Monday, 31 March 2008

Suffrage after 1903: Suffragists 3 -- Radical suffragism

The development of modern understanding of the radical suffragists is the result of the publication of Jill Liddington and Jill Norris One Hand Tied Behind Us, first published in 1978 (reprinted with an extended introduction in 2000). They take the story of the suffrage movement after 1900 away from London and to the north of England, where the movement began in the 1860s[1].

What distinguished Lancashire suffragism in the 1900s were its vibrancy and the fact that many of its leaders came, not from the educated middle classes, but from working class women. They had come to suffragism through their experience of factory work and of organising working women. It is difficult to say how many women were involved in the radical suffragists’ campaign. Only the names of the most active are known and only a handful of these leading suffragists have been considered in any detail. One was Selina Cooper[2] who had gone into a local mill at the age of ten. She was the only working class woman with the confidence to stand up and to push through motions at Labour Party conferences on women’s suffrage and had been actively involved in the labour movement in southeast Lancashire by the 1890s. Another textile worker, Helen Silcock, carried the women’s suffrage campaign into the male-dominated TUC at the turn of the century. While Selina Cooper and Helen Silcock were championing women’s suffrage at a national level, other radical suffragists concentrated their efforts on building up a local base. As the campaign gathered momentum, it drew in other women into the labour movement. Outstanding among these was Ada Nield Chew[3], who started work as a low-paid tailoress in Crewe.

What brought women like these, with their wide experience in trade union and labour politics, into the women’s suffrage movement? Why was the vote so important? The radical suffragists wanted more than the possession of the vote as a symbol of equality. They wanted it to improve conditions for women like themselves. The radical suffragists rejected the aim of the NUWSS that asked only for the vote ‘as it is, or may be, accorded to men’ -- that is, a property-based vote. Many working class men could meet this qualification but few women could claim to own property in their own right. The radical suffragists wanted the vote not just for the wealthy few but also for women like themselves. They formulated a demand for ‘womanhood suffrage’ to include all women over the age of twenty-one. This was a call for votes for all adults but with a stress on the claims of women.

The rejection of middle class suffrage groups only occurred gradually. The radical suffragists were initially drawn together by Esther Roper, who became secretary of the local suffrage society in 1893. By 1900 she, and her friend Eva Gore-Booth, deliberately pursued a policy of taking suffrage ideas out of the drawing room and into the cotton towns of Lancashire. The result was a rapid expansion of the movement and a gradual take-over by enthusiastic and experiences working class women. As the campaign expanded, tensions between the old-fashioned suffrage ladies and the labour activists grew. The result, in 1903, was the formation of the first organisation of working women for the vote: the Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile and Other Workers’ Representation Committee. It argued that ‘political enfranchisement must precede industrial emancipation’, the lack of political power weakened their bargaining position.

The radical suffragists continued their attack on the complacent attitude to women’s suffrage adopted by many politicians. Friends in the labour movement were quick to recognise their potential strength but it was even difficult for radical suffragists like Selina Cooper to work through the Labour Party. Women’s suffrage had been a largely middle class demand and to many of the trade union and socialist men who made up the bulk of the Party’s support, feminism was simply another name for increasing the privileges of propertied women. The radical suffragists tried to build a wider movement. Their grass roots campaign sought to get official backing of local trade councils and trade unions and their contacts with sympathetic women’s organisations, especially the local Women’s Co-operative Guild branches. They retained links with the old established North of England Society, valuing its ties with the NUWSS. They also worked with the WSPU in its early years in Manchester.

Initially the WSPU and the radical suffragists co-existed. However, by 1906-7, when the Pankhursts moved to London, differences between the two groups were apparent. The radical suffragists continued to work closely with local labour organisations, while the Pankhursts soon dropped their working class support in favour of influential allies among upper and middle class women. Their tactics also diverged. The radical suffragists had opted for building support at local level while the Pankhursts increasingly relied on sensational actions by London-based militants to catch the headlines. Selina Cooper was horrified when the Pankhursts eventually resorted to arson. The radical suffragists also disagreed with the Pankhursts’ aims. They did not accept that the vote was an end in itself. Selina Cooper summed up their position when she told an open-air meeting in Wigan in early 1906, “[Women] do not want their political power to enable them to boast that they are on equal terms with the men. They want to use it for the same purpose as men -- to get better conditions.... Every woman in England is longing for her political freedom in order to make the lot of the worker pleasanter and to bring about reforms, which are wanted. We do not want it as a mere plaything.”


[1] In many respects, the notion of radical suffragism used by Liddington and Norris is a geographically narrow one since their book focuses on the suffragism of Lancashire. In practice, many historians today take a broader view of the concept.

[2] Jill Liddington The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel: Selina Cooper 1864-1946, Virago, 1984 shows what can be done.

[3] Ada Neild Chew Ada Neild Chew: the Life and Writings of a Working Woman, Virago, 1982.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Suffrage after 1903: Suffragists 2 -- Women's Freedom League

The first major split within the WSPU led to the formation of the Women’s Freedom League in November 1907[1]. In September 1907, the Pankhursts decided to select a new executive committee for the WSPU. They were clearly concerned that they were losing control of the organisation and felt their position threatened by other capable women such as Charlotte Despard and Teresa Billington-Greig[2]. The rift was, however, over more than personality.  Democratic principles were involved and a basic disagreement over organisation. The Pankhursts believed that militant tactics required an autocratic structure. The women who left were increasingly sceptical of this approach and could not resolve the contradiction of an undemocratic organisation fighting for democratic reform.  The split also reflected the growing conservatism of Christabel and her mother. By 1907, they wanted to appeal mainly to wealthy women and the move to London the previous year was a further break from the ILP and working class heritage. To ILP members like Charlotte Despard and Teresa Billington-Greig, this new policy was a betrayal. The split was between right and left within the WSPU.

The WFL was probably the smallest of the three major bodies. In 1907, it has been estimated that 20 per cent of the WSPU left to join the League but Teresa Billington-Greig who puts the figure at half disputes this. By 1908, the League had 53 branches from Aberdeen to Clapham but by 1914, even the League itself only claimed 4,000 members and the circulation of its paper The Vote was small, reaching a peak of over 13,000 in November 1913. The Vote was used to inform the public of WFL campaigns such as the refusal to pay taxes and to fill in the 1911 Census forms.

Unlike the WSPU, the WFL did become a democratic organisation with annual conferences deciding policy and electing a national executive committee and president. However, Charlotte Despard dominated the organisation and in 1912 over a third of the candidates at a Special Conference voted to remove her from the presidency because of his growing autocratic manner. It was a militant society though it never adopted the tactics of the WSPU. Militancy was aimed solely at government and the later methods of the WSPU were condemned. On the other hand, the early tactics of the NUWSS were seen as too soft but this criticism abated as the National Union developed a more aggressive policy.

Like the WSPU, the Women’s Freedom League was a militant organisation that was willing the break the law. As a result, over 100 of their members were sent to prison after being arrested on demonstrations or refusing to pay taxes. However, members of the WFL were a completely non-violent organisation and opposed the WSPU campaign of vandalism against private and commercial property. The WFL were especially critical of the WSPU arson campaign. The aims of the League went beyond the vote. It was its broader demands that made the League different from both the WSPU and NUWSS[3]. As well as the vote, it called for equal opportunities. In its early days, there was an acceptance of a woman’s natural domestic and maternal role. All the stereotypes of women as housewives, child carers and domestic workers were tacitly accepted and even welcomed at this stage. Even though this was linked to demands for greater opportunities outside the home, it was increasingly criticised as the aims of the organisation broadened in 1909-10. Women became critical of what Cicely Hamilton[4] called ‘the Noah’s Ark principle’ [5]and she published a critical book on marriage, Marriage As A Trade, in 1909. The debate within the League became increasingly provocative and a Women’s Charter was put forward in late 1909.

In identifying both housework as ‘work’ and the economic power of men within the family, the League was making a further contribution to feminist thought and to the debate within suffragism that paralleled the work of the Fabians. Nevertheless, the League went further by linking women’s oppression to their lack of the franchise. Marion Holmes argued in 1910, “The difference between the voter and the non-voter is the difference between bondage and freedom”. Members of the WFL, like those in the NUWSS, believed that the vote would transform the lives of women. All this implies that emancipation would come through reform and legislation. Gradually the political analysis of the WFL widened and began to examine the relevance of economic power and class. This was partly due to the influence of leading members like Charlotte Despard but was also connected with the industrial militancy of 1910-14. The WFL supported the struggles of working class women and was quick to support their use of strikes. It constantly urged women workers to organise. The vote was not an end in itself but was linked to wider economic and social issues. The League’s attitude to working class women was a result of the links between the organisation and the Labour movement.

The WFL not only supported the struggles of working class women but also became actively involved. It worked, for example, with trade unionists and working women in Poplar in 1910, even before Sylvia Pankhurst organised her Federation in the East End. Yet, not all members approved of the growing association of the WFL with the Labour Party. The 1912 Conference not only accused Charlotte Despard of autocracy but of thrusting her political views on the League. Some felt that the League should have been struggling for all women, not just those of the working class. The growing class struggle from 1911 pushed the political analysis of the League further to the left and this reinforced the view that power did not solely rest with the possession of the parliamentary vote.

Most members of the Women’s Freedom League, was pacifists, and so when war was declared in 1914 they refused to become involved in the British Army’s recruitment campaign. The WFL also disagreed with the decision of the NUWSS and WSPU to call off the women’s suffrage campaign while the war was on. Leaders of the WFL such as Charlotte Despard believed that the British government did not do enough to end the war and between 1914 and 1918 supported the campaign of the Women’s Peace Council for a negotiated peace.

Three members of the Women’s Freedom League stood in the 1918 General Election. Charlotte Despard (Battersea), Elizabeth How-Martyn (Hendon) and Emily Phipps (Chelsea) all argued that women should have the vote on equal terms with men; that all trades and professions be opened to women on equal terms and for equal pay and that women should be allowed to serve on all juries. However, in the euphoria of Britain’s victory, the women’s anti-war views were very unpopular and like all the other pacifist candidates, who stood in the election, they were defeated

The importance of the League to an understanding of suffragism is immense. When viewed in the context of the development of the NUWSS nationally after 1910, it appears that the ‘non-militant’ wing of the campaign for the vote was increasingly associated with the Labour movement and the problems of working class women. The political analysis of the League argued that women’s emancipation went beyond the mere gaining of the vote. In this identification with working class women, there was an inherent danger that women’s oppression as a sex could be submerged and forgotten. The League did address this issue and concluded that emancipation required change in the relationship between men and women. This change, however, was not to be based on a new code of sexual relationships but on the prevailing moral code. In that, the WFL reflected the attitudes of the Labour movement.


[1] 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.

[2] Margaret Mulvihil Charlotte Despard: a biography, Pandora, 1989, and Andro Linklater, Charlotte Despard: An unhusbanded life, Hutchinson, 1980 are useful biographies. Carol McPhee and Ann Fitzgerald (eds.) Teresa Billington-Greig The non-violent militant: selected writings of Teresa Billington-Greig, Routledge, 1987 is a valuable collection of her writings

[3] This also accounts for the rejection of the title Women’s Enfranchisement League in favour of Women’s Freedom League in November 1907.

[4] On Cicely Hamilton, see Liz Whitelaw The Life & Rebellious Times of Cicely Hamilton, The Women’s Press, 1990

[5] This declared that ‘all human beings naturally and inevitably gravitate towards matrimony, pair off and beget children.’

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Suffrage after 1903: Suffragists 1

Uncovering more evidence on the role played by various non-militants has resulted in the playing down of the significance of the Pankhursts. There is now far more evidence of support for suffragism among working class women, at least in areas like Lancashire where a high proportion of women worked outside the home. We also have biographies of both working class non-militants, such as Selina Cooper and middle class non-militants such as Isabella Ford[1] of the ILP. There are also grounds for thinking than in the last years before the war that middle class suffragists began to mobilise working class support for the first time.

A problem of language

There is, however, a problem of terminology. Existing terminology divides the British suffrage movement into two distinct wings, the ‘militants’ whose best know organisation was the WSPU, and the ‘constitutionalists’, most of whom were organised within the NUWSS. These organisations’ differences were generally taken to centre on the question of the use of violence in demonstrations. Yet few ‘militants’ were ‘militant’, and then only from 1912 onwards, if ‘militancy’ involved simply a preparedness to resort to extreme forms of violence. The analytical imprecision of the militant/constitutional division becomes even more evident. This usage is complicated further by many women belonging to both wings of the suffrage movement at the same time. Many suffragists did not view the two approaches as either mutually exclusive or at odds with each other. So what terms can historians use?

The term ‘radical’ carries similar problems when applied to suffragists. It was sometimes used to characterise the militant wing and to reinforce its distinctiveness from the old societies. More recently, it has been used to identify the movement among working class women in the textile towns of Lancashire. In both cases, the nature of radicalism is ill defined and where it is defined appears to hinge on links with the labour movement. There are, however, other very different candidates for the title of ‘radical suffragists’. The separatists among the militants, like the WFL, and the sexual libertarians around The Freewoman offered more fundamental challenges to the existing order of male-female relations, and Sylvia Pankhurst and other dissident socialist militants were involved in a far more radical challenge to the political order of the day.

One particular issue of recurrent discord and debate within all sections of the suffrage movement was the question of whether to relate the demand for equal votes for women to that for a fully independent Labour party in the House of Commons and the associated call for adult suffrage. Both militants and constitutionalists were to be found, at different times, working for an alliance between the two demands. Margaret Llewelyn Davies, a leader of the working class Women’s Co-operative Guild, coined the term ‘democratic suffragist’ to identify this body of opinion. Democratic suffragists covered a broad spectrum of political opinion from ‘progressive’ liberalism to revolutionary and ‘rebel’ socialism. Largely because of this they did not form an organised, united faction within the movement until after 1918. Even then, they worked through a number of organisations and their unity was short-lived.

The continued reliance on the division between militant and constitutionalist raises more questions that it resolves. Suffragism was far too diverse and fluid after 1906 to fit comfortably into one of these two categories. The difficulty that historians face is that the alternative categories do not provide for clarity of definition.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies

This can be seen clearly in the revival of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies after 1906. By 1914, it had over 50,000 members in 400 affiliated societies with an annual income of nearly £20,000. The ideas and political goals of the NUWSS broadened over time. It first tried to strengthen pro-suffrage sentiments in the Liberal Party, which it regarded as the women’s best hope and consequently focused more on the constituencies than on Parliament and to sponsor women suffrage candidates at by-elections. It aimed to recruit more members and publicise its efforts through attentions to visual imagery, mass demonstrations and marches, banquets and pageants, tours of the country, memorials, and meetings in drawing rooms and with Church groups, women’s organisations and political associations. It ran a professional operation by maintaining offices, an administrative staff, and team of organisers, a literature section and a newspaper The Common Cause. Recognising its strength in England, it paid close attention to forwarding the cause in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, accommodating the independent spirit of the Scottish and Irish workers. Its executive committee consisted of well-connected, able, reformist and frequently Liberal women headed by the then non-partisan Millicent Fawcett. In 1913, the NUWSS decided to hold a Women’s Pilgrimage to show Parliament how many women wanted the vote. Members of the NUWSS set off in the middle of June, and during the next six weeks held a series of meetings all over Britain. An estimated 50,000 women reached Hyde Park in London on 26th July. The meetings held on the way were nearly all peaceful. However, a serious riot took place at a meeting organised by Marie Corbett of the East Grinstead Suffrage Society and Edward Steer of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage at East Grinstead three days before the end of the march.

The NUWSS was impressed by the initiatives of its North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage and guided by the democratic socialists. It was anxious to bring pressure on the government, find new allies and broaden its social base. The non-militants were also frustrated and disillusioned by Asquith’s obstruction and as a result, the Liberal and Conservative members of the NUWSS abandoned their long-standing non-party strategy. In 1912, they offered a pact with the Labour Party. Labour had a better voting record on suffrage bills than the other parties. In return for adopting a party policy involving opposition to any franchise bill that failed to include women, Labour was to receive backing from an Election Fighting Fund. The NUWSS would channel both workers and funds to support Labour candidates in by-elections and general elections where they stood against anti-suffragists from other parties. The result was that the NUWSS became involved in a succession of by-elections during 1912-14 in which the Liberals lost a number of seats[2]. The shift entailed cultivating Labour leaders, employing working class organisers, promoting the formation of suffrage clubs for working men and women in industrial areas, setting up suffrage committees in poor working class areas and reaching out to the trade unions. It involved extending associate membership to working class women who could not afford to join its societies: by 1914, there were 46,000 such Friends of Women Suffrage. The initiative was significance, not in its initial impact but for what it could lead to in the future. This can be seen in two respects.  It helped to accelerate deteriorating Liberal morale. Liberal women activists were dropping out if not actually joining another party. The Liberal government could easily withstand by-election defeats but Asquith could not risk the possibility of a breakdown of the electoral pact with Labour at the general election that was expected for 1914 or 1915. The more constituencies Labour contested the more likely it was that Conservatives would win because of splitting the radical vote.  Co-operation between the NUWSS and Labour seems to have fostered wider contact between middle class feminists and the working class movement.

This development, though promising, should not be over-exaggerated before 1914. The small number of Labour MPs was insufficient to give a decisive boost to suffrage legislation. In addition, Ramsay MacDonald fully intended to maintain electoral co-operation with the Liberals and did not intend being sidetracked by women suffragists. The effect of this co-operation on the NUWSS was not always positive. The operation of the Election Fighting Fund generated a good deal of friction with some members leaving and others feeling that there was a danger of the women’s cause being submerged in broader issues of Labour. Nor is it clear that Asquith was going to change his position though there is evidence from 1913 and 1914 that he appeared more conciliatory towards suffragism.


[1] June Hannam Isabella Ford, Basil Blackwell, 1989 is one of the best biographies of a leading suffragist.

[2] Between 1912 and the outbreak of war in August 1914, the Liberals lost eight by-elections. The Labour Party did not win any of these but the electoral influence of the NUWSS increased the Labour party share of the vote and, in most cases, allowed the Conservatives to take the seats.

Monday, 24 March 2008

The Pankhursts: a historiographical problem

How has the history of the women’s suffrage movement been written and why did the Pankhurst point of view dominate historical thinking until the 1970s? The two leading texts are George Dangerfield The Strange Death of Liberal England, first published in 1935 and Sylvia Pankhurst The Suffragette Movement, published four years earlier.

Dangerfield saw the suffrage movement as one of several causes in the downfall of the Liberal Party, along with the Irish question, the emerging Labour Party and trade unionism, pacifism and the First World War. He was, however, the first ‘historian’ to treat the movement seriously and consequently invented the narrative and historical plot from which subsequent historians have rarely been able to free themselves. The problem with Dangerfield is that he saw suffrage as merely a part of the broader ‘drama’ of the failure of the Liberal Party. Dangerfield provided the explanatory drama, his suffragette characters as moving stereotypes creating and satisfying a public (essentially male) need to label serious women’s politics as ‘hysterical’. His most successful strategy was labelling the suffrage movement as a light comic diversion in the tragedy of Liberal decline. He defines the suffrage movement as a ‘spectacle’ and slips in ‘unprincipled’. Dangerfield’s rhetorical strategy is very successful in diminishing the militant movement as political on a par with any male political parties or movements. His is the language of belittlement. His characters are one-dimensional.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s The Suffrage Movement (1931) was Dangerfield’s major source. She too wanted to show the ‘actors in the drama’. Sylvia Pankhurst is Dangerfield’s heroine and her story, in which she plays Cinderella in a family romance, is the ‘authority’ for Dangerfield’s text. There are several important consequences to his reliance on her text because, with only slight variations, the Sylvia/George version of the suffrage movement had become the standard reading of events, stubbornly held and hardly challenged until recently.  In Sylvia’s version, she is the heroine who keeps the faith while her mother and sister become increasingly hysterical and autocratic. She paints her mother as too busy with the movement to pay attention to the ill health of her son, Harry implying that she was responsible for his death and to the nervous breakdown of her sister Adela who is then unceremoniously shunted off to Australia. The structure of the book records the major events as splits within the movement caused by her mother and sister, while the winning of the vote is claimed at the dramatic dénouement of her arrangement to get Asquith to receive her East End Delegation in June 1914. She claims the victory in the name of socialist feminism, a victory less over the government than over her real enemies, her sister and mother, the separatist feminists who have become increasingly more aristocratic and concerned with personal power. This text is very appealing and Dangerfield was not the only one who fell for it. David Mitchell, for example, in The Fighting Pankhursts and Queen Christabel aimed at a male readership afraid of the new feminism of the 1970s.

The plots of the first historians of suffrage, Sylvia Pankhurst’s tragic family romance of the bad mother and George Dangerfield’s comic farce of suffrage as a hysterical side-show, only came under serious consideration in the 1960s with the advent of women’s history. This view of the suffrage movement, however, is only one of several[1]. Sandra Stanley Holton suggests that it is possible to identify four different approaches to the history of the movement.

  • The Constitutionalist approach. Historians who follow this approach tend to be sympathetic to suffragists and are critical of the role played by the WSPU. Ray Strachey The Cause, first published in 1928 is an example of this approach.
  • The militant approach. Historians who follow this approach tend to focus on the Pankhursts at the expense of other campaigners and to dismiss or minimise the nineteenth-century suffrage campaign. Sylvia Pankhurst The Suffrage Movement, published in 1931 and Christabel Pankhurst Unshackled: the Story of How We Won the Vote, published in 1959 are examples of this approach.
  • The masculinist approach. Male historians who criticise the tactics adopted by suffragists or suffragettes or who minimise the impact made by women who campaigned for the vote are described by Holton as ‘masculinists’. These writers, she argues, emphasise “The otherness, the strangeness, the difference and ultimately the ridiculousness of women in pursuit of their own political and personal ends”. George Dangerfield The Strange Death of Liberal England, published in 1935 became the model for this approach. Holton also includes Brian Harrison and Martin Pugh (especially in his early work) in this category. Brian Harrison is included because he lets the male electorate and politicians off the hook when he argued that lack of progress between 1880 and 1903 was due to suffragist tactics. Pugh is included because he argues that the women’s movement had little to do with the eventual enfranchisement of women in 1918.
  • The new-feminist approach. New-feminist historians emphasise the achievements of all those involved in the suffrage campaigns (whether constitutionalists or militants) and move away from the ‘great woman’ approach found in both the constitutionalist and militant approaches. The struggle for the vote is seen as part of a broader struggle for female emancipation in which conventional views about the role of women were challenged and overturned and a new feminised approach to politics and protest was developed. The first full new-feminist interpretation was Marian Ramelson The Petticoat Rebellion: A Century of Struggle for Women’s Rights, published in 1967.

It is possible to make very different assessments of the campaign for women’s suffrage in the period 1880 to 1918 according to which of the four approaches is taken. Constitutionalists and new-feminist historians tend to be positive about developments in this period, while militant and masculinist authors tend to support the view that the suffrage movement went into decline between 1880 and 1903 and achieved little by 1914.


[1] What follows is based on the introduction of Jane Marcus (ed.) Suffrage and the Pankhursts, Routledge, 1987, pages1-17, Maroula Joannou and June Purvis ‘Introduction: the writing of the women’s suffrage movement’, in Maroula Joannou and June Purvis (eds.) The Women’s Suffrage Movement: New feminist perspectives, Manchester, 1998, pages 1-14, Claire Eustance, Joan Ryan and Laura Ugolini ‘Writing Suffrage Histories – the ‘British’ Experience’, in Claire Eustance, Joan Ryan and Laura Ugolini (eds.) A Suffrage Reader: Charting Directions in British Suffrage History, Leicester University Press, 1999, pages 1-19 and Sandra Stanley Holton ‘The making of suffrage history’, in June Purvis and Sandra Stanley Holton (eds.) Votes for Women, Routledge, 2000, pages 13-33.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Suffrage after 1903: The WSPU and Militancy 3

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 Tactics
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.

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

Tactics

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.

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.

Tactics

 
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.
WSPU and ILP

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.

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.