of a single woman taking direct action with remarkable results.

For many years voluntary groups and criminologists had recognised that something needed to be done about the plight of women prisoners. Women prisoners typically commit less crimes than men, many have been abused, there are very high levels of mental ill health most come from backgrounds of deprivation and most have dependent children. Yet standards of care have been abysmally low.

These were and are facts that policy makers could not argue with, but as this was not an issue of public concern, one that could be safely parked in the in tray.

The tragic case of Sarah Campbell

Pauline Campbell’s daughter Sarah, a heroin addict, was convicted of manslaughter in 2003 and sent to Styal Prison. On admission she took an overdose of anti-depressants and although she told staff treatment was delayed and she died in hospital. She was the fourth woman to die by suicide in Styal prison in six months and one of 14 to die across the prison estate that year.

Pauline organised protests outside prisons where women had died – and was working the press, gaining massive coverage.

She then upped the ante by blocking van loads of women being taken from the courts into prison, declaring that they were not safe – a remarkable position to take that gained even more publicity and finally prompted the government to act. Like Violet she was arrested many times, and then used her court appearances to further argue her case.

This became the entire focus of her life. She stopped eating properly, barely slept, and lost control of her finances, letting bills mount up. She continued with her campaign right up to 2008 when she committed suicide herself.

By then the government had been stung into action with the commissioning of the Corston Review which finally acknowledges the different status of women prisoners.

Campbell was a retired health manager, an articulate and passionate woman, who understood how the media worked, appealed to emotions and concentrated on a single, terrible issue: that of female prisoner suicides.

Again her role is scarcely recognised by campaign groups who see her as a “case study” rather than a campaigner.

Like Violet she worked alone and paid a terrible price for her work. Yet again she demonstrates the points I made earlier about how change comes.

What they both had in common was a willingness to engage with the media, to humanise issues, to achieve empathy. They did not operate behind the scenes, and the evidence suggests that their work in bringing injustice so vividly to life had real impact despite the unpopularity of the causes they supported.

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