Thursday, 20 March 2008

Suffrage after 1903: The WSPU and Militancy 1

The emergence of militancy came from the recognition that non-militant methods had failed either to deliver a successful suffrage bill or to push suffrage up the political agenda. Militancy was not, however, a uniform concept and its implementation varied more than is often recognised. The WSPU continued to use non-militant activities and electoral politics to achieve their aims.


Non-militant tactics

Though better known for their militant actions, the WSPU continued to use a range of innovative non-militant tactics to draw attention to their cause:

  • Two suffragettes were posted as ‘human letters’ address to 10 Downing Street and were led there by a telegraph boy.
  • Suffragettes hired a boat on the Thomas and sailed to Parliament to shout at MPs taking tea on the terraces.
  • Suffragettes flew a kite with the slogan ‘Votes for Women’ above the pitch of the 1908 FA Cup Final.
  • Around 200,000 demonstrators simultaneously shouted ‘Votes for Women’ at a parade in Hyde Park in June 1908 (the so-called ‘Great Shout) and most dressed in the WSPU colours (purple, white and green, colours chosen by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence because purple symbolised dignity, white purity and green hope).
  • Suffragettes made floats and dressed up in national costume or as famous women in the Women’s Coronation Procession of June 1911.

At first, the WSPU devoted much attention to interventions in by-elections where they urged electors to vote against the Liberal candidate (whether they supported women’s suffrage or not). This had significant propaganda value and allowed the Pankhursts to claim credit when the government lost a seat though whether women’s suffrage was a major or contributory factor is a matter of some debate.

  • In its early days, the WSPU had a close relationship with working class and socialist organisations. All the Pankhursts were in the Independent Labour Party and few could have seen the young WSPU as anything but an organisation for working class women. Christabel was, however, sceptical about socialist men’s commitments to women’s rights and this led to a final break in 1906-7.
  • The divorce from Labour circles was also connected with the reaction to the Free Trade Hall incident of 1905. This disruption resulted in national publicity for the WSPU and Christabel clearly felt that similar tactics would be more fruitful than working through Northern ILP circles. Behind this, too, was her desire to break the image of the WSPU as a class organisation.
  • Andrew Rosen suggests that the breaking of the association with the Labour movement allowed the WSPU to grow to a point where it no longer needed the Independent Labour Party. Christabel and Emmeline resigned from the Party in 1907. This break also marked a shift to the right and this can be seen in the split within the WSPU in 1907 (leading to the formation of the Women’s Freedom League) and in the new election policy of the WSPU that stated that all Government candidates would be opposed. In the politics of the 1900s, this could only help the Tories. The problem the Pankhursts failed to address was whether the Tories were any more likely to grant votes for women than was Asquith.
  • The only clear test of public opinion took place in 1912. The Labour MP, George Lansbury resigned his seat at Bow and Bromley to fight a by-election in order to obtain a mandate on women’s suffrage. Despite the concentration of suffragette support from the Pankhursts, he was defeated, by 731 votes even though he faced a single Tory anti-suffragist. It seems that the overbearing approach of the Pankhursts alienated many working class men.

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