Friday, 11 April 2008

Women get the vote: the suffrage movement during the War

According to the traditional view, an important element in the granting of the vote to women in 1918 was the stance taken by the different suffrage groups during the war[1]. By acting responsibly and supporting the war effort, it is argued, the suffrage groups demonstrated than women were mature and responsible enough to gain the vote. However, to suggest that the decision taken by the leaders of the WSPU to support the government’s prosecution of the war was echoed by all factions of the women’s movement is to misrepresent the nature of the movement, its membership and its work. Not all suffrage groups did support the war effort and the main suffrage groups that did so suffered splits over their patriotic stance.

To Victorian and Edwardian women, especially those of the middle class raised on the concept of ‘duty’, an immediate response was required from the suffrage societies. Many suffrage societies knew where their ‘duty’ lay and directed their resources to the war effort. Such a response might have been thought predictable from the NUWSS. That everyone expected the war to be over by Christmas might be considered to have influenced the NUWSS membership (consulted by post in August) who agreed to a suspension of political activity. Within the WSPU, both Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst adopted a highly patriotic stance, calling on their members to suspend militant action and to support the British war effort. The Home Secretary quickly offered to release the suffragette prisoners and the Pankhursts took the opportunity of the war to escape without any loss of face from the impasse by suspending militancy. The WSPU then worked in collaboration with the government particularly, after 1915, with Lloyd George’s Ministry of Munitions publicising and coordinating female recruitment into the workforce. In July 1915, the government gave the WSPU a grant of £2,000 to finance the so-called ‘Great Procession of Women’, a march through London designed to heighten awareness of the need for women to actively support the war effort.

Not all WSPU members supported the leadership stance. As a result, two different groups split from the WSPU to form their own suffrage organisations: the Suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Unions (SWSPU) in October 1915 and the Independent Women’s Social and Political Unions (IWSPU) in March 1916. In addition, the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) led by Sylvia Pankhurst was highly critical of the WSPU leadership. During the war, the ELFS campaigned against the war and, as well as providing relief for many working class people in London, demanded the implementation of a socialist programme.

The NUWSS was also divided between those who supported the war (including Millicent Fawcett) and those who opposed it. Millicent Fawcett’s view eventually prevailed and in the spring of 1915, a major split occurred in the group over her refusal to allow NUWSS delegates to attend a peace conference for women at The Hague. The pacifist members of the group, including most of the national officers split away and formed the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Unlike the WSPU, the NUWSS continued to press for female suffrage during the war, as well as providing relief work. When the issue of electoral reform was raised in the summer of 1916, the NUWSS immediately began to lobby for the inclusion of female suffrage.

Other women, either as individuals or as groups, were prominent in campaigns on behalf of women, especially from the working class, during the war years.  Women were involved in the development of a peace campaign[2]. Links between feminism, suffrage, peace and internationalism had long informed women’s networks and in wartime, there was a heightened recognition of the divisiveness of an ideology that sought to embody the power of the state in force and militarism. The debate for suffrage women in 1914 centred on the combination of tactics that would best sustain the Cause during the war. For many, the peace issue was of significance in throwing the suffrage question into sharper relief. Peace groups regarded it as essential to triumph over the revival of the anti-suffragist argument arising from force. This argument suggested that the power of the state lay in its capacity for physical force. It also defined citizenship as including only those individuals strong enough to bear arms in defence of the state. Women’s supposed incapacity for such a role meant that they had no right to the franchise. The Peace campaigners argued that women should be enfranchised as soon as possible to prevent such conflicts. Socialist feminists, committed to international solidarity and the class struggle, had a double motivation to resist the tide of war. Divisions within the women’s movement followed as the support given to the war effort by some suffrage groups could not be tolerated by those members whose pacifism was an integral part of their socialist beliefs. In 1915, for example, Helen Swanwick resigned from her position on the NUWSS executive because of the Union’s wartime policy.

Some suffrage groups, despite the demands of war, believed it essential to sustain their suffrage propaganda work. The three largest active organisations were the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) and the United Suffragists (US). All three originated in expulsions from the WSPU: the WFL in 1907, the United Suffragists in 1912 and Sylvia Pankhurst’s ELFS in 1914. At a special meeting on 10th August 1914, the WFL “re-affirmed the urgency of keeping the suffrage flag flying” and the need “to organise a Women’s Suffrage National Aid Corps whose chief object would be to render help to the women and children of the nation”. Working closely with the WFL, the ELFS reflected the socialist attitudes of its founder, Sylvia Pankhurst. The ELFS refused to compromise or sacrifice the needs of working class women whose lives would inevitably become harder because of the war. Anticipating the nature of wartime problems, the ELFS argued for government control of food supplies, the provision of work for men and women at equal rates of pay and reserved places for working women on government committees dealing with food, prices, employment and relief. The Forward Cymric Suffrage Union, with its network of branches in Welsh and English counties as well as 28 branches in London also pointed out the need for women to be involved in the government of the nation. The FCSU worked closely with the ELFS and intended to combine relief work for women and children in Wales with its suffrage activities. Two Irish societies that continued their involvement were the Belfast Women’s Suffrage Society and the militant Irish Women’s Franchise League. In addition to these and many other established groups that continued the franchise struggle, four new organisations emerged. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom originated at the Women’s International Conference at The Hague in April 1915. The British branch was founded in September 1915 because of the discontent of a number of suffrage women at the failure of several peace initiatives. In addition to its peace work, the WILPF also supported the work of the hard core of suffrage organisations in their wartime activities.

The Suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (SWSPU) that held its initial meeting in October and the Independent Women’s Social and Political Union (IWSPU), formed in March 1916 were both established after divisions within the Pankhurst’s WSPU. In August 1914, Mrs Pankhurst circulated the membership to the effect that the union’s activities would be suspended. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and a handful of ‘loyal’ WSPU members subsequently began working with Lloyd George on nationalist propaganda. The Pankhursts’ activities came in for increasing criticism from WSPU members and at a meeting at Westminster in October 1915, there was criticism of the activities of WSPU officials and their abandonment of suffrage work. The meeting also called for the production of WSPU audited accounts. A second meeting on 25th November accused Mrs Pankhurst of participating in activities that were outside the union’s remit and of using WSPU assets and staff in the process. Both Emmeline and Christabel responded in characteristically autocratic form. Critics like Charlotte Despard of the WFL and Dora Montefiore, an ex-WSPU member were scathing in their attacks on the now exposed private ambitions of the Pankhursts for power and political status. What was left of the WSPU membership then formed two new groups, the IWSPU and the SWSPU.

The last new organisation of this period was the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations (SJCIWO) founded on 11th February 1916 at a meeting called by the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). The call for closer co-operation among women’s groups representing female industrial workers originally came from the Women’s Labour League. Initially, the SJCIWO comprised the WLL, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, the Railway Women’s Guild, the National Federation of Women Workers and the WTUL. Its three aims were to draw up a list of women willing to become representatives on government committees to protect women’s interests; to devise a policy for Labour women on these committees to assist them in their work; and, to initiate joint propaganda campaigns with the rest of the women’s movement on subjects of concern to industrial women. These aims allowed the SJCIWO to dovetail its work with the active suffrage societies’ campaigns. The WDL rightly said that the SJCWIO had adopted the role of ‘watchdog’ for women’s affairs during the war.

Minority groups learn to develop survival strategies and manipulate situations to advantage. It seems that this was exactly what the women’s movement did during the war. This meant that new links were forged that was intended to extend the feminist network. NUWSS branches created new alliances with groups working on women’s industrial issues. Old allegiances were strengthened as suffrage societies and women’s industrial groups worked together on committees such as the NUWSS’s Women’s Interest Committee. The movement’s handling of industrial circumstances to enhance its public standing and win concessions for women by refusing to concede to the status quo was yet another instance of political opportunism.

In August 1914, the suffrage societies had to make difficult decisions. The duty of supporting the nation while sustaining loyalty to relations and friends involved in the fighting was not an easy one to dispute and vied with suffrage women’s loyalty to personal political agendas. Whatever accommodations were made and whatever combinations of allegiance and action resulted, the continuity of the women’s movement was never threatened, nor the suffrage campaign abandoned. Women may have got the vote in 1918 because of political manoeuvring or as a ‘reward’ for their war effort but historians should not neglect the wartime experiences and activities of the suffrage societies.


[1] For the suffrage movements during the war, see and Sandra Stanley Holton Feminism and democracy: women’s suffrage and reform politics in Britain 1900-1918, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pages 116-150 and Cheryl Law Suffrage and Power: The Women’s Movement 1918-1928, I. B. Tauris, 1997, pages 13-41.

[2] On this, see Anne Wiltsher Most Dangerous Women: Feminist Peace Campaigners of the Great War, Pandora Press, 1985 and Jill Liddington The Long Road to Greenham: Feminism and Anti-Militarism in Britain since 1920, Virago, 1989.

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