Edward Bernays and the Suffragette Movement

On the 18th of this month, a vigil will be taking place to mark the memory of the two Suffragettes who died 100 years ago on that day whilst attempting to enter Parliament to demand a debate on the Conciliation Bill, a bill that would have given some women basic voting rights.

They were part of a group of 300 women who went to the House that day, only to be met by 6000 policemen. 200 women were arrested. It was a deeply extreme reaction on the part of the establishment, who were extravagant in their fear of the Suffragette movement.

By 1928, however, the establishment was a little more cautious – the Suffragette movement had become a large and vocal minority, well on the way to achieving universal suffrage. So instead of being arrested and killed, they were beginning to be seen as consumer targets.

The president of the American Tobacco Association was keen to get millions of women smoking in the face of a taboo against women smoking and hired Edward Bernays, the “Father of Public Relations”, to help. Bernays persuaded a group of debutantes, marching in the 1929 Easter Parade in New York City, to take and light up Lucky Strike cigarettes as “torches of freedom”. It was taken up by the press and worked astonishingly well, exploiting the need of women to unite publicly, overturning the taboo on women smoking and opening up an enormous market of angry and frustrated women who wanted to be treated equally.

A shame, then, that the product was so toxic, so effective at killing so many people – its toxicity only matched by Bernays’ cunning, callous and brilliant piece of psychological manipulation. He tied smoking so inextricably to the equal rights movement to the point one could not support universal suffrage and not support the right of women to smoke.

The people meeting at College Green will be raising candles rather than cigarettes as their torches, I’d imagine. If ever there was a time to remember the millions of women who were obliterated by cigarettes sold to them in the name of freedom, it is on 18th November, alongside the two women who laid down their lives 100 years ago for the cause of universal suffrage.

The gathering begins at 6.30pm. At 7pm, Caroline Lucas MP and Dr Diane Atkinson will speak. At 7.15pm, there will be a silent procession.