Article by Lucy Wray. Edited by Kate Major. Additional Research by Liz Goodwin.
“We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers” – Emmeline Pankhurst.
Pankhurst’s words became the rallying call for a militant and violent campaign to gain political equality for women in the United Kingdom. After becoming frequently dissatisfied with the lack of progress of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), who dedicated themselves to peaceful demonstration, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter, Christabel Pankhurst. It was to be the first women-only organisation dedicated to achieving the extension of the franchise to include women, thus granting them political equality. In contrast to the non-violent tactics adopted by the NUWSS, the Pankhursts led a militant campaign that is still remembered today for its undeniable impact on the fight for women’s suffrage but also for the controversial techniques employed by the suffragettes.
It wasn’t until October 1905 that the women’s suffrage campaign gained validity and national recognition when an incident involving Christabel Pankhurst and another suffragette was popularised by the press. The country was preparing for a general election and, with the growing widespread popularity of the Liberal party, Sir Edward Gray and Winston Churchill were scheduled to speak in Manchester. Christabel Pankhurst and fellow suffragette, Annie Kenney, a cotton mill worker, gained access to the political meeting, armed with a banner declaring ‘Votes for Women’. They waited until the end of Sir Edward Grey’s speech before Annie stood and asked ‘will the Liberal Government give the vote to women?’ She was ignored and so persisted in her questioning, unravelling her banner and refusing to stand down. With the arrival of the police, Christabel joined in with the disturbance until both women were forced to leave the meeting. They took their protest outside and realised the only way to make their demonstration effective was to incite their own arrest. Annie Kenney was later sentenced to three days of imprisonment for obstruction whilst Christabel was given one week with the further charge of assault for spitting in the face of a policeman. The press seized this incident and the suffragette movement gained the publicity it needed to push forward its campaign.
Abandoning the peaceful style of the suffragists, in the years leading up to the First World War the Pankhursts and the WSPU undertook a militant approach to gaining equality for women, including arson, bombings and public destruction. It is estimated that in 1913-14, the WSPU caused damages approximately between £1 and £2 million. The intention of the violence incited by the WSPU was to intimidate the Government, which they hoped would force them into conceding and extending the franchise to include working women. Whilst they did not want to cause personal harm to members of the public they wanted to draw attention to their cause by creating unignorable disturbances and subsequently gaining considerable publicity. They burnt public buildings, restaurants, churches, shops and the homes of politicians, such as David Lloyd George, were also targeted. They sent letter bombs, cut pro-suffragette slogans into turf, chained themselves to railings, smashed the windows of government buildings and also bombed Westminster Abbey. As Emmeline Pankhurst acknowledged, “You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under, if you are really going to get your reform realised.” Whilst the violent tactics of the suffragettes were, and still are, often subject to heavy criticism for being detrimental to the plight of women seeking equality, it cannot be denied that they gained widespread attention, both public and political.
Punishment of the suffragettes was also highly controversial. The WSPU are famous for undertaking a hunger strike. The initiative was pioneered by Marion Wallace-Dunlop who was arrested in 1909 for stamping a message from the Bill of Rights on a wall in St Stephen’s Hall – “It is the right of the subject to petition the King, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitions are illegal.” She was imprisoned and refused food for 91 hours, until the prison had no choice but to release her. Prison wards were required to force feed prisoners and this aided the WSPU in characterising themselves as victims to the vicious brutality of the Government. As a rapid response to this situation, the Liberal Government passed The Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act in 1913. This Act, passed to aid the Liberal Government in disciplining the suffragettes who continued to cause public disturbances, backfired on the male law makers as it only increased feelings of sympathy towards the female campaigners.
The criminal acts of the suffragettes and the imprisonment of many members of the WSPU remain popular subjects for historians today, perhaps because of the divide in opinion about the effectiveness of the militant techniques and the controversy surrounding the era of public disturbance as women fought for political equality. Whilst some can appreciate the desperation of these women as they struggled for their right to be heard and to become politically relevant, others condemn the WSPU for its militant campaign. It is argued that the violence delayed the extension of the franchise to include women for ten, even twenty years. The First World War is often seen as the real reason for the Qualification of Women Act in 1918 as millions of women proved their worth by aiding Britain’s struggle on the home front. During this period of conflict the suffragettes abandoned their campaign in favour of nationalism and supporting Britain in the war. However whilst some argue that violence was not the way to gain egalitarianism, it cannot be denied that the militant suffragette campaign of the early twentieth century raised public awareness and attracted political attention to the issue of gender equality.
“Why is a woman to be treated differently? Woman suffrage will succeed, despite this miserable guerilla opposition.” – Victoria Woodhull
“Universal suffrage is the only guarantee against despotism.” – May Wright Sewall
“We fully believed, so soon as we saw that woman’s suffrage was right, every one would soon see the same thing, and that in a year or two, at farthest, it would be granted.” – Antoinette Brown Blackwell