Effect of Militancy in the British Suffragette Movement
by Marcie Kligman, RMHS '96
This document originally appeared on the Welsh
Website at welshcommunists.co.uk/suff.htm
This site went down in September 2010, so I have
copied it here.
This document was written by and is
therefore copyright Marcie Kligman.
The ideal for women at the turn of the
century in Great Britain was to maintain a composed facade, a delicate and
demure manner, and a distaste for all things violent. This ideal did not
allow for breaking street lamps, destroying golf courses, shattering
windows, setting arson to palaces, destroying works of art, and
fist-fighting with policemen. Frustrated with a sidestepping government, a
majority of the suffragettes of Great Britain eventually turned to such
militant measures in order to campaign for women's rights and, especially,
women's voting rights. Although these extreme measures in the short term
delayed the implementation of women's suffrage, combined with the increased
respect women received during World War I, the passionate protests actually
helped ensure the granting of suffrage to women in Great Britain in January
The struggle for women's equality in Great
Britain started long before the turn of the twentieth century. One of the
very first "suffragettes" (the term coined as an insult by the London Daily
Mail, but adopted easily by the female suffragists1) was Mary Smith, an
unmarried property owner. In 1832 she quietly petitioned Parliament urging
the inclusion of propertied women as those privileged to vote for members of
Parliament. The House of Commons laughed at the petition, a reaction that
would be repeated several times over the next few decades, until the entire
nation was forced to consider the question of women's suffrage seriously.
Through much effort, by the early twentieth century English feminists had
accomplished many goals: women could serve on town councils and school
boards, could be factory inspectors, could even vote in select regional
elections if they had enough property, and could even become mayors, like
Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.2 But they still could not vote for
Parliament. At this time the first organizations for women's suffrage began,
most notably the Female Political Association, founded by a Quaker named
Anne Knight, but their patient efforts to gain the vote yielded no results.
In 1906 one of the first major attempts to
achieve suffrage gained national attention when an envoy of 300 women,
representing over 125,000 suffragists, male and female, argued for women's
suffrage with the Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. The Prime
Minister agreed with the delegation's arguments, but "was obliged to add
that he proposed to do nothing at all about it."3 His reasons were that
there were too many differences of opinion on the matter in the Cabinet and
the Liberal Party (of which he was a member), and that "his hands were
tied."4 He urged the women "'to go on pestering', and to exercise 'the
virtue of patience.'"5 Some of the women to whom Campbell-Bannerman advised
to be patient had been working for women's rights for as many as fifty
years; his advice to "keep on pestering" was soon to prove quite unwise. His
thoughtless words infuriated his audience, and "by those foolish words the
militant movement became irrevocably established, and the stage of revolt
began."6 The younger suffragettes realized that the polite methods
previously used by the older generation were achieving nothing. The only
option left was to act up for the press; the activists realized that "tea
parties would not do it: sensational publicity and martyrdom might. The
Press would not be able to resist publishing sensational exploits."7 Most
suffragettes turned to these methods, which will be explained later.
Not all suffragettes agreed with the
necessity of sensationalism. It was at this point that the (as yet
unorganized) women's suffrage movement split into two major factions, the
National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent
Garrett Fawcett, and the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by
Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Sylvia. The NUWSS restricted itself to
peaceful demonstrations and more petitions (and more or less disappeared
from print), while the WSPU quickly switched to more press-baiting methods,
but still was far from the more militant tactics it would eventually attain.
However, in its policy the WSPU was already stressing the importance of
publicity; the members were encouraged to "conduct the biggest publicity
campaign ever known; make it more colourful and more commanding of attention
than anything ever seen before."8 It was not until over 300 arrests had been
made that the suffragettes began to hurl stones through windows, in
19089.Suffragettes were arrested at any gatherings that threatened to be
less than totally peaceful, but at this point, before 1910, they offered no
resistance when arrested. When tried, the suffragettes refused to be fined;
they chose imprisonment instead, and insisted on being categorized as
political prisoners. Once in prison, they went on hunger strikes. Marion
Wallace, in 1909, became the first hunger striker10, and though she refused
food and water without any previous discussion with Pankhurst or the other
members of the WSPU (members of the NUWSS refrained from such drastic
measures), other suffragettes quickly followed her lead; the strikes drew
the press's, and the public's, interests. The response of the prisons to the
suffragettes' hunger strikes was force-feeding, a gory process that involved
shoving a steel tube down the throat or nose of the inmate. This process,
once known to the press, aroused public outcry on the side of the
suffragettes; this form of torture: especially its being applied to women,
still thought of as the weaker sex: "helped to stir up public anxiety. Even
Conservative MPs [members of Parliament] joined in the the protest in
Parliament."11 Thanks to the press, soon the whole country knew of the
horrors that were being inflicted on the suffragettes in London, where the
effort was centralized, and "public opinion was undoubtedly beginning to
assert itself on the side of the women."12 Suffrage had become a national
issue, and support grew even more between 1910 and 1912. More than 150 local
councils passed resolutions supporting the enfranchisement of women, and
sent them to London.
Because of the mounting public pressure, the
government was forced to react, although, because of its inflammatory
nature, it had been trying to avoid the issue for as long as possible. In
1910 the Conciliation Bill was drafted in Parliament, its intent to "embody
a degree of women's enfranchisement that would be acceptable to the greatest
number of MPs of all parties."13 The WSPU, thinking at last that justice
would be served, declared a truce on all militancy (still relatively mild)
for the next nine months, "so that no excuse could be used by the government
for delaying the Bill"14; but the Bill failed to pass. The WSPU,
discouraged, resumed its tactics, and public support grew even more as the
Parliament dawdled. In 1913, the Franchise Reform Bill, another suffrage
bill, had reached the appropriate levels of Parliament. When the Bill was
immediately tossed out due to a bureaucratic slip-up, the WSPU became
dangerously frustrated. Years of struggling and self-sacrifice, in the form
of socially accepted forms of protest, allowed the suffragettes no closer to
enfranchisement than when they had started. Even some Parliamentary members
sympathized with the suffragettes; MP Kier Hardie said, "What else is left
to the women but militant tactics?"15 "Destructive militancy," wrote Sylvia
Pankhurst, "now broke out on an unparalleled scale."16
The first result of women's suffrage again
being shot down was what would later be termed "Black Friday." On November
18, 1913, a crowd of Pankhurst's suffragettes, angry at the news of
disaster, strained to see the exiting MPs and ministers, were held back by
police who were sick of controlling crowds of self-righteous women. The
first true suffragette riot ensued:
Nothing quite like it had been seen before
in the precincts of Parliament. For six long, violent, sometimes brutal,
hours there raged in Parliament Square what can only be described as a
battle between the police and not the unemployed, the homeless or the
destituteI but middle- and upper-class women of all ages.17
The police were no longer skittish about how
to treat women, as reported by Emmeline Pankhurst herself: "One woman I saw
thrown down with violence three or four times in rapid sucession. Every
moment the struggle grew fiercer."18 Eventually the police arrested the
rioters, but the women were not prosecuted; according to Winston Churchill,
then the Home Secretary, "no public advantage" would be gained by
prosecution19; that is, the government was afraid to prosecute out of fear
of further demonstrations. Unfortunately, the following Tuesday, when Prime
Minister Herbert Asquith announced that no other suffrage bill would be
considered for an indeterminate time, an even worse riot occurred, called
the "Battle of Downing Street" by the press.20 Over 185 suffragettes were
arrested, and the violence rose to such a level that the London Times called
the demonstrators "demented creatures, and it was evident that their conduct
completely alienated the sympathy of the crowd."21 Indeed, it was at this
point that the WSPU faction of the suffragette movement both severely
increased its militancy (they issued a statement declaring that "as the
Prime Minister will not give us the assurance that women shall be
enfranchised next year, we revert to a state of war"22) and began to lose
The actions the WSPU now undertook were
specifically done to ensure publicity. Both public and private property were
destroyed, intending a call on the the insurance companies of Great Britain
"so great that they would force the government to capitulate"23 to the
suffragette's demands. Among other actions, the suffragettes set arson to
houses, seared golf courses with acid, burnt down sports pavilions, broke
street lamps, stomped on flower beds, painted "Votes for Women" on the seats
at Hampstead Heath24, plugged up keyholes with lead pellets, slashed the
cushions of train seats, staged false fire alarms, threw rocks at the
windows of the Parliament building and houses of elected officials, severed
telephone wires, blew up fuse boxes, placed bombs near the Bank of England,
"hacked thirteen pictures in the Manchester Art Gallery"25, including the "Rokeby
Venus"26, slashed by well-known suffragette Mary Richardson. These drastic
measures culminated on June 4, 1913, when one of the more famous
suffragettes, Emily Davison, threw herself under the King's racehorse at
Tattenham Center, toppling both the horse and the horse's jockey.27 A riot
ensued, and by the time Davison's body was recovered from the track and
taken to a hospital, it was far too late; Davison became the movement's
first, and only, true martyr.28
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. However, the stalemate did not last long;
in 1914, World War I interrupted the women's suffrage movement. As in most
countries, the women of Great Britain took the jobs the soldiers left
behind. Pankhurst and the WSPU patriotically suspended all militancy during
the war, knowing that both distractions would be too much for British
society. Women took "jobs and undertook responsibilities which were
undreamed of before the war,"29 such as working in munitions factories,
hospitals, and municipal offices, proving a stability and maturity that had
been contradicted by the wild suffragettes' actions. The government was
understandably grateful for the unselfish actions of all British women;
women "had shown themselves capable of taking part in Civil Service work,
industrial workIand thus shown their fitness and their right to further
responsibility."30 Although the government, in later granting women the
vote, was acknowledging the services of women during the war, they were also
afraid of further militancy once the war ended, as well as "split the nation
from top to bottom"31. Lord Crewe, supporting the bill that would eventually
give women the vote, "warned the House that if the vote was refused to women
the old violent atmosphere of the question would return."32 The government
enjoyed the domestic quiet granted by the suffragettes during the war, and
were not eager to sink once again into the terrorist and destructive acts of
the WSPU. The main effect of World War I on the suffrage movement was that
"women's contribution to the war effort was seen and appreciated"33; instead
of being insulted for wanting to take part in government, women were praised
for being patriotic. It would have been embarrassing for the British
government to turn its back on all women did for Great Britain during the
war. Although Parliament was clear on the fact that it was not rewarding
women for their job in the war, it was in fact recognizing the part women
played in the war effort.
On January 10, 1918, the Reform Bill was
passed by a considerable majority of 63 in the British Parliament34; Prime
Minister Asquith, though he bitterly opposed it in principle, signed it into
law to avoid further conflict. The bill allowed women above the age of 30
(women under that age were considered unreliable35) to vote in national
elections. Although it may be thought that the women's work in World War I
was the sole reason they were granted enfranchisement in 1918, it must be
surmised that women would not have gained the vote even then if they had not
so emphatically demanded it for the previous 70 years. The militancy of the
suffragettes served an invaluable purpose; without it, the government could
have (and did, before 1913) stated that there was no real "evidence"
suggesting that women even wanted the vote. The militants destroyed this
theory, in the most public way available in those days: through the press.
By destroying property, staging demonstrations, and creating riots, the
militants kept "the cause" constantly in the papers and constantly an issue.
The WSPU created an emergency situation of the suffrage question, keeping
the question fresh in the minds of both the public and Parliament. The
domestic effects of World War I were not negligible in the enfranchisement
of women; they raised women in the eyes of the Parliament and all men who
remained in Britain during the war, but they also raised many women's
estimations of themselves, giving many a new sense of self-worth, causing
them to realize the necessity of the vote. But the militancy of the
suffragettes is the main factor women's suffrage was achieved in 1918;
although before the war the suffragettes' militancy angered many, and seemed
as if it would delay the enfranchisement process, it was necessary to
threaten the government out of a stalemate and into a state of action. The
women of England, by throwing off Victorian ideals, created a new identity
and a new place in society for themselves.
1Marian Ramelson, The Petticoat
Rebellion: A Century of Struggle for Women's Rights (London: Lawrence and
Wishart, 1967), p.133.
2Bonnie S. Anderson and Judith P.
Zinsser, A History of Their Own: Women in Europe (New York: Harper, 1988),
3Ray Strachey, The Cause: A Short History
of the Women's Movement in Great Britain (Port Washington: Kennikat Press,
7David Morgan, Suffragists and Liberals:
The Politics of Woman Suffrage in England (Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield,
8Ramelson, p.136. "Colourful" the
campaign was at this point; one tactic the suffragettes used was surprise.
Since suffragettes were barred from Cabinet Ministers' meetings, because of
the disturbance they tended to cause, the women would often smuggle
themselves inside during the nighttime and hide; the next day, they would
pop out of organ stalls, orchestra pits, and other strange places.
11Barbara Castle, Sylvia and Christabel
Pankhurst (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), p.117.
18Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story
(London: Everleigh Nash, 1914), p.180.
21The Times (London), November 23, 1913,
22The Times, p.7.
26Ramelson, p.140. Emergency measures
were undertaken to protect the other art treasures of Great Britain.
28At Davison's funeral, a procession of
6000 accompanied her coffin to the cemetery. Mary Richardson, who, like
everyone else, had not known Davison's intentions, describes Davison's
death: "For the first time the movement seemed all night. All darkness. A
hopeless groping through the fogs of human hatred." Mary Richardson, Laugh a
Defiance, p.20, 1953, as cited in Ramelson, p.140.
30The Times (London), January 11, 1918,
p.8, col. 3.
31The Times, p.8.
32The Times, p.8.
34The Times, p.8.
35On May 23, 1928, the age limit was
lowered to 21, the same age limit for men.
Anderson, Bonnie S., and Judith P.
Zinsser. A History of Their Own: Women in Europe. New York: Harper & Row,
Bowie, John. The English Experience: a
survey of English history from early to modern times. New York: G. P.
Putnam's Sons, 1971.
Castle, Barbara. Sylvia and Christabel
Pankhurst. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
Morgan, David. Suffragists and Liberals:
The Politics of Woman Suffrage in England. Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield,
Marian. The Petticoat Rebeliion: A Century of Struggle for Women's Rights.
London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1967.
Rover, Constance. Women's Suffrage and
Party Politics in Britain, 1866Q1914. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.
Severn, Bill. Free But Not Equal. New
York: Julian Messner, 1967.
Strachey, Ray. The Cause: A Short History
of the Women's Movement in Great Britain. Port Washington: Kennikat Press,
Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story.
London: Everleigh Nash, 1914.
Richardson, Mary, Laugh a Defiance, p.20,
1953. as cited in Ramelson, Marian, The Petticoat Rebellion: A Century of
Struggle for Women's Rights. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1967.
The Times (London), November 23, 1910.
The Times (London), January 10, 1918.
The Times (London), January 11, 1918.