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Votes for Women: socialists and feminists in the suffrage movement

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In 1903 the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded. The WSPU became the militant wing of a mass movement of women fighting for the vote. Within this organisation many of the direct action tactics used today were first developed. Kirstie Paton and Stuart King explain the origins of the movement and the divergence of the two wings of the WSPU: the socialists and the feminists.

On October 10th 1903 half a dozen women met in a house in Nelson Street in Manchester, called together by Emmeline Pankhurst a leading Manchester socialist. Emmeline was an important figure in the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The Pankhurst women, mother and three daughters - Christabel, Sylvia and Adela - were all to play leading parts in the struggle for the vote.

Emmeline and her husband Richard had been politically active in the 1870s and 1880s on the radical wing of the Liberal Party and had fought to extend the franchise to women. By the late 1880s, having moved to London, they were swept into the burgeoning unemployment and labour struggles in the capital. Tom Mann, William Morris, Walter Crane and many other socialists frequented their flat in Russell Square. They marched with the unemployed on Bloody Sunday in 1887, where police killed two demonstrators in their attempt to disperse the 'illegal' demonstration, and Emmeline helped out in the famous Matchgirl's strike of 1889. In 1888 Emmeline met Keir Hardie, later to become the first socialist MP and leader of the ILP, at an international trade union conference. He was to remain a lifelong friend and supporter of the WSPU.

When the Pankhurst's returned to Manchester they were quickly attracted to the ILP which was founded in 1893. After Richard's death in 1898 Emmeline became more active in the ILP, even though she was the sole breadwinner for the family. She was soon joined in the ILP by her older daughters, Christabel and Sylvia.

Following Richard's death a memorial fund was set up by the ILP in his name. Emmeline had asked for it to be used to build a hall in Salford for ILP meetings. The hall was decorated by Sylvia, already a trained and talented artist. But the opening was a disaster. Emmeline discovered that the local ILP branch, which was using the hall as a social club, did not admit female members! Sylvia reports her mother as declaring "We must have an independent women's movement!" and immediately calling the meeting which founded the WSPU.

Women's suffrage and Labour

The founding of the WSPU was, however not merely Emmeline's angry response to this example of gross sexism in the ILP, but the result of differences between the Pankhursts and the ILP/Labour leadership on equal electoral rights for women.

Not only women but also the vast majority of male manual workers were disenfranchised. In the late 1880s 40% of men over 21 did not have the vote. Proposals for women's enfranchisement that came before parliament, supported by the very moderate National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett, involved giving better off women the vote on equal terms with men. There was regularly a parliamentary majority for such bills but, as successive governments refused to give time for them, they never went further than a first reading.

The WSPU was founded on the basis of fighting for an "equal terms" bill, whilst opposing the passive tactics of the NUWSS - which were clearly not working. The emerging Labour Party opposed the "equal terms" position for both good and bad reasons. It counterposed to it the demand for "full adult suffrage" encompassing both men and women. While this was a perfectly correct position, the problem was the Labour Party did little to campaign or fight for it. As a result it appeared increasingly to the Pankhursts, and to other women, that Labour was saying women would just have to wait for equal treatment until socialists had a majority in parliament. As Christabel put it in a polemic in the ILP News in 1903, 'One gathers that someday, when socialists are in power, and have nothing better to do, they will give women votes as a finishing touch to the arrangements. Why are we expected to have such confidence in the men of the LP? Working men are as unjust to women as are those of other classes'

The new militancy

Despite their differences with the Labour leadership the WSPU developed alongside the growing Labour Party/ILP relying on the parties' organisations and meetings to get their ideas across. Indeed in its early years the WSPU acted as a women's section of the ILP, which unlike the Labour Party, was eventually won over to the WSPU position. But it was the turn to militancy from 1905 which transformed the WSPU from a small pressure group of a few dozen into a mass movement.

In 1906 during a speech by Sir Edward Grey, a leading Liberal, at Manchester Free Trade Hall, Christabel and a new recruit Annie Kenney jumped up on their chairs, unfurling a banner demanding "Votes for Women". They had to be removed forcibly from the meeting. For good measure Christabel slapped a police inspector in the mouth outside in order to get arrested. In court Christabel declared "We cannot make an orderly protest because we do not have the means whereby citizens may do such things". Both were sentenced to seven days in gaol after refusing to pay a fine.

The first militant steps had been taken. Two thousand protestors greeted the women when they were released from prison. Keir Hardie told a packed Free Trade Hall meeting "20 years of peaceful propaganda have not produced such an effect."

Christabel Pankhurst increasingly moved into the driving seat of the WSPU's campaign, with her mother willing to defer to her in tactics and politics. Her actions shocked 'polite society' where middle class women were expected to be passive and act with decorum as 'wives and mothers'. Christabel broke all the rules and was denounced from all sides, by the leaders of the NUWSS and by Ramsey McDonald. But her tactics struck a chord with tens of thousands of women who saw the refusal to grant the vote as a symbol of their oppression and who were determined to fight.

Mobilising the working class

In 1906 the Liberals had won a resounding victory with a massive majority in parliament, but votes for women were low on their agenda.

The WSPU held its first major rally at Caxton House in Westminster. There were many well off ladies from Chelsea and Kensington in attendance as well as a contingent of working class women from the East End who arrived singing the Red Flag.

Christabel had no doubt who was the most important. Politicians she said would be "more impressed by the demonstrations of the feminine bourgeoisie than of the feminine proletariat". The WSPU set about under her direction to recruit the rich and influential as well as large numbers of middle class women. Fred and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, well off ILP members, were important recruits to the central leadership. They added important fundraising skills to the Pankhurst's flair for publicity and daring. They quickly took charge of bringing out a women's paper for the WSPU, 'Votes for Women', which by 1909 had a circulation of 22,000.

Militant action was extended from disrupting Liberal meetings to street protests at Downing Street and parliament. The tactic of "rushing parliament" was developed, turning apparently peaceful lobbies by hundreds of women into attempts to rush the chamber and disrupt proceedings. The activists of the WSPU developed an enormous variety of methods of protest. Pavement chalking was used to advertise meetings and actions. The banner drop was invented with one group of women occupying the top of the Monument in the city and dropping a 'votes for women' banner. Barges were floated by parliament festooned with political slogans, while door-stepping ministers offices was developed into an art form.

Because of these actions, 1906 and 1907 saw increasing numbers of arrests and imprisonments - Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia were all locked up for shorter or longer periods. In February 1907 the first 'Womens Parliament' was held at Caxton House to coincide with the opening of parliament. Hundreds of women poured out to march to Parliament and were charged by mounted police. The Liberal government was accused of using "Tsarist methods" by the popular press. The Daily Mirror, then a new 'picture paper for ladies', was particular pro the WSPU whose actions always provided newsworthy pictures and copy. It was the Mirror which popularised the term 'suffragette' to distinguish the militant WSPU from the moderate 'suffragists' of the NUWSS.

The WSPU now had a national profile. Branches were being set up throughout London and the south. Full-time organisers were sent to Scotland and towns in the north to set up new branches. With the wealthy patrons money poured in. By 1909 the WSPU had an income of £21,000 a year, while the Labour Party had to make do on under £10,000.

Breaking from Labour

The WSPU's turn away from working women led to growing tensions with the ILP and Labour Party. Labour had returned 40 MPs in 1906, often only successful because the Liberals stood aside. In the commons they appeared largely as a tail to the Liberals. This aided Christabel's desire for a split. She increasingly looked to the Tories as a weapon against the Liberals.

At the Cockermouth by election in 1906, where the Labour Party was standing, Christabel arrived and announced that the WSPU would not be supporting the Labour candidate. In 1907 Emmeline and Christabel resigned from the ILP. This change of policy, accompanied by the 'exclusion' from the WSPU of ILP women who continued to support Labour candidates, led to the first split. Teresa Billington, the Scottish organiser, and Charlotte Despard, both ILP members decided to challenge the decision at a planned WSPU national conference. But the conference was cancelled and a London meeting convened by Emmeline and Christabel appointed a new national committee without the rebels. Emmeline explained her attitude to democracy within the movement: 'The WSPU is simply a suffrage army in the field. It is purely a volunteer army, and no one is obliged to remain in it'. And of course Emmeline and Christabel were the self-appointed general staff!

The split with what became the Women's Freedom League, an organisation that worked more closely with the Labour Party, failed to dent the upward rise of the WSPU. June 1908 saw the first great suffragette demonstration in Hyde Park, 30 trains were laid on to bring in demonstrators and 20 platforms of women speakers were set up. The march set off from 7 separate locations in London with over 700 women's banners. The official colours of the movement, "purple for dignity, white for purity and green for hope" received their first outing. The papers estimated that between 250,000 and 500,000 gathered in Hyde Park. The march was the first of a series of mass demonstrations, pageants and exhibitions organised by the WSPU to propagandise for women's rights.

From militancy to terrorism

For all its militancy and influence amongst wealthy circles of women, the WSPU found that it could not shift the government on votes for women. Christabel had turned away from the only force that could have brought about radical change, the millions of working class women and men who had the power to bring the country to a standstill. This was no pipe dream. In Belgium full manhood suffrage had been won in 1893 only as a result of a series of general strikes, and Britain in the pre-war period was moving into an unprecedented upsurge of trade union and syndicalist led struggles.

Having turned their backs on the working class, in 1912 the WSPU resorted to ever more outrageous acts aimed at terrorising the government and the Liberal Party into granting the vote for women.

Individual politicians were targeted and had to be given police protection, something unheard of in Britain at the time. Windows in government buildings and Oxford Street stores were smashed. Pillar boxes were set ablaze with burning rags. Liberal rallies were bombarded with slates from roof tops, trains carrying ministers were stoned and derailed. MPs homes were bombed and set on fire. Priceless pictures were attacked with axes in the national and other galleries. Parliament was targeted by ever more militant demonstrations, one involved two removal vans arriving full of militant suffragettes who threw open the doors in front of stunned policemen and rushed the commons. Emily Davison, originator of many of the more militant tactics, threw herself at the Kings horse at the 1913 Derby, gaining a martyr's funeral organised by the WSPU.

Police repression increased massively. Their press and papers were seized, their offices regularly raided. More and more women were gaoled. The suffragettes went on hunger strike and the government resorted to force feeding. Later 'the Cat and Mouse Act' was introduced allowing the prison authorities to release ill prisoners only to arrest them at will when they had recovered enough to be locked up again.

Individual women made heroic sacrifices, but their tactics and isolation from the mass of working class women meant that in the period 1910-1913 the WSPU went from being a mass movement to a tightly knit guerrilla organisation, working largely underground. Christabel fled to Paris in 1912 to avoid arrest and continued to direct the movement from abroad.

Further splits and purges ensued, even extending into the direct family. Adela Pankhurst was regarded as 'too socialist' and she was despatched to Australia where Emmeline thought she would be out of the way. In fact she became a founder member of the Australian Communist Party. Sylvia was seen as a similar threat. She was summoned to Paris in 1913 and told that the East London Federation was no longer to be part of the WSPU.

From exiles to patriots

The outbreak of war in August 1914 was to change the situation of the WSPU dramatically. The Home Secretary's amnesty for all suffragette prisoners was enough to allow a return to England. Emmeline quickly announced the suspension of all militant activity and the publication of the WSPU's paper 'the Suffragette' ceased. When it re-appeared in 1915 it was as a pro-war paper called 'Britannia'. For the rest of the war Emmeline and Christabel became ultra-patriots. In contrast many of the active ILP and Labour Party women joined the anti-war and pacifist movement.

The end of the war finally saw the government offer votes for all men, but only for women over the age of 30. Two days after the measure was passed in 1918, Emmeline sat down to breakfast with Lloyd George the Prime Minister and declared, "Now we must work harder than ever to keep women out of the clutches of Macdonald and co." But in the post-First War world the WSPU leaders no longer had the authority or hold over militant women. Despite standing for parliament - Christobel as the head of a short lived Women's Party, Emmeline as a Conservative - neither was elected.

Nevertheless the Suffragette movement they led had changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of women. A woman's role in society was never seen in the same way again. The movement had broken the shackles of decorum and passivity in the most startling way possible.