The Suffragette Movement

The Suffragette Movement
Extended Essay:

Critically describe and analyse the Women’s Suffrage Movement between 1905 and 1918, identifying the salient events, aims and tactics of the different Suffrage societies, the attitudes of the different political parties; comparing and contrasting different historical viewpoints.

In his book “The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign 1866 – 1928”, Harold L. Smith writes that “The women’s suffrage movement was a watershed in British women’s history. It brought women together in a mass movement unparalleled in British history.” (Smith, 1998). Although this may be generally true, any in depth study of the women’s suffrage movement, particularly during the ten years between 1904 and 1914, will show that far from being united, the various suffrage societies were divided, both in their aims and in the tactics employed to achieve these aims. There were divisions between the groups’ aims regarding issues of class, party allegiance, social culture, morality and national identity. A major rift appeared concerning the methods used to attract support for these aims, the main point of contention being militant activity.
The campaign for women’s suffrage has its roots in the latter part of the 19th century. British society had altered dramatically during the 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution bringing changes in living and working conditions, with the growth of class consciousness, with improvements in transportation and communications, and with the education of the masses. For the first time in history ordinary men and women knew how to read and write, and the development of a free press meant that ordinary people had more social awareness than at any previous time. Male householders and tenants in urban areas had had the vote since 1868, and in 1884 Gladstone’s new Reform Act had extended the franchise to rural working class males. These Acts led to increasing discontent amongst women property owners, who felt that they had fewer rights than a male tenant labourer or factory worker.

The Chartist movement of the 1830s had originally thought to include women in their demand for universal suffrage, but this idea had been abandoned as it was felt that there was more chance of success for the Charter if women’s suffrage was excluded. The Victorian Age had seen women in the traditional role of home-maker, belonging to the private sphere of hearth and home, while the public sphere of work, war and politics was considered a strictly male preserve. Of course, some women did work, but their work was generally uninteresting and poorly paid. Whilst working class women often had jobs, especially in domestic service or the manufacturing industries, middle class women usually found that their lives were centred on the home and family. It was from this latter group that the beginnings of feminism came. Francois Bedarida writes that “feminism did not start in the factories, nor down the mines, but in middle class Victorian drawing-rooms.” (Bedarida, 1979). What began as small intellectual groups discussing social and political issues became more organised, with a group of women led by Barbara Bodichon and Bessie Rayner Parkes holding meetings in London during the 1850s and ‘60s to discuss “proposals for gender reform in education, employment and politics” (Smith, 1998). This group was responsible for the publication of a periodical, the “English Woman’s Journal” which published articles on women’s suffrage in the 1860s. Members of this group had also formed the 1855 Married Women’s Property Committee which successfully campaigned for reform in the law to give property rights to married women (Herstein, 1985). Members of this group later formed the London Society for Women’s Suffrage (Smith, 1998). There was some male support for the idea of women’s suffrage at this time, particularly amongst radical politicians and religious dissenters such as the Unitarians and Quakers. John Stuart Mill was sympathetic to the cause, proposing the use of the word “person” instead of “man” in the 1867 Reform Bill; however, his proposal was not accepted.

The women’s reform movement had made some progress during the latter part of the 19th century: in 1870 the Married Women’s Property Act granted married women the right to keep their own earnings; in the same year the Elementary Education Act was passed, giving women ratepayers the right to vote for, and be elected to, the new local school boards. An 1882 Act allowed married women to keep property and money which had been theirs prior to marriage, and the 1888 Local Government Act gave voting rights to women in Local County and borough elections. An 1891 court ruling stated that a husband could not force a wife to live in the matrimonial home, and the Parish Council Acts of 1894 allowed women to stand for election to urban and district councils, and, more importantly, granted married women the right to vote in all local elections that single and widowed women could. Women’s education had been improved too, between 1850 and 1880, by “the start of secondary education for girls by the foundation of several boarding and day schools, and the entry of girls to universities” (Bedarida, 1979). Although these educational improvements were mostly relevant to middle and upper class girls, by the end of the century the results were starting to be noticed; more women were entering professions rather than marrying and remaining at home. Teaching and nursing particularly saw a large increase in the number of women employed – the number of women teachers increased from 70,000 in 1851 to 172,000 in 1901 (Halevy, 1914, in Bedarida). Despite these improvements women were a long way from equality; certain areas of employment such as law and finance were still considered the sole province of men. Most importantly to the suffragist movement the right to vote in parliamentary elections seemed as far away as ever.

Even at this early stage a split was appearing in the campaign: the more moderate, London based group was looking primarily for “civil and political rights” (Bedarida, 1979), with the second group, based in Manchester, being much more radical, seeking emancipation for all women in every aspect of life, including sexual matters. There were several areas which caused conflict between the different suffrage societies. One early issue was that of the 1864 Contagious Diseases Acts. These Acts declared that “women suspected by police of being prostitutes were to have a medical examination to determine if they had venereal disease” (Smith, 1998). Most suffragists were outraged by the Acts, as they seemed to reinforce the sexual double standards of the time – men were not required to undergo any examinations at all, and any woman could be suspected of prostitution merely by walking in the wrong area of town. However, the campaign to repeal the Acts was not universally supported by the suffrage societies – many suffragists were afraid that by showing support for the repeal campaign they would damage the cause of women’s suffrage, and so a rift appeared between those in favour of publicly supporting the repeal campaign and those who opposed this stance. Another area of contention was the involvement of men in the suffrage movement. Some suffragists, such as Helen Taylor, were opposed to the inclusion of men in the societies, whereas others, such as Barbara Bodichon, argued in favour of it, claiming that the co-operation of men was needed for reform and that to deny them a role would prevent women from obtaining the vote, or at least delay the process. Another area to cause conflict was that of political allegiance. Conservative suffragists such as Emily Davies found it difficult to work with radical members, using this as a reason to resign from the London Society’s Executive Committee in the 1860s (Smith, 1998).This difference became even more apparent during the 1880s after the 1884 Reform Bill. An amendment to this Liberal Government Bill proposed the enfranchisement of unmarried and widowed women-property owners. Some Conservative MPs were in favour of the amendment as most of these women could be expected to vote Tory. Many Liberal MPs were also in favour of the bill, but the Prime Minister, Gladstone, was opposed. Party loyalty caused many declared supporters of the bill to vote against it, and the amendment was rejected (Holton, 1996). The rift between Tory suffragists, such as Lydia Becker, and Liberal suffragists widened as Becker showed her willingness to compromise. She proposed working with the Conservatives to try to establish suffrage for unmarried and widowed women, whilst others preferred to work through the Liberal Party to include married women. More women were becoming involved with the political parties during the 1880s as they were used increasingly as volunteers during election campaigns. The 1883 Corrupt Practices Act had made it illegal for parties to pay agents to do this campaign work, and women membership of the Conservative Primrose League and the Women’s Liberal Federation was substantial (Smith, 1998).However, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Party insisted that the women be committed to party policy above issues of women’s suffrage. Women were forced to choose between their loyalty to their political party or to women’s causes. In 1892 many WLF members left to form the Women’s National Liberal Association, which was pro suffrage. In 1867 the National Society for Women’s Suffrage had been formed. This was a party- neutral organisation which brought together the various local societies. Because of its neutrality the NSWS did not allow women’s party associations to be affiliated, but in 1888 several NWLA groups asked to join, and most NSWS members voted to agree to this request. Things were further complicated when Millicent Fawcett and Lydia Becker left the NSWS in protest to form the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. Most societies however chose to stay, and called themselves the Central National Society for Women’s Suffrage. Party allegiance had damaged the cause of women’s suffrage by dividing its supporters, and this division was increased in 1889 when Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy established the Women’s Franchise League. The WFL was firmly committed to the inclusion of married women in any reform proposal, and was also in support of working-class women being given the vote. Members argued that as women worked hard to contribute to the country’s economy, as well as paying taxes, they should be entitled to vote. The WFL maintained close links with the Labour movement, arguing that women’s suffrage was an economic rather than a gender issue. Another society to be concerned strongly with working-class women was the North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage. The NESWS, led by Esther Roper and Eva Gore Booth, attempted to show the government that it was not only upper and middle class women who wanted the franchise. Roper and Booth organised a women’s suffrage petition which was signed solely by working class women. The document, containing 29,359 signatures was then presented to parliament (Liddington and Norris, 1978).

Yet another area of conflict between suffragists was the issue of equal rights. Some women argued for full equality with men, minimizing differences between the sexes, whilst others rejected this point of view. They emphasised instead the differences between men and women, claiming that these differences were the very reason why women should be given the vote. Millicent Fawcett explained her view that “this difference between men and women, instead of being a reason against their (women’s) enfranchisement, seems to me the strongest possible reason in favour of it; we want the home and the domestic side of things to count for more in politics and in the administration of public affairs than they do at present.” She went on to call for “the extension of the franchise to women … to see the womanly and domestic side of things weigh more and count for more in all public concerns.” (both from Lewis, 1987).

In 1897 the National Union of Women’s Suffrage was founded. Led by Fawcett, the NUWSS was essentially a non-militant organisation formed in order to co-ordinate the aims and efforts of the larger suffrage societies. However, it held no power as such, and had no funds of its own. According to Smith “during its early years the NUWSS was primarily a liaison committee linking parliament and the member societies; it bore little resemblance to the powerful body it became later” (Smith, 1998). The NUWSS was strictly non-party: its aim was solely to advance the cause of women’s suffrage. Some groups, such as the WFL, did not join the NUWSS as they felt that they did not go far enough in supporting women’s reform issues apart from the franchise. Under Fawcett the NUWSS gradually became a more powerful organisation. By 1906 the number of societies belonging to the NUWSS had grown from the 17 original members to 31 (Holton, 1986).

However, some suffragists were losing patience with the lack of progress achieved using constitutional methods; they were tired of lobbying parliamentary candidates who claimed to support women’s suffrage but then voted the opposite way when a reform bill came up. In 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union was formed in Manchester by Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst. Emmeline was closely involved with the Independent Labour Party, and had been busy trying to persuade ILP members to support the women’s suffrage movement. The WSPU was initially a group of mainly working-class women, (many of them wives of ILP members), united in the aim of pressuring the ILP to commit to women’s suffrage. It was not originally meant to be a militant organisation, although its motto “Deeds, not words” (Rosen1974) did perhaps indicate its future intentions. Emmeline was joined in the WSPU by her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. Christabel had been a member of the NESWS but had become disillusioned with their lack of progress. It was Christabel, along with Annie Kenney, who took the first militant action under the WSPU. In 1905 the two women picketed a Liberal Party rally in Manchester at the Free Trade Hall. The disturbance they created caused them to be ejected from the meeting. According to a report in the Manchester Guardian of October 16 1905, a witness, Inspector Mather, of the Manchester Police Force told the court “They were taken into an ante-room. Superintendant Watson asked them to behave as ladies should, and not create a further disturbance. They were then at liberty to leave. Miss Pankhurst, however, turned and spat in the Superintendant’s face, repeating the same conduct by spitting in the witness’s face, and also striking him in the mouth” (Butler and Jones, 1994). Christabel plead guilty to the charge of assaulting a police officer, and, with Kenney, guilty to the charge of “causing an obstruction in South Street” (Butler and Jones, 1994).On refusing to pay a fine both women were committed to Strangeways Gaol, Christabel for a total of seven days, and Kenney for three. The behaviour of Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney would seem to suggest that “The chosen weapon was publicity, and the tactics were those of a pushful minority” (Bedarida, 1979). Until now the cause of women’s suffrage had received very little press coverage, But Christabel and Kenney’s actions had forced the issue into the newspapers. The WSPU considered this to be the way forward, and began a concerted campaign of civil disobedience and militant action. This soon led to a split between the WSPU and other less militant organisations. Teresa Billington Greig, an early member of the WSPU, attempted to explain her disillusionment with the Pankhursts by writing “What I condemn in militant tactics is the … double shuffle between revolution and injured innocence, the playing for effects and not for results – in short, the exploitation of revolutionary forces and enthusiastic women for the purposes of advertisement.” (Greig, T., in Smith, 1998). Roper and the NESWS also strongly disagreed with the tactics of the WSPU, particularly those of Christabel Pankhurst. Roper believed that the kind of publicity stunts performed by some WSPU members would undermine the work of other less militant suffragists, and that working- class women would become less willing to take part in public demonstrations, fearing that they would be held to blame for the behaviour of the WSPU (Smith, 1998). The WSPU, through the Pankhursts had initially kept up links with the ILP, but from 1906 these links were broken. The WSPU now wished to be seen as an independent women’s society, without any ties to men’s groups. Smith suggests that this was because the Pankhurst’s wished to attract women from the upper and middle classes who would not want to be associated with a working man’s organisation (Smith, 1998), and this view can be supported by Christabel’s conviction that the House of Commons would be “more impressed by the demonstrations of the feminine bourgeoisie than of the feminine proletariat” (Pankhurst, 1959).

The 1906 general election saw a comprehensive Liberal victory – the Liberal Party won 399 parliamentary seats, the Conservatives 156, and Labour 29 seats. The WSPU thought that, as the majority of Liberal candidates had expressed support for the idea of women’s reform, this election victory would lead to a Women’s Suffrage Bill; however, the election brought no real change. The increase in WSPU militant activity can be seen to be a direct response to this lack of progress. In August 1906 Christabel Pankhurst announced the new policy of the WSPU, which was to publicly oppose Liberal candidates in all by-elections, whether they were supporters of women’s suffrage or not. This new policy was put into operation during the Cockermouth by-election of 1906. Despite its public opposition to the Liberal candidate, the WSPU refused to back the Labour candidate, even though he was a supporter of adult suffrage. Although the WSPU claimed that it was taking a neutral position, its refusal to endorse the Labour candidate had the effect of encouraging votes for the Conservative candidate, who eventually won the by-election. Given the Pankhursts links to Labour and socialism the ILP was shocked by this new policy, especially when the action was repeated later in the year at the Huddersfield by-election (Smith, 1998). Again the WSPU refused to support the campaign of the Labour candidate, who again was a women’s suffrage supporter. This was seen by the ILP as a betrayal by the WSPU of its working class roots, and many ILP women were forced to decide where their loyalties lay, causing conflict within the Party. The Pankhursts resigned from the ILP in 1907 as a result of this conflict. This caused another split within the WSPU, resulting in the formation of the Women’s Freedom League in 1907 by ILP supporters from the WSPU. The president of the WFL, Charlotte Despard, had been a member of the WSPU Executive Committee, but had become disillusioned with the lack of democracy within the organisation, objecting to the increasingly autocratic attitude adopted by the Pankhursts(Smith, 1998). The formation of the WFL led to around twenty per cent of the WSPU membership leaving to join the new society. As many of these women were working-class socialists this led to an even greater reliance on upper and middle class women by the WSPU, and increased their ties to the Conservative Party. The Conservatives were largely in favour of equal suffrage as the better off property-owning women who would be enfranchised were likely to vote Conservative in a general election, thus increasing the Tory share of the vote. As well as implementing the new policy of opposing Liberal candidates, the WSPU continued with their tactics of confrontation, interrupting meetings in Parliament and chaining themselves to railings in Downing Street and outside the House of Commons. During 1906 Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence joined the WSPU and, with the support of her husband Frederick, offered the use of their house in London as campaign headquarters. The WSPU moved from Manchester to London, leading to further accusations that it had abandoned working-class women. The Pethwick-Lawrences contributed large amounts of money to the WSPU, and became strongly involved in the leadership, Emmeline being appointed Treasurer. Although the twin tactics of confrontation and opposition to Liberal candidates generated a lot of publicity for the WSPU there was little real progress towards achieving their aims.
The militant tactics employed by the WSPU could lead to the assumption that it was fighting for a more radical goal than the NUWSS; however, this is not really the case. Both groups were campaigning for equal franchise – that is, votes for women on an equal basis with men. The slogan “votes for women” adopted by the WSPU could give the impression that it was fighting for votes for all women. Although this may have been a long-term aim it was not an immediate goal. Smith tells us that working-class women “were dismayed to discover that (they) would still be voteless even if the WSPU’s demand was obtained” (Smith, 1998). For this reason it could be argued that the biggest split within the suffrage movement was not between the NUWSS and the WSPU, but rather between those groups fighting for equal franchise and those, such as the People’s Suffrage Federation, which were campaigning for adult suffrage – that is, votes for all adults. This should not be used however, as clear evidence that the WSPU had abandoned its working-class ideals altogether. There were still many working-class women involved in the organisation. Rather, it seems that the WSPU believed that there was more chance of success in its ultimate aim if they appealed for equal suffrage first. Emmeline and Christabel’s apparent desire to attract more middle-class supporters to the cause, and their use of militant tactics, can be partially explained by Emmeline’s previous involvement with militant activity on behalf of the ILP in 1896. The Local Authority had banned the ILP from campaigning in a local park and had erected fences to prevent audiences from congregating. ILP members were arrested and imprisoned, and Emmeline was involved in tearing down the fences in protest. After news coverage of the vandalism and legal battles the ILP won the right to continue their campaign. This encouraged Emmeline in her belief that “when respectable middle-class people broke the law it generated publicity and led to victory” (Bartley, 2002).
There was a definite rift developing between the NUWSS and the WSPU over the tactics employed. The NUWSS still believed that results could be achieved by peaceful rallies, signed petitions and by the sponsorship of private members bills, whereas the WSPU was electing to employ increasingly militant action. From 1908 the WSPU were losing patience and began a campaign of violent and illegal activity, resulting in even more publicity for the cause, but at the same time alienating many suffrage supporters, both male and female, who felt that these methods were actually detrimental to the cause, and provoking outrage and disgust in opponents of the movement. Many people who may have been persuaded by peaceful methods were put off by the increasing violence and lawbreaking by WSPU members. Throughout 1908 the NUWSS continued to demonstrate, hold rallies and lobby MPs, while the WSPU was developing the second phase of its militant campaign. In April1908, following the resignation of the mainly sympathetic Campbell Bannerman due to ill health, Henry Asquith became Prime Minister. Asquith was known to be firmly opposed to the idea of women’s suffrage, so his appointment was disappointing for the suffrage societies. Earlier in the year a private members bill on women’s suffrage had passed its second reading, before being side-lined. A group of 60 Liberal MPs approached Asquith and requested that time now be given to this bill. Whilst acknowledging that most Liberals supported the bill Asquith refused to give it any more time, suggesting instead that a reform bill for manhood suffrage be introduced, which could then be amended to include women. He promised not to oppose such an amendment, were it shown to be democratic – that is, supported by the electorate and by the women of the country. As a response to this the WSPU organised a Suffragette Rally in Hyde Park on 21st June 1908, claiming an attendance of over 250,000. Asquith, however, remained unconvinced and on 30th June 1908 Emmeline Pankhurst led a protest group to the House of Commons where they were dispersed by the police. Two WSPU members, Mary Leigh and Edith New, threw stones at the windows of number 10 Downing Street in protest. They were arrested and sentenced to two months imprisonment (Bartley, 2002). Although Leigh and New had acted independently they were given the support of the WSPU, and stone throwing became a part of the organised campaign. Emmeline Pankhurst argued that militant tactics were necessary claiming that she took action because “the condition of our sex is so deplorable that it is our duty even to break the law in order to call attention to the reasons why we do so” (Class Notes, 2008). Opposition to the cause of women’s suffrage did not only come from men; in July of 1908, outraged by the behaviour of WSPU supporters, female anti-suffragists formed the Women’s National Anti-suffrage League. The main arguments of the WNAL centred on the differences between the sexes, and the idea of separate spheres for women discussed earlier. There was a fear that the spiritual quality that was seen to make up a large part of a woman’s nature would be lost if women became involved in national politics, and that by mixing with men on equal terms women’s femininity would be threatened. By 1909 the WNAL had united with the men’s anti-suffrage league, and the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage was formed.

There were a growing number of male supporters for the cause of women’s suffrage; in 1907 the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage was formed, and this London based group was followed in 1908 by the Manchester Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. Other men’s societies were formed throughout the country, including in Scotland. In 1913 Scottish males established the Northern Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage. Smith claims that the existence of these men’s organisations “undermined the anti-suffragist claim that the suffrage struggle was part of a sex-war in which masculinity implied opposition to women’s suffrage” (Smith, 1998).

Further to Asquith’s proposal of an adult suffrage bill the Women’s Co-operative Guild had joined with women from the trade unions movement to form the People’s Suffrage Federation. They were encouraged by Asquith’s announcement that he would not oppose a women’s amendment to any manhood suffrage bill, believing that this would lead to votes for working-class men and women, thus undermining the class structure. However, the WSPU and the NUWSS leaders were opposed to the idea of campaigning for adult suffrage as they did not believe that there was enough support for the idea, and that it would be more difficult to achieve equal suffrage after an adult suffrage bill had failed (Smith, 1998).

The increasingly militant campaign of the WSPU had attracted media attention and generated publicity for the cause. However, much of the press coverage was negative. In 1906 the Daily Mail used the word ‘suffragette’ “as a derogatory label to distinguish the WSPU from the respectable NUWSS” (Smith, 1998), and the term was generally adopted to apply to militant suffragists. Both The Observer and The Guardian covered the issue extensively. The Guardian was a pro-Liberal newspaper whose editor, C.P. Scott, was an influential figure within the Liberal party, and was a strong supporter of enfranchisement for women. Scott held “a male Liberal view that thought women could earn their enfranchisement if they engaged in reasoned debate and behaved in a ladylike manner” ( Despite being in favour of women’s suffrage, Scott was opposed to the militant tactics employed by the WSPU, and the coverage of events by The Guardian was “always tempered by the belief that suffragette tactics were wrong headed” (

The Suffragettes continued with their tactics of attacks on public property throughout 1909, resulting in 294 arrests and 163 imprisonments (Bartley, 2002).In 1906 the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, had granted suffragettes the right to be treated as political prisoners. This meant that they would receive more privileges and better conditions in prison. However, in 1908 he appeared to change his mind, declaring that he had no right to interfere with the discretion of the sentencing magistrates (Bartley, 2002).On 24th June 1909 Marion Wallace, an artist and WSPU member, was imprisoned for vandalism after painting a part of the 1689 Bill of Rights on a House of Commons wall. When she was refused political status she went on hunger strike in prison. Wallace was acting independently of the WSPU, but again independent militant actions were supported and adopted by the WSPU, and hunger strikes became part of the campaign. In response to this the government introduced force-feeding of some of the hunger-strikers. This involved the prisoner being held down while a tube was forced down her throat and liquid food poured in. This was thought by many to be a “violation of the woman’s body which some considered akin to rape” (Smith, 1998). Much of the newspaper coverage at this time portrayed the suffragettes as irrational, out of control, even as ‘mad’ women, but the force-feeding of hunger strikers did attract some sympathy, with Scott, through The Guardian, pronouncing the government’s treatment of the women to be ‘torture’, writing that he was “strongly of the opinion that so extreme a measure … should not have been resorted to” (

The general election of January 1910 resulted in a Liberal government although it did not have an overall majority. The new government set up a Conciliation Committee to draft an Electoral Reform Bill which would be acceptable to all parties. This led to the WSPU calling a truce as they expected it to result in votes for women being obtained. The bill did pass its second reading, but once again the government refused to allow time for further coverage in that Parliamentary session, and the bill was shelved. Asquith intimated that the bill would not be given consideration during the next session of Parliament, and the WSPU ended the truce. On Friday 18th November 1910 a 300 strong deputation marched to Parliament in protest. This day became known as ‘Black Friday’ after the deputation clashed violently with the police and members of the crowd. There were allegations of brutality and even sexual brutality by the police against the protesters during a “pitched battle lasting several hours” (Vellacott, 1993). Many suffragettes were arrested during the struggle, and more press coverage followed. There appears to have been some substance to the women’s claims of brutality, as Scott felt compelled to write an editorial stating that the protesters were “citizens like the rest of us, and they have the right to fair treatment and to the protection of the law” (

A further general election held in December 1910 saw a Liberal minority government returned, and a revised Conciliation Bill was introduced. The WSPU once again announced a truce while the Bill was being discussed, but in November 1911 Asquith, along with David Lloyd George, announced his preference for a manhood suffrage bill rather than the second Conciliation Bill. This led to a resumption of militant activities by the WSPU as the Pankhursts felt that “the Prime Minister had deliberately sabotaged the measure” ( On 1st March 1912 Mrs Pankhurst and two others took a taxi to 10 Downing Street where they smashed windows. Groups of protesters then attacked shops in the West End of London. They used hammers and bricks to break around 400 shop windows, causing over £5,000 worth of damage. This activity led to the arrest of 121 protesters (Simpson, 2005). The second conciliation Bill was defeated in March 1912. It appears that the renewal of violent activities by the WSPU had had a negative impact on their cause; Smith writes that “following the second reading of the 1912 Conciliation Bill, 34 MPs who had supported reform the year before voted against it; another 70 who had supported it in 1911 abstained” (Smith, 1998). This view is supported BY Linda Parker Hume, who writes that “In apportioning blame for the defeat of the Conciliation Bill it is important to emphasise that the rampages of the militants had disastrous repercussions upon the suffrage bill” (Hume, 1982). Millicent Fawcett also blamed the WSPU for the defeat of the bill, saying in an interview with The Manchester Guardian “The doings of the militants had undermined our position so far as public opinion was concerned, and had alienated public sympathy from the movement.” (Hume, 1982). Supporters of the WSPU, however, offered a different explanation for the defeat of the bill: June Purvis writes that “Although a number of MPs claimed to have voted against the bill because of WSPU tactics, the militants pointed out that the bill had been killed in advance. Lloyd George’s support for an alternative adult suffrage measure meant the loss of many Liberal and Labour supporters while the Irish Nationals opposed the bill in order to avoid the possible resignation of Asquith and the break-up of his Cabinet, at a time when they hoped to win Home Rule for Ireland.” (Purvis, 2002).

The NUWSS was angry that militant activity was preventing it from obtaining support for reform through peaceful campaigning. The press was openly critical of the suffragettes, presenting them as “wild and hysterical women” (Smith, 1998), resulting in a decrease in public support. The increased violence seen after March 1912 only served to further outrage public opinion, and saw a decrease in support from the Conservative Party, who voted against suffrage resolutions in their conferences of 1912 and 1913 even though they had previously voted in favour (Smith, 1998).
The WSPU adopted a campaign designed to further upset public opinion, as they believed that less militant tactics would have no effect. In October 1912 Mrs Pankhurst announced the new policy of the WSPU would include attacks on private property, and a campaign of acts of vandalism and arson began.

In 1913 the government, anxious to avoid the possible death of a hunger striker, yet afraid of public opposition to forced feeding, introduced a new act to deal with the problem. The 1913 Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act, known as ‘The Cat and Mouse Act’, meant that a hunger striker would be released if her health was in danger, and rearrested on her recovery to serve the remainder of her sentence. The government’s fears of a martyr were realised when Emily Wilding Davison ran onto the course in front of the King’s horse during the 1913 Epsom Derby and was killed. Although Davison was acting independently and the WSPU regretted her death, her funeral provided the opportunity for a public display on behalf of women’s suffrage (Tickner, 1988). The press coverage of this event was generally negative, with Scott saying in The Guardian that women should seek “honourably and sanely the enfranchisement which is their right” and commenting on the “futility” of Davison’s death, claiming that the “horrible responsibility” for it lay with the militant leaders (all from On June 11, 1913 The Guardian published an angry response from Evelyn Sharp, blaming the government for Davison’s death.

New divisions appeared within the WSPU during 1912 and 1913. These disagreements were caused partly by the increase in violent militant action, and partly by the WSPU’s new anti-male policy. Christabel Pankhurst announced this new policy, claiming that “male objections to women’s suffrage reflected a concern that it would end their sexual exploitation of women” (Smith, 1998). She put forward her theory that men opposed women having the vote out of fear that they would use it to end prostitution, demanding “votes for women and chastity for men” (Pankhurst, 1913). In 1912 the resignation of Labour MP George Lansdown over the refusal of his party to make women’s suffrage a priority issue presented the WSPU with an ideal opportunity to work within the system to further their cause. However, this chance was wasted, largely due to the anti-male policy which had recently been adopted. Lansbury campaigned for re-election solely on the issue of women’s suffrage. However, despite promising its full support, the WSPU appeared unable to come to any agreement with the local Labour Party, and the two refused to work together, with the WSPU staff claiming that “Mrs Pankhurst would never allow the Union to work under men” (Pankhurst, 1931). Lansbury was subsequently defeated; wasting an ideal chance to prove that there was working class support for women’s votes. Another development at this time was the expulsion of the Pethwick-Lawrences from the WSPU due to their objection to Christabel’s increasing reliance on more violent activities to promote the cause (Smith, 1998).This caused a major rift within the WSPU, with some members resigning and, with the Pethwick-Lawrences, forming the United Suffragists (Rosen, 1974). Another rift within the WSPU during 1912 and 1913 was between Sylvia Pankhurst and the leadership, particularly Christabel. Sylvia had been involved in the East End of London working with mostly working-class women, and following the defeat of Lansbury she organised the East London branches of the WSPU to form the East London Federation. The ELF was officially part of the WSPU, but it differed on policy in several areas. It refused to adopt the WSPU anti-male policy, and would not back the arson campaign, and perhaps most importantly, campaigned for universal suffrage rather than equal suffrage. In November 1913, following Christabel’s order that WSPU members should not attend public meetings with men, Sylvia appeared on the platform at a local meeting with George Lansbury. Christabel denounced Sylvia’s actions publicly, and when she continued to ignore official WSPU policy she was expelled from the Union. The ELF then became known as the East London Federation of Suffragettes, and, although a small group, it was important “because of its close links with the Labour movement’s radical wing” (Smith, 1998). The ELF met with Asquith in June 1914 to demand women’s suffrage. Asquith responded by saying “if you are going to give the franchise to women, give it to them on the same terms as men. Make it a democratic measure” (The Suffragette, 26 June, 1914, in Smith).It could be argued that Asquith was beginning to accept the inevitability of women’s suffrage, and preferred the idea of universal adult suffrage to equal terms suffrage because of the class issue – if only upper and middle class women were granted the vote it would have an impact on the Tory share of the vote. An election was due in 1915 and the Liberals were afraid that if equal franchise was granted then more working class male votes would be lost to Labour, and this, combined with the new Tory women voters, would result in a Liberal defeat. However, if universal suffrage was granted, he believed that a majority of working class women would vote Liberal ensuring victory for the Liberal Party.

The NUWSS had moved further away from the WSPU since the last phase of militant activity had begun; the WSPU was seen more and more as a middle-class organisation, and their failure to back Labour candidates had further alienated working-class support. The NUWSS meanwhile, had become increasingly involved with the Labour Party. The NUWSS had become disillusioned with the Liberals following the failure of the second Conciliation Bill, and this led to the alliance between Labour and the NUWSS in 1912. The Labour Party had always been largely supportive of women’s suffrage, but in 1912 it became more committed, promising in its 1912 party conference that it would only support future reform of the franchise if it included women.

The outbreak of the First World War ended any hope of an imminent decision in favour of women’s suffrage. All militant activity was suspended for the duration of the war, and in fact was never repeated. Women played a huge role in supporting the war effort, working in munitions factories and in the Land Army, as well as in the voluntary services and hospitals, and taking over traditionally male roles as more and more men were sent to the front line. It has been argued that when women were granted the vote in 1918 it was as a reward for their activities during the war. However, as the franchise was only granted to women over thirty who were eligible to vote in local elections, it seems unlikely that this was the primary reason for women’s franchise being granted. It seems more likely that electoral reform had already been accepted as being inevitable before the outbreak of war. Many of the previous barriers had been removed: The militancy of the WSPU was no longer an issue, Asquith was no longer Prime Minister, and the formation of a coalition government had removed disagreement between the parties as to the form that reform should take. The WSPU claimed that its militant policy had played a major part in the granting of the franchise, but the NUWSS rejected this claim, arguing that the WSPU activity had instead alienated prospective supporters and had in fact delayed the process. There does appear to be merit in this argument. It can be seen that most MPs were in favour of some form of women’s suffrage, the major obstacle being the failure of cross-party agreement as to the form this should take.

Although partial women’s suffrage was achieved in1918, it wasn’t until the 1928 Representation of the People Bill that the vote was given to all women aged 21 years and over.


• Smith, H.L., The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign 1866 – 1928, Addison Wesley Longman, 1998
• Bedarida, F., A Social History of England 1851 – 1975, Methuen, 1979
• Herstein, S., A Mid-Victorian Feminist, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Yale University Press, 1985
• Holton, S., Suffrage Days, Routledge, 1996
• Halevy, E., History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, vol.VI, 1914
• Liddington, J., and Norris, J., One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, Virago, 1978)
• Lewis, J., Before the Vote Was Won: Arguments for and Against Women’s Suffrage, Routledge, 1987
• Holton, S., Feminism and Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics In Britain 1900 – 1918,Cambridge University Press, 1986
• Rosen, A., Rise up Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union1903 – 1914, Routledge, 1974
• Butler, L., and Jones, H., Britain in the Twentieth Century, Vol. 1, 1900-1939, Heinemann, 1994
• Greig, T., The Militant Suffrage Movement
• Pankhurst, C., Unshackled: The Story of How We Won the Vote, Hutchinson, 1959
• Bartley, P., Emmeline Pankhurst, Routledge, 2002
• Vellacott, J., From Liberal to Labour with Women’s Suffrage: The Story of Catherine Marshall, McGill – Queen Press, 1993
• Purvis, J., Emmeline Pankhurst, Routledge, 2002
• Hume, L.P., The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, 1897 – 1914, Garland, 1982
• Simpson, W., Twentieth Century British History, Routledge, 2005
• Tickner, L., The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907-1914, Chatts and Windus, 1988
• Pankhurst, C., The Great Scourge and How to End It, 1913, (in Smith)
• Pankhurst, E.S., The Suffragette Movement, Longman, 1931

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