Saturday, 29 March 2008

Suffrage after 1903: Suffragists 2 -- Women's Freedom League

The first major split within the WSPU led to the formation of the Women’s Freedom League in November 1907[1]. In September 1907, the Pankhursts decided to select a new executive committee for the WSPU. They were clearly concerned that they were losing control of the organisation and felt their position threatened by other capable women such as Charlotte Despard and Teresa Billington-Greig[2]. The rift was, however, over more than personality.  Democratic principles were involved and a basic disagreement over organisation. The Pankhursts believed that militant tactics required an autocratic structure. The women who left were increasingly sceptical of this approach and could not resolve the contradiction of an undemocratic organisation fighting for democratic reform.  The split also reflected the growing conservatism of Christabel and her mother. By 1907, they wanted to appeal mainly to wealthy women and the move to London the previous year was a further break from the ILP and working class heritage. To ILP members like Charlotte Despard and Teresa Billington-Greig, this new policy was a betrayal. The split was between right and left within the WSPU.

The WFL was probably the smallest of the three major bodies. In 1907, it has been estimated that 20 per cent of the WSPU left to join the League but Teresa Billington-Greig who puts the figure at half disputes this. By 1908, the League had 53 branches from Aberdeen to Clapham but by 1914, even the League itself only claimed 4,000 members and the circulation of its paper The Vote was small, reaching a peak of over 13,000 in November 1913. The Vote was used to inform the public of WFL campaigns such as the refusal to pay taxes and to fill in the 1911 Census forms.

Unlike the WSPU, the WFL did become a democratic organisation with annual conferences deciding policy and electing a national executive committee and president. However, Charlotte Despard dominated the organisation and in 1912 over a third of the candidates at a Special Conference voted to remove her from the presidency because of his growing autocratic manner. It was a militant society though it never adopted the tactics of the WSPU. Militancy was aimed solely at government and the later methods of the WSPU were condemned. On the other hand, the early tactics of the NUWSS were seen as too soft but this criticism abated as the National Union developed a more aggressive policy.

Like the WSPU, the Women’s Freedom League was a militant organisation that was willing the break the law. As a result, over 100 of their members were sent to prison after being arrested on demonstrations or refusing to pay taxes. However, members of the WFL were a completely non-violent organisation and opposed the WSPU campaign of vandalism against private and commercial property. The WFL were especially critical of the WSPU arson campaign. The aims of the League went beyond the vote. It was its broader demands that made the League different from both the WSPU and NUWSS[3]. As well as the vote, it called for equal opportunities. In its early days, there was an acceptance of a woman’s natural domestic and maternal role. All the stereotypes of women as housewives, child carers and domestic workers were tacitly accepted and even welcomed at this stage. Even though this was linked to demands for greater opportunities outside the home, it was increasingly criticised as the aims of the organisation broadened in 1909-10. Women became critical of what Cicely Hamilton[4] called ‘the Noah’s Ark principle’ [5]and she published a critical book on marriage, Marriage As A Trade, in 1909. The debate within the League became increasingly provocative and a Women’s Charter was put forward in late 1909.

In identifying both housework as ‘work’ and the economic power of men within the family, the League was making a further contribution to feminist thought and to the debate within suffragism that paralleled the work of the Fabians. Nevertheless, the League went further by linking women’s oppression to their lack of the franchise. Marion Holmes argued in 1910, “The difference between the voter and the non-voter is the difference between bondage and freedom”. Members of the WFL, like those in the NUWSS, believed that the vote would transform the lives of women. All this implies that emancipation would come through reform and legislation. Gradually the political analysis of the WFL widened and began to examine the relevance of economic power and class. This was partly due to the influence of leading members like Charlotte Despard but was also connected with the industrial militancy of 1910-14. The WFL supported the struggles of working class women and was quick to support their use of strikes. It constantly urged women workers to organise. The vote was not an end in itself but was linked to wider economic and social issues. The League’s attitude to working class women was a result of the links between the organisation and the Labour movement.

The WFL not only supported the struggles of working class women but also became actively involved. It worked, for example, with trade unionists and working women in Poplar in 1910, even before Sylvia Pankhurst organised her Federation in the East End. Yet, not all members approved of the growing association of the WFL with the Labour Party. The 1912 Conference not only accused Charlotte Despard of autocracy but of thrusting her political views on the League. Some felt that the League should have been struggling for all women, not just those of the working class. The growing class struggle from 1911 pushed the political analysis of the League further to the left and this reinforced the view that power did not solely rest with the possession of the parliamentary vote.

Most members of the Women’s Freedom League, was pacifists, and so when war was declared in 1914 they refused to become involved in the British Army’s recruitment campaign. The WFL also disagreed with the decision of the NUWSS and WSPU to call off the women’s suffrage campaign while the war was on. Leaders of the WFL such as Charlotte Despard believed that the British government did not do enough to end the war and between 1914 and 1918 supported the campaign of the Women’s Peace Council for a negotiated peace.

Three members of the Women’s Freedom League stood in the 1918 General Election. Charlotte Despard (Battersea), Elizabeth How-Martyn (Hendon) and Emily Phipps (Chelsea) all argued that women should have the vote on equal terms with men; that all trades and professions be opened to women on equal terms and for equal pay and that women should be allowed to serve on all juries. However, in the euphoria of Britain’s victory, the women’s anti-war views were very unpopular and like all the other pacifist candidates, who stood in the election, they were defeated

The importance of the League to an understanding of suffragism is immense. When viewed in the context of the development of the NUWSS nationally after 1910, it appears that the ‘non-militant’ wing of the campaign for the vote was increasingly associated with the Labour movement and the problems of working class women. The political analysis of the League argued that women’s emancipation went beyond the mere gaining of the vote. In this identification with working class women, there was an inherent danger that women’s oppression as a sex could be submerged and forgotten. The League did address this issue and concluded that emancipation required change in the relationship between men and women. This change, however, was not to be based on a new code of sexual relationships but on the prevailing moral code. In that, the WFL reflected the attitudes of the Labour movement.


[1] Claire Eustance ‘Meanings of militancy: the ideas and practice of the Women’s Freedom League, 1907-14’, in Maroula Joannou and June Purvis (eds.) The Women’s Suffrage Movement: New feminist perspectives, Manchester, 1998, pages 51-64 and Hilary Francis ‘Dare to be free!: the Women’s Freedom League and its legacy’, in June Purvis and Sandra Stanley Holton (eds.) Votes for Women, Routledge, 2000 pages 181-202 are the most recent studies.

[2] Margaret Mulvihil Charlotte Despard: a biography, Pandora, 1989, and Andro Linklater, Charlotte Despard: An unhusbanded life, Hutchinson, 1980 are useful biographies. Carol McPhee and Ann Fitzgerald (eds.) Teresa Billington-Greig The non-violent militant: selected writings of Teresa Billington-Greig, Routledge, 1987 is a valuable collection of her writings

[3] This also accounts for the rejection of the title Women’s Enfranchisement League in favour of Women’s Freedom League in November 1907.

[4] On Cicely Hamilton, see Liz Whitelaw The Life & Rebellious Times of Cicely Hamilton, The Women’s Press, 1990

[5] This declared that ‘all human beings naturally and inevitably gravitate towards matrimony, pair off and beget children.’

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