There is some disagreement about the reasons for militant activity by the WSPU. Jane Marcus suggests that the central theme of all WSPU militant activity was to “interrupt male political discourse”. Throughout the period 1905-1914, suffragettes refused to perform the role expected of them. They would not be quiet. They started asking questions and heckling at public meetings, demanding to be heard and not giving way until they were heard or were forcibly removed. Marcus argues that what was at stake here was more than just the vote. It was a case of women, literally finding their political voice. Paul Bartley disputes Marcus’ ‘feminist’ theory arguing that the WSPU had pragmatic reasons for interrupting the government. The obstructionist tactics of the WSPU looked back to the tactics used in the Irish Home Rule campaign led by Charles Stewart Parnell between 1882 and 1885. It is debatable whether Bartley is right to assert that the suffragettes did not want to make a ‘feminist’ point. Marcus’ point is that, whether deliberate or not, the militant campaign did raise the possibility of women entering “the space of male political debate” as never before.
|Phase 1: April 1906-June 1908|| |
The first militant acts took place in October 1905 in the lead up to the general election. It was after the Liberal victory that the campaign began in earnest. The Liberals gained 399 seats, the Conservatives 156 and the Labour Party increased its seats from two to 29. Despite what the WSPU saw as a majority in the Commons in favour of women’s suffrage, it soon became apparent that the election had brought no fundamental change. The first phase of militancy was a response to this lack of progress. The suffragettes broke convention and encountered violence from others, but they did not use violence themselves. This phase had two main strands.
|Phase 2: June 1908 to the truce of January 1910|| |
The second phase of militant tactics was characterised by a greater willingness to use violence against property and ‘technical’ violence against the authorities to provoke arrests. It was in this period that the first cases of hunger striking and forcible feeding took place.
Civil disobedience and peaceful demonstrations were gradually replaced by the organisation of more threatening demonstrations and acts of violence. The government went so far as to pass a Public Meetings Act in December 1908 to curb political militancy. Emmeline Pankhurst supported the new forms of militancy but there is a debate as to whether she or Christabel initiated them. The militant tactics used in the second phase included the following.
|Phase 3: November 1911 to August 1914|| |
At the end of January 1910, the WSPU announced a suspension of militant action following the promise of a ‘Conciliation Bill’.
The WSPU saw this as a ‘betrayal’. The truce was lifted and militant action restarted. In this, third phase, however, suffragettes were much further than they had done before. The militant tactics used in the third phases included the following.
Militancy was resumed and reached its peak from 1912 to 1914. Militancy ended only with the outbreak of war in August 1914. Martin Pugh suggests that the militant campaign had three positive effects:
As hostility to the militant campaign increased, the WSPU’s emphasis on the oppression of all women as a sex increased. It led to increasing mistrust of all men and all male organisations. It also ran counter to the attitudes of the rest of the suffrage movement from the NUWSS to the WFL and to Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation. These groups could also isolate and criticise male power over women but felt that class had to be considered too. WSPU hostility to men reached its zenith in 1913 with the publication of Christabel’s The Great Scourge and How to End It. It revealed the real reason for the opposition of votes for women -- men feared that women’s suffrage would result in a rigid code of sexual morality. This view was not helped by the widespread use of the motto ‘Votes for Women and Chastity for Men’. Women’s suffrage became a conservative moral crusade, an extension of the moral purity campaigns of the 1880s and 1890s. However, the change in focus perhaps reflects the political bankruptcy of the militant campaign. David Mitchell even proposes that the major reason for launching the crusade was to revive a flagging WSPU desperate for more notoriety and publicity. The outbreak of war in August 1914 allowed the Pankhursts to call off their militant campaign.
Was militant action a success?
The significance once given to the militants has been diminished because of detailed research into the WSPU. Some recent historians such as Liddington and Norris and Rosen have argued that the role of the Pankhursts in the struggle for women’s suffrage has been exaggerated. The claims made about the impact of militancy on public opinion and on the government now appear very dubious. The government had other priorities than women’s suffrage before 1911 and it was eclipsed by the crises over the 1909 budget and the House of Lords, the wave of trade union strikes, the naval race with Germany and the prospect of civil war in Ireland. Suffragette militancy was an irritant rather than a real threat and this was insufficient to force Asquith to back down. It lost the WSPU sympathy while providing the government with an excuse not to make concessions. The WSPU, despite its ability to mobilise thousands of supporters on occasions, never really managed to gain popular support and was increasingly viewed with suspicion not just by the middle classes and by government but also by the working classes. Admiration for the suffragettes’ courage should not cloud an evaluation of the WSPU or of militancy itself:
It was the WSPU’s attitude towards the vote, and later towards men, that distinguished it from the other suffrage organisations. All suffrage organisations wanted the vote but to the WSPU it became almost an end in itself and the campaign a sacred, spiritual struggle. The WSPU leaders argued that the vote was central to ending the subjection of women whether in the home or the workplace. However, implicit in their statements was an acceptance of the existing political system and its values. In particular, it rejected the socialist analysis of power and the relevance of class. It was the vote that mattered, not class, nor economic power. This concentration on the vote restricted debate that in turn led to splits within the WSPU and reinforced notions of the Pankhursts as autocrats.
The outbreak of war in August 1914 finally exposed the basis of the political philosophy of Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst. They, according to Sylvia, “entirely departed from the Women’s Suffrage Movement”. The WSPU became uncompromisingly nationalistic and anti-German. The interests of women were submerged beneath what Christabel saw as the interests of the nation. Yet in the WSPU’s initial reaction to the War was in line with suffragist thinking: war was due to the follies of men and of a male world built on the male characteristic of physical force. The patriotism of the WSPU leadership quickly overwhelmed this traditional suffragist analysis. The elitist, racist and conservative thinking of the WSPU leadership became clear. The traditional authoritarianism was reflected in the splintering away of two groups, the Suffragettes of the WSPU and the Independent WSPU, who were critical of the Pankhurst line on the war and on women’s suffrage. The national interest mattered, hence their rabid anti-German attitudes and criticism of pacifism. Neither class nor sex differences. The opposition of the Pankhursts to socialism and to the Labour party continued. The WSPU launched an ‘Industrial Campaign’ in 1917 against the rising tide of industrial militancy, opposition to the War and Bolshevism. In November 1917, the WSPU became the Women’s Party. It was immediately denounced by the other suffrage organisations that wanted to disassociate themselves from Pankhurst extremism.
Traditional views of the Suffragettes clearly need revision yet it would be inaccurate to dismiss the WSPU because of the ever-increasing conservative and limited views of its leaders. Their militancy was important in destroying some contemporary notions of the capabilities of women. It is difficult to accept that, however politically damaging the militant campaign may have been, that suffragettes were willing to risk their lives purely for the vote or in misplaced heroine worship of the Pankhursts. Teresa Billington-Greig, instrumental in the formation of both the WSPU and the WFL, published The Militant Suffrage Movement -- Emancipation in a Hurry in 1911 and she is particularly critical of the WSPU on political, feminist and tactical grounds. She felt militancy was a sham and that militancy within an autocracy prevented independent thought (though she neglected that the initiative in several areas of militant activity came from ordinary WSPU members that were then taken up by the leadership as WSPU policy). It also limited feminist debate since, she suggested, “Many suffragists failed to see that large areas in which emancipation is needed lie entirely outside the scope of the vote.”
 In the Parliament of 1906-1909, there were 101 by-elections. Of the twenty seats that changed parties, all but two were held by the Liberals. The Conservatives gained 12, Labour 5 and other parties 3.
 This was maintained Reginald McKenna (Home Secretary (23rd October 1911-25th May 1915). Winston Churchill was Home Secretary during the truce in 1910-11 and it is interesting to speculate what he would have done about force-feeding, as he was a supporter of women’s suffrage.
 Constance Lytton was born in 1869 in Vienna, the daughter of the Earl of Lytton who had once served as Viceroy of India. She joined the WSPU in 1909 and was arrested on several occasions for militant actions. However, on each occasion, she was released without being force-fed. Believing that she was getting special treatment because of his upper class background, she decided to test her theory. In 1911, she dressed as a working class woman and was arrested in a protest outside Liverpool’s Walton Gaol under the name ‘Jane Wharton’. She underwent a cursory medical inspection and was passed fit. She was forcibly fed and became so ill she suffered a stroke that partially paralysed her. After her release, her story generated a great deal of publicity for the WSPU. Marie Mulvey-Roberts ‘Militancy, masochism or martyrdom? The public and private prisons of Constance Lytton’ in June Purvis and Sandra Stanley Holton (eds.) Votes for Women, Routledge, 2000 pages 159-180 is the best introduction.
 The January 1910 election gave the Liberals 275 seats, Conservatives 273, Labour 40 and Irish Nationalists 82. The Liberals continued in power with the support of the Labour Party and the Irish Nationalists.
 The December 1910 election gave the Liberals 272 seats, Conservatives 272, Labour 42 and Irish Nationalists 84. The Liberals remained in power with the support of the Labour Party and the Irish Nationalists.
 Ann Morley with Liz Stanley The life and death of Emily Wilding Davison, Women’s Press, 1988 is an important revisionist study of this rather enigmatic figure. It also reprints Gertrude Colmore The Life of Emily Davison: An Outline, 1913, a political biography that was produced at high speed to make political capital from Emily’s death, to construct it as the martyrdom for ‘the cause’ that many people had been waiting for. Colmore’s biography, hagiography as it undoubtedly is, remains an important reference point as it contains the basic source material for all later writers in Emily Davison. However, it excludes (by design or not) much that is important in understanding Emily’s life and thus her death.
 Hilda Kean ‘Suffrage Autobiography: A Study of Mary Richardson – Suffragette, Socialist and Fascist’ in Claire Eustance, Joan Ryan and Laura Ugolini (eds.) A Suffrage Reader: Charting Directions in British Suffrage History, Leicester University Press, 1999, pages 177-189. The subsequent fascist history of some women suffragists is discussed in Julie Gottlieb Feminine Fascism: Women in Britain’s Fascist Movement 1923-1945, I.B. Tauris, 2000, especially pages 147-176.