Did the Suffragettes Help?



A Question open to Debate


Yes!!!       No!!!



Historians disagree about whether or not the Suffragettes helped the cause of women’s suffrage:


Such violence led to a mixed reaction.   Of course, it gained publicity.   Newspapers were able to provide the public with long reports and some photographs.   Suffragettes were pleased that ‘The Cause’ was being brought to everyone’s notice.   The reaction of the public, however, was mixed.   Some felt that women were justified in going to such lengths.   Many other believed that violence was totally wrong as a means of gaining an object.

John Ray, The Place of Women (Nelson Studies in Modern History, 1971)

A school textbook from the 1970s.


It is debatable how much effect the suffragette movement had on bringing about changes in voting laws.   Some believe the movement’s militancy made the Government more intransigent.   Others say the 1918 Act was passed as a reward for women’s efforts during the war rather than anything the suffragettes did.   There is no doubt, however, that the suffragettes raised the profile of the issue of women’s votes to that of national consideration.

The Women's Suffrage Movement

from a website




At first, many newspapers openly supported the Suffragettes’ actions:


By what means, but screaming, knocking, and rioting, did men themselves ever gain what they were pleased to call their rights?

Daily Mirror, 24 October 1906

The Daily News said: ‘No class has ever got the vote except at the risk of something like revolution’.



Millicent Fawcett – one of the traditional, moderate ‘suffragists’ – was also supportive:


I hope the more old-fashioned suffragists will stand by them.   In my opinion, far from having injured the movement, [the Suffragettes] have done more during the last 12 months to bring it within the region of practical politics than we have been able to accomplish in the same number of years.

Mrs Millicent Fawcett, leader of the NUWSS, writing in 1906.



The Suffragettes themselves were convinced that violence helped the cause of women’s suffrage:


The argument of the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics.

Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, speaking on 16 February 1911 .



For many years, the Suffragettes were presented by historians as heroes, who won the vote for women:


The Suffragette movement developed into a tremendous force.   Its increase of numbers made it no longer possible for its enemies to dismiss it as the cranky notion of a few women.   The Suffragettes were helped, too, rather than hindered by the stupidity and brutality of those in authority.   Time and again these brave women were sent to prison where they were treated with less consideration than the commonest and vilest criminal.  When they went on hunger strike, they were forcibly fed.   A great many people, who had not cared one way or the other about votes for women, changed their minds when they learned of such indignities.

Edward Boyd, an article on ‘The Suffragette Movement’ in A Pageant of History (1958)

A children’s history book written to allow children to see ‘some of the things which made up everyday life during the last hundred or so years… the heritage which is ours is spread before you’.



And in 1967 Constance Rover, whilst acknowledging that the issue was open to debate, judged generally that the campaign was successful, and still sees the movement in semi-heroic terms:


While there are marked differences of opinion about the value of militancy to the movement, there is a fair measure of agreement that it was positively helpful in its early days.   The militants kept the movement in the public eye and much of the credit must be given to them for Parliament dealing seriously with the question from 1910 onwards.   After November 1911 the position is much more doubtful.   Militancy was becoming more extreme and strong antagonism was being aroused.   The public could hardly be expected to approve of arson.   The policy [of law-breaking] was likely to be effective so long as it was looked upon as a political protest.   If, however, militant activities were put down to hysteria and fanaticism, they largely defeated their own object and gave ammunition to those who contended that women were unfit to have the vote.

            Viewing the militant movement from the second half of the twentieth century, it is difficult to argue that violence does not ‘pay off’.   [The history of independence of the colonies, and Civil Rights campaigns in the USA shows that violence can succeed.]   It may be that suffragette violence after 1912 fell between two stools, being inadequate to force the government but sufficiently destructive to antagonise public opinion.  This writer [i.e. Constance Rover] is of the opinion that, as the events turned out, militant tactics helped the women's suffrage movement until 1912, but after that date were harmful.   This does not mean that militancy was necessarily a foolish policy.   With hindsight, one can conclude that militancy failed in the last two years before the war, but with the experience of rebellion we have had since, one cannot conclude that militant tactics are an unsuccessful means of obtaining an objective such as enfranchisement...

            There remains the question whether the sacrifices made by so many of the suffragettes were worth while…   It may be contended that it was necessary for women to show that they were prepared to suffer for their cause and that it did not matter if there were mistakes in tactics, so long as it was proved that they were willing to make sacrifices.   It is difficult to form a judgement on this, but the sacrifices made in the last two years before the war seemed to have been unduly heavy.

            In spite of their mistakes, the militants revitalised the women’s suffrage movement.   Something more than the traditional constitutional methods was needed.   Believing their cause to be just, it is no wonder that many supported Emily Wilding Davison’s motto: ‘Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God’.

Constance Rover: Women's Suffrage and Party Politics (1967)






It 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!’


Certainly, many people at the time agreed that the Suffragettes harmed the women’s cause:


The 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.

Letter from Lloyd George to CP Scott, 29 November 1909 .

Lloyd 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’.  


The 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.

Manchester Guardian ( 2 March 1912 )

At the height of the WSPU’s window-breaking campaign


Nothing could indicate more plainly their lack of fitness to be entrusted with the exercise of political power.

Morning Post ( 2 March 1912 )

At the height of the WSPU’s window-breaking campaign


The 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…

Viscount Helmsley, speaking in the House of Commons, 28 March 1912

Suffragette 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 their opinion.



Even some of the Suffragettes' supporters had their doubts:


I 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 extreme courses.

FW Pethick-Lawrence, remembering an argument with Christabel Pankhurst  in 1912.

FW 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.


Haven’t 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?

Lloyd George, speaking in 1913.



Recently, 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 research:


The 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.

Diane Atkinson, Votes for Women ( 1988)

A school textbook from the 1980s


These 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.

Marcie Kligman, The Effect of Militancy In the British Suffragette Movement (1996)

from a Welsh Communist website


The 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 violence.

            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 Trades Unions…

Sean Lang, Parliamentary Reform (1999)

Sean Lang was Head of History at a Sixth Form College in Cambridge , and a lecturer in Education at Exeter University .


To 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 Act.

Joyce Marlow, Votes for Women (2000)

Joyce Marlow was an actress before she became a full-time writer.   She writes novels and books about women’s history.