Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Suffrage after 1903: Introduction

The early twentieth century saw some decisive shifts in the women’s movement[1]. The few years of political clamour surrounding the militant suffragettes from around 1906-7 until the outbreak of war in 1914 has served to mask very effectively not only alternative feminist tactics of that same period but also the range of activity preceding it in the nineteenth century. The historical distortion, largely a product of the dominant Pankhurst view of the movement meant that all women’s struggles other than that of the suffragettes were either invisible or insignificant and has been a major factor in focusing our historical definition of feminism on the fight for the vote[2]. However, there was no sign at the opening of the twentieth century that the government would legislate for female suffrage. Parliamentary efforts on the question revived in 1904. The Liberal MP, Sir Charles McLaren introduced a resolution that passed the Commons by 182 to 68. However, they came as before only from the backbenches.

How far did the women’s movement become factious between 1903 and 1914?

By 1903, the suffrage movement was divided into two distinct groups, each of which further divided into a number of factions. By 1912, the whole movement was a complex web of such groups.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS)

Origins. This organisation was created in 1897 when the existing suffrage societies merged under the leadership of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the wife of Henry Fawcett, a Liberal MP. By 1913, the NUWSS had 400 societies that were split between 19 federations covering the country. It had about 500,000 members and an annual income of £45,000.

Tactics. The NUWSS women were ‘constitutional suffragists’, believing in peaceful methods to achieve their objectives. Their tactics centred round discussion, public meetings and processions like the aptly called ‘Mud March’ of 7th February 1907 because of the atrocious weather, publishing their views in a newspaper The Common Cause and petitioning parliament[3].

The NUWSS used the ploy of asking sympathetic MPs to sponsor private members’ bills. Between 1870 and 1914, almost thirty such bills were introduced. However, without government backing, they had little chance of success. The NUWSS did have some contact with other suffragist organisations such as the WSPU but abhorred the use of violence to achieve the vote. They felt that peaceful methods would strengthen their case by displaying women as rational beings who would be capable of using the franchise. In 1912, the NUWSS made it official policy to back Labour Party candidates in elections. Labour was the only political party to put female suffrage into its political manifesto.

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)

Origins. Emmeline Goulden was born in 1858. She first attended a suffrage meeting in Manchester in 1872. In 1879, she married a leading Manchester lawyer, Richard Pankhurst, and had four children -- Christabel, Sylvia, Henry and Adela. The two elder girls and their mother were to become prominent figures in the Suffrage Movement. Emmeline Pankhurst held public office as a Poor Law Guardian and Registrar of Births and Deaths. By the time she was widowed in 1898, she was a committed socialist. It seemed possible that the Independent Labour party would commit themselves to the vote in a way the Liberal party would not. Emmeline Pankhurst, spurred on by Christabel, formed The Women’s Social and Political Union at her home 62, Nelson Street, Manchester in 1903 with the aim of obtaining votes for women ‘on the same terms which it is, or may be, granted for men’. In 1905, the WSPU moved its headquarters to Clement’s Inn, London (and to Lincoln’s Inn in 1911-12). Other prominent members at this time were Annie Kennedy, a cotton-mill worker, and Mr and Mrs Pethick-Lawrence, who edited the WSPU publication, Votes for Women. By 1910, the WSPU had a reputed membership of 36,000 and an annual income of £35,000.

Splinter groups. In 1907, Mrs Charlotte Despard and Mrs Teresa Billington-Greig established The Women’s Freedom League (WFL), a breakaway group from the WSPU. The WFL had the specific intention of evading the Inland Revenue, saying that they would not pay any taxes until they had the vote, and in 1911, they refused to co-operate with the Census. Another reason for the split was that they disliked the fact that WSPU was totally dominated by the Pankhursts, who were now dictating WSPU policy. In 1912, the Pethick-Lawrences left the WSPU and established their own organisation The Votes for Women Fellowship or United Suffragists. Finally, in 1913, Sylvia Pankhurst formed the East London Suffrage Federation. She had become disillusioned with the WSPU because it had become middle class oriented and had apparently abandoned working class women. The result of these splits was to leave the original WSPU as a dwindling band dominated by Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst. The degree to which this mattered depended on perspective. At the grass roots, the distinction between militants and non-militants was much less clear-cut than it appeared from the perspective of London.

Tactics. At first, the WSPU adopted similar tactics to the NUWSS and sought to educate the public on female suffrage. In 1904, however, the Pankhursts witnessed a Private Member Bill on Women’s Suffrage deliberately talked out by MPs in the House of Commons. Their anger at this caused them to reconsider their tactics. It became obvious that men would not listen to their case and they decided that militant action was necessary: ‘Deeds not words’ became official WSPU policy. They adopted tactics such as heckling government ministers at meetings, obstructing ministers at by-elections and holding an annual ‘Woman’s Parliament’. In October 1905, Christabel and Annie Kennedy heckled Edward Grey at a Liberal Party rally in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. They were removed from the Hall and imprisoned: this was the first militant act of the WSPU. In 1906, the Daily Mail labelled members of the WSPU ‘suffragettes’ in view of their militant stance, thus distinguishing them from the moderate suffragists of the NUWSS. In 1912, Mrs Pankhurst declared ‘war’ and sanctioned attacks on property in the cause of winning the vote.

In 1978, Jill Liddington and Jill Norris published One Hand Behind Us. It gave a new view of the women’s suffrage movement. They argue that the traditional view gave too much credit to the militant tactics of the WSPU and the role of the Pankhursts and ignored the contribution made by the ‘Radical Suffragists’. They were working class female cotton-workers in Lancashire who objected to the violent tactics of the WSPU and the domination of the NUWSS by middle class activists. The Radical Suffragists were, in essence, a breakaway faction of the NUWSS. They were closely allied to the trade-union movement and believed fervently in winning the vote for working class women by means of ‘grassroots diplomacy’. Prominent in the movement was Esther Roper, Eva Gore-Booth, Cissy Foley and Ada Nield Chew. The Radical Suffragists allied themselves politically with the Labour Party and were in favour of full womanhood suffrage that they saw as the gateway to improving the social condition of working class women. They opposed female suffrage based on a property qualification, as it would only enfranchise upper and middle class women.


[1] Two works provide a general overview on this issue: Lesley A. Hall Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880, Palgrave, 2000 and Sue Bruley Women in Britain since 1900, Macmillan, 1999.

[2] On the Suffragettes, see Susan Kingsley Kent Sex & Suffrage in Britain 1860-1914, Routledge, 1987 for an analysis of the issues and concerns about sexuality that permeated the women’s suffrage movement from the 1860s through to 1914. Andrew Rosen Rise Up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union 1903-1914, Routledge, 1974 and Roger Fulford Votes for Women: The Story of a Struggle, Faber, 1958 are the most readable studies of the Suffragettes. Fulford’s work is a sound, if ‘masculinist’ narrative while Rosen is more analytical. Both need to be read in conjunction with more recent ‘feminist’ work.

[3] Much work on women’s suffrage focuses on London. Leah Leneman ‘A truly national movement: the view from outside London’, in Maroula Joannou and June Purvis (eds.) The Women’s Suffrage Movement: New feminist perspectives, Manchester, 1998, pages 37-50 and June Hannam ‘I had not been to London: women’s suffrage – a view from the regions’, in June Purvis and Sandra Stanley Holton (eds.) Votes for Women, Routledge, 2000 pages 226-245 gives the story from the provinces. Leah Leneman A guid cause: the women’s suffrage movement in Scotland, Aberdeen University Press, 1991, 2nd ed., 1998 is the leading text on Scotland. Deidre Beddoe Out of the Shadows: A History of Women in Twentieth Century Wales, University of Wales Press, 2000 provides a sketch of women’s suffrage in Wales while Kay Cook and Neil Evans ‘The Petty Antics of the Bell-Ringing Boisterous Band? The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Wales 1890-1918’, in Angela V. John (ed.) Our Mothers’ Land: Chapters in Welsh Women’s History 1830-1939, University of Wales Press, 1991, pages 159-188 is more detailed. Cliona Murphy The Women’s Suffrage Movement and Irish Society in the Early Twentieth Century, Temple University Press, 1989 is a good introduction to the movement in Ireland.

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