Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Suffrage after 1903: The WSPU

The formation of the WSPU in 1903 marked an important step in the development of women’s suffrage. The Pankhursts, initially supporters of the Independent Labour Party, had become disillusioned by the reluctance of the men to make the suffrage a priority. By 1905, they had moved to London, abandoning their left-wing roots in the process. The timing coincided with the collapse of Balfour’s Conservative government and a resurgence of radicalism in the country that swept the Liberals to power in 1906[1].

By the time Emmeline Pankhurst[2] set up the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in October 1903, she was already a veteran political campaigner. Born in 1858, she attended her first suffrage meeting at the age of fourteen. After being educated in Manchester and Paris, Emmeline married, aged twenty-one, Richard Pankhurst, the older, radical barrister who had drafted the first Women’s Suffrage Bill in 1870. Based in Manchester between 1879 and 1885, the Pankhursts worked for the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee and the Married Women’s Property Committee (Richard drafted the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act). Emmeline also worked as a Poor Law Guardian and this may have convinced her of the need for women to have the vote. Their three daughters were born in this period: Christabel[3] in 1880, Sylvia[4] in 1882 and Adela in 1885. They also had two sons, one of whom died in childbirth and the other, Henry died in 1910. Richard Pankhurst stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal parliamentary candidate in 1883 and 1885. Following Gladstone’s refusal to include women’s suffrage in the 1884 Reform Act, they lost faith with the Liberal Party and became involved first, with the Fabian Society and, in 1893, the Independent Labour Party. Richard Pankhurst ran, again unsuccessfully, as the Labour candidate for Gorton in Manchester.

After spending some time in London in the mid-1880s where Richard was not successful and Emmeline ran a shop to supplement their income, they spend the 1890s in Manchester. The three daughters were educated first at home and then at Manchester High School. They often accompanied their parents to political and social events organised by the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and in 1897, Emmeline was elected to the National Executive Committee of the ILP. In 1898, Richard died and Emmeline temporarily retired from public life. There were two main reasons for this. First, there were many debts to pay and secondly, she had to devote more time providing for her family. The family moved to a smaller house and Emmeline resigned as a poor law guardian to take up a salaried position as Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths. Her work convinced her that women needed to secure the vote according to June Purvis.

Paula Bartley argues that dissatisfaction with the ILP and the cautious approach of the NUWSS was behind the Pankhursts’ decision to set up a separate organisation to campaign for women’s suffrage. Purvis, however, suggests that the formation of the WSPU was a direct result of her husband’s death. When he died, a radical newspaper launched an appeal to support the Pankhurst family since their debts were, in part, a consequence of their political activity. Emmeline, however, refused to accept the money to pay for her children’s education and asked that the money should be used to build a socialist meeting hall in Richard’s memory. When the hall was completed in 1903, she discovered that the ILP branch that used it would not allow women to join. This infuriated her and, with her eldest daughter Christabel, she decided to set up a new organisation.

Why did the WSPU adopt militant tactics in 1905?

Its motto – Deeds not words – a reliance on action not dialogue ensured that the WPSU became a very different organisation to the NUWSS, though in the first stages of its militancy the NUWSS often cooperated with and supported the WSPU because many of the events it organised were not militant at all. This only became apparent two years later when the first militant acts took place[5]. Why the WSPU adopted militant tactics has been a source of debate among historians. The early, male historians of the movement argued that the suffragettes were mentally unbalanced emphasising their psychological weakness and viewing militancy as the action of a few demented spinsters. More recently, historians have accepted that the use of militant and confrontational tactics was an understandable response to the failure of the authorities to accept suffragette demands. They suggest that a militant campaign would push suffrage up the political agenda and, by rousing the country, force the cabinet to introduce female suffrage. Paula Bartley maintains that there were four reasons for the WSPU’s increased use of militant tactics. First, women were increasingly frustrated by the failure of nearly forty years of campaigning to achieve the vote. Secondly, the Liberal government elected in 1906 excluded suffragettes from meetings and refused to meet them or discuss the issue. Thirdly, the government used violence against the suffragettes; for example, suffragette hunger strikers were forcibly fed. Finally, suffragettes believed that the government would not concede women’s suffrage unless forced to do so.

The WSPU adopted a non-party position. Emmeline Pankhurst remained a member of the ILP until she eventually resigned her membership in 1907. She was again elected to its National Executive Committee in 1904. Her resolution at the ILP conference in 1904 that the ILP should sponsor a private member’s bill proposing women’s suffrage was passed. When, in May 1905, this Bill (introduced by Bamford Slack, a Liberal MP and supported by both the WSPU and NUWSS) was talked out, the first militant act took place. Three hundred suffragists were waiting in the Strangers’ Lobby of the House of Commons when the news came through that the bill had been defeated. The NUWSS representatives left but Emmeline decided that the time had come for a demonstration and called on the women to follow her in a protest against the government. Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy began to speak and the police rushed into the crowd ordering them to disperse. The WSPU leader helped the women to regroup, as they demanded government intervention to save the talked out bill, while the police took the names of the offenders.

However, the spark that ignited militant action took place five months later in October. On 13th October, two members of the WSPU, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney[6] (a working class member from Oldham) attended a meeting in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. The main speakers were Winston Churchill and Edward Grey, two leading Liberals. Grey’s speech outlined the Liberal programme to be put to the electorate in the forthcoming general election. At question time, both women stood up and repeatedly asked whether a Liberal government would introduce women’s suffrage, but both men refused to answer. They were ejected by the stewards and then arrested. Both refused to pay the fine and were sentenced to a week (Christabel) and three days (Annie) in prison. This, it appears was part of the plan and the result, also as planned was a mass of publicity (even if much of it was hostile).

How was the WSPU organised and what problems did this create?

Following the success of the first militant action and the election of the Liberal government, the WSPU began campaigning in London. Sylvia Pankhurst was already studying art in London and was in January 1906 joined by Annie Kenney. In August by Christabel moved to London and became the WSPU’s ‘Chief Organiser’. Money for the campaign was raised and on the recommendation of the Labour MP Keir Hardie, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence[7] was appointed Treasurer. Her husband, Frederick a lawyer was also involved in the movement. In March 1907, Emmeline Pankhurst resigned from her Registrar post and in April sold her house in Manchester.

One of the major criticisms made of the WSPU by many historians is that it had an autocratic (non-democratic) structure. This was the criticism made by Ray Strachey in 1928 and it has been repeated many times since. The WSPU never had a formal constitution and all decisions of importance were made by the leadership and then communicated to the membership. In this sense, the WSPU was a top-down organisation. From 1906, policies were decided by an un-elected committee with Sylvia Pankhurst as secretary, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence as treasurer and Annie Kenney as paid organiser. They were assisted by a sub-committee of family and friends such as Mary Clarke (Emmeline Pankhurst’s sister). Emmeline Pankhurst was often on tour and later in prison, so the day-to-day running of the organisation increasingly fell to Christabel.

The history of the WSPU after 1906 showed a move away from its working class and Labour origins and reflected the growing autocracy of its leadership. Christabel Pankhurst’s autobiography Unshackled, published in 1959, said, “Mother and I were never the born autocrats we have been reported to be” but this is certainly how they were seen at the time. Historians hostile to the WSPU have used terms like ‘dictatorship’ or ‘tyranny’ to describe this structure and suggest that it was hypocritical of the Pankhursts to demand greater democracy from government while not using democratic structures within their organisation. Historians sympathetic to the Pankhursts make a number of counter-arguments. Emmeline Pankhurst never apologised for setting up an autocratic organisation because, as far as she was concerned, it was the most effective structure to achieve her goals.

Paula Bartley argues that there is evidence for greater democracy in the WSPU branches outside London and gives four other reasons for not condemning the structure of the movement out of hand. First, she suggests that much criticism has come from constitutionalists like Ray Strachey who have an axe to grind. Secondly, the organisation, at least at first, attempted an informal approach to politics and members could always leave if they did not agree with the WSPU’s position. Thirdly, the leadership did not ignore the membership and took great pains to educate them. Finally, she maintains that a democratic structure would simply not have worked especially after WSPU’s activities became illegal.

Despite the strong defence in support of the ways in which the Pankhursts ran the WSPU, between 1903 and 1914 there were a number of splits in the WSPU leadership. Historians agree that three were particularly important though they differ over how to interpret the splits.  The first split occurred in the summer of 1907 and, according to Sandra Stanley Holton was the result of Christabel Pankhurst’s move to London. She introduced a change of policy without consulting the membership in August 1907. This caused some unease among socialist suffragettes because it led to the WSPU attacking Labour and Liberal candidates equally at by-elections. These ‘socialist suffragettes’, led by Charlotte Despard and Teresa Billington-Greig drew up a written constitution (giving members greater say) that they hoped would be accepted at the conference planned for October. Emmeline Pankhurst had been aware of their plan since June and at the conference dramatically ripped up the proposed constitution appealing for members to follow her. The majority did. The minority followed Charlotte Despard and Teresa Billington-Greig out of the WSPU and into a new, democratic version of it – the Women’s Freedom League (WFL)[8].

In October 1912, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst expelled Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence from the organisation following differences on tactics. The Pankhursts favoured greater militancy; the Pethick-Lawrences did not. The Pethick-Lawrences left the WSPU and established their own organisation The Votes for Women Fellowship or United Suffragists[9].  Even Pankhurst family members were not secure. In 1912, Adela suffered a breakdown and Emmeline sent her to Australia. Then, in January 1914, Sylvia was told by Christabel, with Emmeline’s support that he Least London Federation must be separate from the WSPU since it was allied with the Labour Party contrary to WSPU rules. Christabel was critical of her sister’s emphasis on class politics. In concentrating her energy in the East End of London and conducting the campaign for women’s suffrage on class lines, Sylvia was thought to have discredited the WSPU. For historians hostile to the WSPU, this is further evidence that the organisation was elitist. Those more sympathetic to the organisation accept the argument that its strength was in its central leadership. Since Sylvia refused to accept this, it was right to eject her.

Unlike the NUWSS, the WSPU did not publish records of its membership. It is difficult to be sure about the extent of suffragette support at any one time. In general terms, there seems to have been growing support until at least 1910 and a decline in 1913-14. WSPU funds continued to grow until 1914, but the pace of growth slowed after 1909 and income from new members declined after 1910. The WSPU was able to employ 98 women office workers and 26 officers in the region and at the height of its power had 88 branches (34 of them in London). The circulation of the WSPU newspaper Votes for Women reached 30,000 to 40,000 copies per issue.  Growth in support for the WSPU was accompanied by a significant expansion in support for the NUWSS especially after 1909. From 1909, suffragette militancy seems to have had an important indirect effect on the membership of the NUWSS that rose from 12,000 to over 50,000. This may have been the result of the need for women to express their support for the vote while, at the same time showing their disapproval of suffragette tactics.

One of the main criticisms made of the WSPU by hostile historians is that it abandoned the Labour Party and became an elitist, largely middle class organisation. This position is rejected by several historians including Paula Bartley. She argues that the WSPU was specifically set up for working class women and between 1903 and 1906 did valuable propaganda work in the northern textile towns. Even when the headquarters were moved to London, it targeted working class women (especially Sylvia’s work in the East End). Bartley admits that when Christabel came to London, working class women receded into the background. However, she supports her claim that the WSPU remained committed to working class women in six ways. First, she argues that Annie Kenney was not the only working class woman involved in the leadership of the movement. Jessie Stephens, a leading Scottish suffragette, Emma Sproson imprisoned in 1907 and Mary Leigh[10], the first suffragette to smash windows came from working class backgrounds. Secondly, many working class women were recruited in London. In addition to the East London Federation, there were branches in Woolwich, Lewisham and Greenwich. Thirdly, some of the WSPU’s paid officials came from the working class. Fourth, working class women took part in many WSPU demonstrations, often in their working clothes. Fifth, many of the imprisoned activists went on hunger strike and were forcibly fed were working class women. Finally, the WSPU supported working class women’s issues. It campaigned for women chair-makers and barmaids when their jobs were threatened and in 1911, they led the campaign against legislation that would have banned women from working above ground in coal mines (the ‘pit brow’ workers).

The key aim of the WSPU was the draw attention to the issue of women’s suffrage and the organisation developed into a formidable propaganda machine. It successful raised funds and this allowed the purchase of property in London and the provinces. In London, the WSPU established its headquarters at Clement’s Inn and in May 1910, opened a shop in Charing Cross Road – the Women’s Press. As well as earning money for the WSPU, the shop publicised the cause. Suffragette activities were organised and coordinated from Clement’s Inn and later Lincoln’s Inn. These ranged from the huge demonstrations and other major ventures as well as the less important but equally significant everyday activities of the campaign. The less prestigious activities included: organising meetings and rallies; producing a circulating leaflets and tickets for indoor meetings; organising suffragettes to chalk pavements to advertise meetings; and, design and market goods to be sold in the suffragette shops. The suffragette newspaper Votes for Women was written and produced at Clement’s Inn and sold by volunteers (often dressed in suffragette colours) and via ‘press carts’ (horse-drawn wagons decorated with WSPU propaganda) as well as in newsagents.


[1] On the Pankhursts see Brian Harrison ‘The Act of Militancy: Violence and the Suffragettes’, in Peaceable Kingdom: Stability and Change in Modern Britain, Oxford University Press, 1982, Anna Raeburn The Militant Suffragettes, London, 1973 and a very hostile biography by David Mitchell Queen Christabel, Macdonald and Jane’s, 1977. Martin Pugh The Pankhursts, Allen Lane, 2001 provides more balanced biographies.

[2] June Purvis ‘Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and votes for women’, in June Purvis and Sandra Stanley Holton (eds.) Votes for Women, Routledge, 2000 pages 109-134. Sandra Stanley Holton ‘In sorrowful wrath: suffrage militancy and the romantic feminism of Emmeline Pankhurst’, in Harold L. Smith British Feminism in the Twentieth Century, Aldershot, pages 7-24 is a useful study.

[3] June Purvis ‘Christabel Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union’, in Maroula Joannou and June Purvis (eds.) The Women’s Suffrage Movement: New feminist perspectives, Manchester, 1998, pages 157-172 provides a valuable, if brief study. Elizabeth Sarah ‘Christabel Pankhurst: reclaiming her power, 1880-1958’, in Dale Spender (ed.) Feminist Theorists: Three Centuries of Women’s Intellectual Traditions, The Women’s Press, 1983, pages 259-283 is a valuable reassessment that is positive about her role and contribution to feminist ideas.

[4] Kathryn Dodd (ed.) A Sylvia Pankhurst reader, Manchester UP, 1993 provides valuable primary material. There are four modern biographies: the first, by her son, Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst: artist and crusader. Paddington Press, 1979, Patricia Romero Sylvia Pankhurst: portrait of a radical, Yale, 1987 that challenges the view she was a feminist socialist and Barbara Winslow Sylvia Pankhurst: sexual politics and political activism, UCL Press, 1996, Mary Davis Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics, Pluto Press, 2000 and Shirley Harrison Sylvia Pankhurst: A Crusading Life 1882-1960, Aurum Press, 2003.

[5] June Purvis ‘Deeds, not words: daily life in the Women’s Political and Social Union in Edwardian Britain’, in June Purvis and Sandra Stanley Holton (eds.) Votes for Women, Routledge, 2000 pages 135-158.

[6] Annie Kenney A Militant, London, 1924, reprinted Routledge, 1994 is a valuable, if partisan autobiography.

[7] The Pethick-Lawrences both wrote autobiographies: Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence My Part in a Changing World, Gollancz, 1938 and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence Fate Has Been Kind, Hutchison, 1943. Vera Brittain Pethick-Lawrences: a Portrait, Allen Unwin, 1963 is the only modern biography.

[8] 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.

[9] Krista Cowman ‘A party between revolution and peaceful persuasion: a fresh look at the United Suffragists’, in Maroula Joannou and June Purvis (eds.) The Women’s Suffrage Movement: New feminist perspectives, Manchester, 1998, pages 77-88.

[10] Michelle Myall ‘No surrender!: the militancy of Mary Leigh, a working-class suffragette’, in Maroula Joannou and June Purvis (eds.) The Women’s Suffrage Movement: New feminist perspectives, Manchester, 1998, pages 173-187.

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