can and has been argued that the Suffragettes damaged the cause of
women’s suffrage. A
famous Shepherd cartoon in Punch shows a
wild, half-mad woman (stereotyping a Suffragette) screaming at a
well-dressed, respectable women, who is replying: ‘Help our cause?
You’re its worst enemy!’
many people at the time agreed that the Suffragettes harmed the women’s
action of the Militants is ruinous.
The feeling amongst sympathisers of the cause in the House [of
Commons] is one of panic. I
am frankly not very hopeful of success if these tactics are persisted in.
from Lloyd George to CP Scott,
29 November 1909
George was, generally, a supporter of women’s suffrage but, over
breakfast a couple of days later, he confided to Scott that talking to
Christabel Pankhurst was ‘like going to a lunatic asylum and talking to
a man who thinks he is God’.
madness of the militants… the small body of misguided women who profess
to represent the noble and serious cause of political enfranchisement of
women, but in fact do their utmost to degrade and hinder it.
2 March 1912
the height of the WSPU’s window-breaking campaign
could indicate more plainly their lack of fitness to be entrusted with the
exercise of political power.
2 March 1912
the height of the WSPU’s window-breaking campaign
way in which certain types of women, easily recognised, have acted in the
last year or two, especially in the last few weeks, lends a great deal of
colour to the argument that the mental equilibrium of the female sex is
not as stable as the mental equilibrium of the male sex…
It seems to me that this House should remember that if the vote is
given to women those who will take the greatest part in politics will not
be the quiet, retiring, constitutional women… but those very militant
women who have brought so much disgrace and discredit upon their sex.
It would introduce a disastrous element into our public life…
One feels that it is not cricket for women to use force…
It is little short of nauseating and disgusting to the whole sex…
Helmsley, speaking in the House of Commons,
28 March 1912
violence played into the hands of all those who argued that women were
unfit to have the vote. In
the 1912 debate on women’s suffrage, every MP who spoke against
women’s suffrage gave Suffragette violence as one of the reasons for
some of the Suffragettes' supporters had their doubts:
took the view that the window-smashing raid had aroused a new popular
opposition, because it was for the first time an attack on private
property; and that therefore before it was repeated, still more before
graver acts of violence were committed, there was need for a sustained
educational campaign to make the public understand the reasons for such
Pethick-Lawrence, remembering an argument with Christabel Pankhurst
Pethick-Lawrence and his wife were keen members of the WSPU, and he was
its lawyer. They were
wealthy, supported it generously, and raised a great deal of money for the
cause. In 1912, the
Pankhursts forced them to leave the WSPU.
the Suffragettes the sense to see that the very worst way of campaigning
for the vote is to try and intimidate a man into giving them what he would
gladly give otherwise?
George, speaking in 1913.
many historians, also, have agreed with these opinions.
As you read the following extracts, note that they are all written
recently, by historians with the benefit of modern scholarship and
prospect of votes for women seemed remote at the end of 1909.
The Prime Minister and senior politicians were by now openly
hostile to the women’s demands.
In the early years the NUWSS had not criticised the militants.
Mrs Fawcett preferred ‘to keep our artillery for our opponents
and not to turn it on one another’.
Now the NUWSS felt that the militancy of the WSPU was harming the
cause. Some old friends
of woman’s suffrage in the House of Commons had been lost.
‘Unwomanly’ tactics like heckling and pestering politicians,
hurling missiles at the police and rowdy demonstrations outside halls from
which they were banned, had alienated the more cautious sympathisers.
Atkinson, Votes for Women ( 1988)
school textbook from the 1980s
actions by the WSPU, while attracting huge amounts of publicity, had the
opposite effect intended; the public began to disapprove of the
suffragettes, as well as their cause. While
most people, before the outbreak of rampant militancy, supported the cause
of women's suffrage, once the new actions started, began to disapprove. Opponents
of women's suffrage in Parliament used the terrorist actions the women
were using to their advantage in debate, citing the insane actions as a
very good reason why women should not get the vote. The
Parliament and the suffragettes thus reached a stalemate. The
more militant the WSPU became, the more reluctant Parliament was to grant
women the vote, and the more firmly Parliament stood on the issue of
suffrage, the more violent and desperate the suffragettes became.
Effect of Militancy In the British Suffragette Movement (1996)
a Welsh Communist website
middle-class activists of the much larger NUWSS were dismayed to see the
effects if the hard work jeopardised by the suffragette tactics; even
stringer was the disgust of working class suffragists…. Nothing
alienated women from the suffragettes more than the insistence on
Obviously, the WSPU
itself justified the use of violence, and some historians have agreed with
them; the weight of the evidence, however, seems to be very firmly the
other way… It is hard
to see what the suffragettes had to show by 1914 for ten years of
campaigning. On the
other hand, they had hardened attitudes against them in Parliament and the
Lang, Parliamentary Reform (1999)
Lang was Head of History at a Sixth Form College in
, and a lecturer in Education at
this day, many people equate the British women’s suffrage struggle and
the final victory with the famous Pankhurst family and their militant
supporters in the WSPU. In
its early years the WSPU was a bold, innovative, imaginative organisation,
among the first to appreciate the value of publicity.
Not without justification, its members regarded themselves as the
elite soldiers of the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign.
But for every suffragette there were always dozens of non-militant
suffragists. Some would
argue – including me – that it was the moderates of the NUWSS, led by
Millicent Fawcett, who actually won the vote.
In 1912, while the militants embarked on arson and bombing, the
NUWSS made a successful working alliance with the growing Labour Party.
It was this group which successfully lobbied for the 1918 Franchise
Marlow, Votes for Women (2000)
Marlow was an actress before she became a full-time writer.
She writes novels and books about women’s history.