“If I were a woman, I’d simply refuse to speak to any man or do anything for men until I got the vote…Women should have a revolution! They should shoot, kill, maim, destroy- until they are given the vote.”.
This opinion was expressed by esteemed writer and British icon George Bernard Shaw in 1905-the cusp of a new age for both England and its female inhabitants. The most powerful country in the world had just emerged from its Victorian period- an era where women were treated with idolatry and reverence, but were not respected as autonomous beings in their own right. Far from being urged to ‘shoot, kill, maim and destroy’, women were encouraged by Victorian society to be subservient, composed and content in their role as second-class citizens. As the 19th century wore on, select few began to challenge this gender construct and slowly work for female emancipation. In the mid nineteenth century the subject of women’s suffrage emerged and was championed by many (including the famous John Stuart Mill), but all arguments fell short of persuading a public still constrained by patriarchal values and prejudices. Increasingly, women began to congregate around the country to discuss and champion civil rights for women. Informal meetings and discussions eventually led to the formation of many ‘societies’ where women would gather to pool resources and ideas on how to achieve their ultimate objective – the right to vote in state affairs. Suffragist leader Millicent Garret Fawcett brought together these separate groups across the nation into one collective association in 1897 that became known as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (or simply, the ‘National Union’). Through this organization, women lobbied the government, held conferences and encouraged women to engage themselves in local politics. In 1903, a faction broke off, calling themselves the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). This group was founded and directed by Emmeline Pankhurst, a militant suffragette who was disillusioned with the slow progress that had been made through constitutional, pacifist avenues. Pankhurst and others were frustrated by the tepid approach taken by the National Union and the general apathy the public felt in regards to suffrage. Pankhurst instead preached the use of militant protestation and radical action to pressure the government and raise awareness about votes for women. It was the approach taken by members of the WSPU- as their motto states, that of “deeds, not words”- that ultimately brought the issue of suffrage to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. While often morally questionable, the suffragettes’ decision to attract attention to their cause through drastic activities (like the destruction of public property and participating in hunger strikes) was the catalyst for the social reforms and public sympathy that eventually led to their right to vote.
It is imperative to note that the National Union and the WSPU were not opponents or adversaries (although there was much exchanged criticism between them). They were two groups of women who had chosen to pursue separate means to a common end. In the early years of the WSPU, before more radical direction polarized the organizations, most suffragettes were a member of both groups. The National Union had chosen to pursue votes for women through nation-wide meetings, petitioning and the persuasion of individual politicians. While the ‘official’ National Union had only existed since 1897, their tactics had been employed by preceding women’s groups for decades with little effect; “They were prepared to play a waiting game, and continued to favor a strategy of political pressure through parliamentary lobbying”. It was this ‘waiting game’ that so frustrated Emmeline and others, prompting the break-off that created the WSPU in 1903. In a speech Emmeline explained the sanctioning of militancy within her organization, “…we have tried to have been womanly, we have tried use feminine influence and we have found it to have been of no use…we need some legitimate influence to bear upon our law-makers.”
Having some legitimate influence as a woman in the early twentieth century was a difficult task, but Emmeline Pankhurst rose formidably to the occasion. She became the public face of ‘votes for women’ and provided the charismatic leadership necessary to run a military-style organization. Not only was she the right person to head up the militant campaign, the time was right for militancy to resonate with the British public. In contrast with the nature of their deferential Victorian predecessors, “a seismic shift had occurred in British political culture, so that large numbers of newly politicized individuals included as a duty of citizenship the obligation to resist government operating without their consent”. Additionally, little time had passed since the Reform Bill of 1867, a successful battle fought by the British working class won to increase the male electorate. At that time, public revolt had proved to be a successful tool in pressuring the government to invoke change- and it was with these tactics in mind that Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia approached the suffrage cause.
An advantage the WSPU had over the National Union in appealing to the general public was a complete lack of party affiliations. While never ‘officially’ being allied with any party, the National Union had strong connections with the Liberal Party in the early 1900s, to where their relentless campaigning came to little avail. Alternately, soon after when the Labour Party was formed “…National Union campaigning involved that active promotion of Labour Party interests”. While this gave the National Union a point of focus for their constitutional methods, it alienated the organization from the members of the population who did not support their party. The WSPU, in contrast, was extremely careful to maintain its status as an independent entity. Christabel Pankhurst asserted in a speech that “political independence had become essential if the WSPU’s feminist goals were not to become obstructed and the organization itself not seen simply an appendage of one of the existing parties”. Over time it became quite clear that the WSPU viewed politicians solely based upon their support of woman’s suffrage, regardless of their official association. This autonomy made suffrage ideals more accessible to the public through the WSPU and emphasized the precedence of the cause over any other allegiances.
The WSPU’s recruitment initiatives and appeal to the masses was incredibly successful. The early days of the WSPU- namely, the period between 1903 and 1908- championed the use of large public rallies and demonstrations and focused heavily on a gathering public support and awareness. By and large, at this point initiatives were still free of the violence that later characterized the militant movement. Instead, the visibility of the movement lay in the rapidly increasing membership, especially that of younger women. The “Rush of Parliament” organized in 1908 drew a crowd of an estimated sixty thousand people, unprecedented support for the issue of suffrage. What was different about these rallies than ones organized by National Union was the ability of the public to rally around culturally adopted symbols and show their support in the public sphere “…the tricolour ribbon was so popular that it sold out before new supplies could be made”. Despite rising pressure, there was little being achieved in the House of Commons to further votes for women. After several suffrage bills came before Parliament to only to sputter and die, the WSPU became disillusioned with the avenue of peaceful protest and resolved to increase public disruption and the destruction of property to fuel their cause. This decision was the one that ultimately gave them the momentum they needed to achieve the complete and utter focus of the general public.
When speaking of violent or militant tactics, it is important to note that all destruction propagated by the WSPU was intended for objects, not fellow citizens. As Emmeline Pankhurst described “It has never been the policy of the WSPU recklessly to endanger human life….There is something the Governments care far more for than human life, and that is the security of property-and so it is through property we shall strike the enemy”. Favored methods of property destruction included window smashing, graffiti, home-made bombs and occasionally arson (on empty buildings). Despite the fact that suffrage actions threatened their property and occasionally their lives, the sympathy of the public tended to lie with the WSPU, who were careful to present their actions to the public as a ‘last resort’. This was an extremely effective way to attract public engagement- both positive and negative- to the suffragette cause.
Militant practices did not only create debate among those who wanted votes for women and those who didn’t. The WSPU’s policies also created schisms among those who supported women’s suffrage. Many who wanted votes for women thought that militancy was too extreme and cast a negative image on women in general. As time went on without a bill being passed, the WSPU became more extreme in their action. Because of this, many who supported militancy initially chose to leave the WSPU and start their own militant organizations (including Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline’s daughter). A powerful outcome of this conflict was a supply of talking points for the general population. This kept the suffrage cause in the public eye for years, preventing it from becoming ‘old news’. Even those women who did not support militancy often admitted its unique effect on rallying the British public. The great Millicent Garret Fawcett, head of the National Union, commented “The physical courage of it is immensely moving. It stirs people as nothing else can. I don’t feel it is the right thing and yet the spectacle of so much self-sacrifice moves people who would otherwise sit still and do nothing”. Militancy did involve huge amounts of self-sacrifice on the part of protesters. Women risked their personal safety using dangerous tools, engaging in physical altercations with the British police and public mobs. But the greatest sacrifice they made was their extended periods spent in prison after being arrested by the authorities.
Most of the leaders of the WSPU spent a great deal of time in and out of prison, and as time went on the prison culture greatly shaped the tone and direction of the suffragette initiatives. Many incarcerated women had fought to be recognized as political prisoners, but the British government refused to legitimize their cause by giving them this special status. Instead, arrested suffragettes were tried and prosecuted as petty criminals and were treated as such. Most of the vocal, unruly women (such as Emmeline Pankhurst) were kept in solitary confinement in an attempt to subdue and segregate them from their peers. While effective in this regard, Emmeline and others succeeded in portraying this isolation as cruel and unusual punishment to the public- once again, galvanizing powerful public debate.
However, the way in which the suffragettes were most able to use prison time to garner sympathy to their cause was through the organization of hunger strikes. Starting in full force around 1909, the hunger strikes created an unprecedented amount of press coverage for the suffragettes. Showing remarkable amounts of personal fortitude, women would refuse food day after day and literally waste away in their cells. The British authorities, panicking, tried all manner of verbal coercion and threats, but the women would stalwartly reject any nutrition. Helpless, eventually authorities would release the woman from into the community to allow her to recover her health. The steady release of prisoners was not seen as a viable long-term solution by British authorities.
In 1909 it became legal for prison wardens to forcibly feed women against their will, an ugly and painful process that involved the insertion of tubes into the mouth or nose. Accounts of the atrocious struggles of the women reached the press and ultimately into the awareness of the general population. Strategically, women had created a thorny situation for the British authorities- there was no way they could let the women starve in prison under their watch, but force-feeding them violated the suffragettes’ rights and resulted in public outrage. Force-feeding evoked feelings of true indignation among many in the population, especially in the press- a pair of writers from the Liberal Daily Mirror resigned, writing to the Times “We cannot denounce torture in Russia and support in England, nor can we advocate democratic principles in the name of a part which confines them to a single sex”. The suffragettes finally had found a radical vehicle by which to attract the kind of widespread empathy they had been seeking for so long.
Frustrated by being portrayed as evil oppressors and helpless in the face of hunger strikers, the British Government implemented the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act (also known as the Cat and Mouse Act) in 1913. This allowed them to release the ill, emaciated suffragettes but re-capture them when they had regained their health. What had been intended to be a clever way to circumvent health issues without torturing prisoners or losing authority instead brought public ridicule and shame unto the government. It was seen as a cowardly approach to a pressing issue, and the authorities struggled to relocate prisoners they had released. Many of these released suffragettes became fugitives from the law- romanticized successfully by the WSPU and the press into outlaws cleverly outwitting a bumbling government. The suffragettes helped foster the huge public backlash the government endured from the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, legislation that endured until the First World War.
Perhaps the best example of the WSPU’s effect on the general British population would be the case of Emily Wilding Davidson. A well-know suffragette, she was given to passionate acts for the suffragette cause, even at her own physical expense (she once threw herself down a prison staircase). At the horse races in June of 1913, Davidson rushed the track and was struck by the King’s horse running at full speed, a trauma that led to her death four days later. She had apparently been attempting to pin the suffragette colors on the horse’s blanket. Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral was one of the largest ever held for a British citizen- people lined the streets mourning for the suffragette “martyr”. Instead of dismissing her actions as the lunacy of a hysterical woman or even chastising what was a fairly idiotic plan, the public rallied around the fallen woman and made renewed promises to champion her cause. She became a national hero and somehow lent a new significance and gravity to the suffrage movement. She also became the first official casualty in what was undeniably a war between the government and the suffragettes.
The hard-fought battles in prison, on the streets and in the press had done for feminism what constitutional suffragists had not- brought the complete focus of the public onto the issue of women’s votes. During the umpteenth debate on suffrage issues in the House of Commons, the Daily Mail reported “A prominent politician who has sat in the House for over a quarter of a century has received more correspondence on this subject than any other since he entered public life”. Yet time dragged on and no legislation had been passed, leading to disheartenment on the part of the WSPU and general confusion from members of the public- many of whom saw women’s suffrage as an inevitable occurrence. However, when the country declared war in 1914, everything else was deemed as frivolous in the face of a national crisis. The WSPU called off all militant action, prioritizing English unity in the face of war with the Germans.
During the war, women proved themselves to be fully functional and essential members of society, carrying the industrial sector while the men were at war. Their valiant efforts provided concrete proof to what the WSPU had been saying for over a decade- women were capable and deserved recognition as full citizens. Despite the
‘ceasefire’ in militant initiatives, the issue of votes for women was able to speak for itself through the war effort. Women over thirty were allowed to vote in 1918, and finally achieved universal suffrage in 1928.
Many argue that it was the work done by women in the First World War that ultimately brought about the reality of universal suffrage in England. But undoubtedly it was the years of work done by members of the WSPU that politically sensitized the public to the issue of suffrage. Their tireless efforts and radical tactics captivated, ignited and polarized the nation, creating the awareness needed for the average citizen to feel invested in the issue of suffrage. While the work of the constitutional suffragettes was admirable, their insistence on tackling the issue through patriarchal constructs rendered their efforts ineffective and their exposure limited. The WSPU were focused on winning the publics approval and attention by making themselves politically neutral, heroically self-sacrificing and radically visible. Just before winning the vote, Emmeline Pankhurst wrote that the blood soaked militancy of men had been rewarded with songs and epics, while the militancy of women had harmed no human life “…Time alone will reveal what reward will be allotted to women”. Every woman in England (and possibly the world) has experienced the reward the militant suffragettes earned for them- civil emancipation- and should be forever grateful.
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Holton, Sandra S. Feminism and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Liddington , Jill. Rebel Girls; Their Fight to Vote . London : Virago, 2006.
Pankhurst, Emmeline, Why We Are Militant in Marvin Perry, Joseph Peden, and Theodore Von Laue, Sources of the Western Tradition, 7th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008), pages 159-160
Nym Mayhall, Laura E. “Defining Militancy: Radical Protest, the Constitutional Idiom, and Women’s Suffrage in Britain, 1908-1909”. The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Jul., 2000), pp. 340-371
Purvis, Jane. “Deeds not words: Emmeline Pankhurst: Leader of the Militant
suffragettes.” History Today 52, no. 5 (2002): 56-63.
Raeburn, Antonia. The Militant Suffragettes. London: Michael Joseph, 1973