Thursday, 20 March 2008

Suffrage after 1903: The WSPU and Militancy 2

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.

  • Confronting Parliament and ministers. WSPU activity was different from the approach of the NUWSS in three important respects. First, in April 1906, a group of suffragettes were admitted to the Ladies Gallery of the House of Commons and caused outrage when they attempted to intervene in a parliamentary debate on Keir Hardie’s resolution in favour of women’s suffrage. The police were called and the women were ejected. This action was condemned by Keir Hardie and the constitutionalists but it gained the WSPU a great deal of publicity. Secondly, while the NUWSS organised demonstrations and lobbied MPs, they did not confront the authorities. The WSPU, on the other hand, deliberately set out to confront the authorities even if it meant rough treatment, arrest and imprisonment. Finally, the WSPU targeted Cabinet ministers, organising sit-ins in Downing Street and chaining themselves to railings so they could not be evicted as quickly. In these three ways, the WSPU sought (and got) widespread publicity for their cause.
  • Campaigning at by-elections. In August 1906, Christabel Pankhurst announced that the WSPU was adopting a new policy. In order to put pressure on the government to support a Women’s Suffrage Bill, they would oppose Liberal candidates (whether or not they supported women’s suffrage) in any by-elections that took place[1]. It is difficult to estimate the effect this had on the Liberals. The government claimed it had little effect while the Suffragettes claimed the opposite. When the Conservatives won the Cockermouth election in August 1906, the result was “blamed on the WSPU”. Emmeline Pankhurst claimed that the WSPU was responsible for the reduction in the Liberal vote in nine by-elections held in 1908. Whether or not this policy did lead to Liberal defeats may be debatable, but it certainly raised the profile of women’s suffrage.
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.

  • The turning point was the rally organised by suffragettes in June 1908. By then, Henry Asquith had taken over as prime minister. Campbell Bannerman, who was generally sympathetic towards women’s suffrage, had been forced to resign because of ill health in April 1908. Asquith, by contrast, was implacably opposed to votes for women and had made his position clear in a speech given in 1892. First, he argued that the vast majority of women did not want the vote. Secondly, women were not fir for the franchise. Thirdly, women operated by personal influence. They therefore could be easily manipulated by the political parties and by their husbands. Finally, he believed it would upset the natural order of things, that a woman’s place was in the home and not in what he termed the “dust and turmoil” of political life. His views had not altered by 1908 and he proved the most important obstacle to women achieving the vote before 1914.
  • The suffragette rally of 21st June was organised in response to the announcement made by Asquith that the government would back an Electoral Reform Bill that would be worded in such a way as to allow an amendment introducing women’s suffrage. There were certain provisos: first, the amendment should be on democratic lines; it should be supported by the women of the country; and finally, it should have the support of the electorate. In order to demonstrate that the women of the country supported the vote, the WSPU organised a mass rally. Some 300,000 people gathered with WSPU members dressed in their uniforms of purple, white and green but Asquith remained unmoved by the scale of support.

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.

  • Stone throwing. On 30th June 1908, Emmeline Pankhurst led a group of suffragettes to Parliament and, as usual, they were dispersed by the police. On this occasion, however, two suffragettes – Mary Leigh and Edith New – went on to throw stones at the windows of 10 Downing Street in protest. They were arrested and sentenced to two months in prison. While in prison, they contracted Emmeline Pankhurst accepting they had acted without orders expecting to be criticised for their actions. Far from criticising them, Emmeline visited them in their cells and assured them of her approval. From this point, stone throwing became part of the suffragette armoury though as part of a well-orchestrated campaign.
  • Technical offences. The arrest and imprisonment of suffragettes did not have the effect the government intended. There is evidence that many people were shocked by the harsh sentences and no sign that the suffragettes were deterred by their treatment. As a result, orders were issued that suffragettes were not to be arrested or, if they were arrested, they were not to be charged. The suffragette response was to commit ‘technical offences’ so the police had no option but to arrest them.
  • Hunger striking. Just as stone throwing was the initiative of ordinary WSPU members, rather than a deliberate policy from the leadership, so too was hunger striking. On 24th June 1909, an artist Marion Wallace Dunlop was arrested and imprisoned after painting an extract of the 1689 Bill of Rights on the wall of the House of Commons. Like other suffragette prisoners, she refused political status in prison and, on 5th July, began a hunger strike in protest. After ninety-one hours of fasting, she was released. Other suffragettes followed her example and were also released. From September 1909, Herbert Gladstone, Home Secretary (1095-10), introduced forcible feeding[2]. Historians are divided over the importance of force-feeding. Some justify it simply on the grounds that it saved the lives of hunger strikers. Roger Fulford, for example, dismisses it as a harmless procedure that had been used for years with ‘lunatics’. Historians hostile to the suffragettes tend to play down the brutality of the government. On the other hand, suffragette propaganda portrayed it as oral rape and many feminist historians have agreed with this perspective. Over a thousand women endured, what Jane Marcus called “the public violation of their bodies”. There was also a class dimension. Influential women like Lady Constance Lytton[3] were released, while working class women were treated brutally.
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’.

  • A general election had been held in early January 1910 resulting in a Liberal government without an overall majority[4]. The new government immediately set up a cross-bench ‘Conciliation Committee’ with Lord Lytton as chairman to draft an Electoral Reform Bill acceptable to all parties. In the hope that the Conciliation Bill would mean the introduction of votes for women, Emmeline Pankhurst announced that the WSPU was calling a truce.
  • The truce lasted initially until November 1910. On Friday 18th November (‘Black Friday’), Asquith failed to mention the Conciliation Bill when outlining the government’s programme and made it clear that the Bill would fail because the government would not allow it any time. In protest, groups of suffragettes marched on Parliament and there, the police used unexpected violence against them. Ellen Pitfield died of the injuries she received on ‘Black Friday’. A further ‘raid’ took place on Parliament on 22nd November and there was a renewal of stone throwing.
  • A second general election was held in December 1910[5] with Asquith’s minority government returning to power. When it announced that a revised Conciliation Bill would be introduced, the WSPU restored its truce. It lasted a further year. Many Liberal and Labour MPs were unhappy about the restricted franchise of the second Conciliation Bill (it broadly gave women the franchise if they were rate-payers) and pressure was exerted on the cabinet to produce something more democratic. In November 1911, Asquith announced that he preferred a Manhood Suffrage Bill (that could be amended to include votes for women) to the second Conciliation Bill (that, like the first, had passed its second reading but was allowed to proceed no further). Many suffragists were attracted by this proposal but the Pankhursts reacted with anger claiming that the Prime Minister had deliberately sabotaged the measure. Their claims seemed to have been vindicated when the Conciliation Bill was defeated in 1912. Subsequently in January 1913, the government bill was abandoned because the Speaker -- to Asquith’s surprise -- ruled that a woman’s clause could not be added to a registration 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.

  • Window breaking on a larger scale. The first response to Asquith’s ‘betrayal’ was a renewal of window breaking but on a larger scale. On 1st March 1912, for example, Emmeline Pankhurst and two other suffragettes broke windows in 10 Downing Street while, at the same time, about 150 other suffragettes smashed shop windows on a large scale in the West End of London. Further window breaking took place two days later. On 4th March, the Pethick-Lawrences were arrested. They and Emmeline Pankhurst were charged with conspiracy. The warrant also included Christabel, but she escaped into exile in France.
  • Mass hunger strike. Emmeline Pankhurst was released from prison on 15th March but faced the conspiracy trial in May 1912. Following the trial (they were found guilty and sentenced to nine months), Emmeline and the Pethick-Lawrences threatened to go on hunger strike unless they were given the status of political prisoners. They were, but other suffragette prisoners were not. As a result, a mass hunger strike began on 19th June. As the number of suffragette prisoners’ rose and suffragette propaganda continued to make capital out of forcible feeding, the government changed its strategy. In April 1913, the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge on Ill-Health Act was passed. This allowed the temporary discharge of prisoners on hunger strike combined with their re-arrest later once they had recovered. This soon was described as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.
  • Arson. Like window breaking and hunger striking, arson was an initiative from an ordinary WSPU member rather than the leadership. The first attack took place in December 1911 when Emily Davison[6] set fire to letters in a pillar-box. Other attacks on pillar-boxes followed; in some cases, using chemicals rather than fire. In 1913, arson attacks escalated and a number of houses, including David Lloyd George’s country house in Surrey, were firebombed and destroyed. Many of the arson attacks occurred because of particular political events; for example, at least four major of arson followed the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst in March 1914.
  • Other violence against property. In addition to arson attacks, suffragettes poured acid on golfing greens burning messages like ‘No Vote. No Golf!’. They also cut messages into the turf of racecourses, cut telegraph wires and destroyed plants in Kew Garden. They slashed works of art in art galleries; in March 1914, Mary Richardson[7] attacked the Rokeby Venus (a painting by the seventeenth century Spanish painter Velasquez) in the National Gallery.
  • Emily Davison. In June 1913, Emily Davison rushed on to the racecourse as the Derby race was in progress and tried to grab the reins of the King’s horse. She received fatal injuries to her head and died in hospital a short time after. Her funeral was a great showpiece attended by a vast crow and a suffragette guard of honour.

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:

  • Up to 1908, it attracted much publicity, which made it easier to raise funds for the cause. Even though Millicent Fawcett disapproved of militancy, she recognised that it had helped and it seems that some women held membership of both militant and non-militant organisations.
  • The Pankhursts’ activities drove anti-suffragists into a more public role that served to demonstrate how able the female ‘antis’ were in political work.
  • From 1909 militancy seems to have had an important effect on the membership of the NUWSS that rose from 12,000 to over 50,000. Many women who did not wish to be associated with the suffragettes were, nonetheless, moved by their example and chose to express their feelings by joining the non-militants.

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:

  • The militant campaign was aimed only at ‘soft’ targets even during its most destructive phases in 1913 and 1914.
  • Militancy was in important respects self-defeating. Initially it gained needed publicity but the logic of direct action means that to maintain interest ever acts that are more daring are necessary but they are met with ever increasing hostility.
  • The militancy of the WSPU prohibited the involvement of most working class women, either individually or en masse. Militant tactics tied to a wider social movement would have been far more effective.

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.”

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

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