This article was first published in the June 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine
The campaign of arson and violent confrontation waged by the suffragettes in the first decade of the 20th century smashed the complacent façade of Edwardian Britain.
Florid press reports of ladies attacking MPs, burning churches and being force-fed in dingy prison cells focussed attention on the fight for female suffrage as never before. When the government finally granted women the right to vote in 1918, many ascribed the victory to such militancy.
Yet for all the publicity they generated, the suffragettes were only a small, extreme branch of a wider movement. Even at the height of the agitation the majority of suffrage campaigners preferred a moderate approach. “The militancy actually turned many against suffrage,” says Dr Julia Bush of the University of Northampton. “But it’s fair to say that the two approaches complemented each other, for a period at least, to pressure the government.”
There’s been much debate as to what impact the suffrage campaign actually had on the decision to give women the vote in 1918. “The political consequences of the First World War – such as the need to counberbalance the granting of universal male suffrage – were crucial in determining the date and nature of the enfranchisement,” says Julia Bush. “What we can say for certain is that the suffrage movement was one of several causal factors.”
At the end of the 19th century, women – like prisoners, the insane and the poorest men – were not entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. But late-Victorian feminists had campaigned for better rights since the 1860s, and in 1897 local ‘suffragist’ groups came together under the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Working within accepted political channels, the NUWSS convinced most MPs of the principle. But sympathy didn’t change the law and women were still a long way from the ballot.
It was against this backdrop that Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester in 1903. This new organisation adopted the rallying cry of ‘Deeds not words’. Convinced that traditional political methods would never succeed, WSPU leaders decided that militancy was the only way to generate attention, and force MPs to sponsor suffrage legislation.
After the 1906 election delivered a majority for the Liberal party, the WSPU moved to London. There they disrupted political meetings, set up a weekly journal and, in 1908, staged an impressive mass march on Hyde Park. But Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government continued to ignore their demands, leading the suffragettes (as the Daily Mail disparagingly referred to them) to resort to more daring and inventive action.
Mary Leigh had broken windows in Downing Street as early as 1908, but attacks on property became a regular tactic from late 1911. After the failure of another private members bill, the WSPU sent a deputation to the House of Commons. In the resulting clash with police, protesters were indecently assaulted.
Known as Black Friday, the incident sparked an arson campaign that would astonish the nation. Suffragettes set about smashing windows in government ministries and West End shops, leading to the arrest of hundreds. Others set fire to letter boxes and attacked country houses, golf courses, even churches. “The activities of the militant suffragettes had now reached the stage at which nothing was safe from their attacks,” recalled the speaker of the House of Commons.
Although they had enjoyed a boost in membership numbers thanks to the publicity, the NUWSS had by this point dissociated itself from militancy. Its leader, Millicent Fawcett, was convinced that the suffragettes were damaging the cause. Not only did their recklessness drive many women into anti-Suffrage organisations, it also made it impossible for the government to act lest it be seen to be giving way to extreme tactics.
Meanwhile, the WSPU had found a new weapon in the propaganda war. In July 1909 Marion Dunlop Wallace, who had been sent to Holloway prison for stamping slogans on the walls at parliament, went on hunger strike. When others followed her lead, the authorities, desperate not to create martyrs, began force-feeding them. Reports of ladies suffering such indignities revolted the Edwardian public and put MPs in an awkward position.
As the government struggled to prevent scores dying in prison, one young woman successfully provided the cause with its first martyr. In June 1913, Emily Davison was killed by the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby.
No one could fail to notice the fight for suffrage now and, by the summer of 1914, with an election looming, campaigners were hopeful that a new government would back their cause. Then the First World War broke out. Both the WSPU and the NUWSS ceased political activities and women concentrated their efforts in the fields and factories.
Their vital contribution to the war effort was one of the many reasons why, on 6 February 1918, the coalition government enfranchised women by introducing the Representation of the People Act. However, the vote was restricted to those over 30, property owners and graduates from British universities. Ten years later, in June 1928, the government extended the franchise to include all women over the age of 21.
9 places linked to the Suffragette movement
Pankhurst Centre, Manchester
The fight for women’s suffrage began long before the turn of the 20th century but decades of lobbying and petitioning had brought only limited success. Many MPs professed sympathy to the cause but suffrage bills were consistently rejected in the House of Commons.
Frustrated by the lack of tangible progress, the radical feminist Emmeline Pankhurst, who had been active in the campaign for nearly a quarter of a century, decided to set up a new organisation.
In October 1903 Emmeline and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, invited a small group of working-class women, most of them wives of members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) to their home in Manchester. There they established the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a new kind of suffrage group that would dramatically change the nature of
the movement and shock the nation with its militant tactics.
The Pankhurst family lived in their Manchester home until 1906, when they moved the operation to London and began to sever their links to the ILP. The building now houses the Pankhurst Centre, which includes a museum full of memorabilia from the suffrage movement and rooms recreated to look as they did when the Pankhursts made history there.
Free Trade Hall, Manchester
The campaign of militancy promised by the WSPU motto was launched in October 1905 when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney interrupted a Liberal party meeting at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Annie harangued the principal speaker, demanding he endorse votes for women, while Christabel unfurled a banner to the same effect. The crowd erupted with anger at the impudence of these brazen women, who were roughly thrown out. But their task was not yet accomplished.
Christabel wanted to attract as much attention as possible so she spat at a police officer, deliberately committing a technical assault in order to be arrested. Having refused to pay fines, they were both taken to Strangeways prison. When they emerged a few days later, women’s suffrage was an issue of national debate and the press was full of public sympathy. “Twenty years of peaceful propaganda had not produced such an effect,” wrote Hannah Mitchell, another WSPU member. The campaign had changed forever.
The militancy would become far more shocking, but this incident marked the beginning of a new phase. The patient, painstaking strategy of appealing to MPs was to be abandoned in favour of attacking the government. With publicity as their aim, the WSPU duly set about harassing politicians, courting arrest and creating a spectacle wherever possible.
The Free Trade Hall hosted the great politicians and entertainers of the day, from Disraeli to Dickens. It is now the Radisson Edwardian Hotel but the original façade remains and the display of rescued artefacts includes a marble tablet marking the day when two young ladies raised the question of votes for women.
Hyde Park, London
The early actions of the militants invigorated the suffrage movement but most new recruits joined the more moderate NUWSS, which boasted 50,000 members at its peak compared to just 5,000 in the WSPU. Its leader, Millicent Fawcett, understood this. As she told her friend Lady Frances Balfour: “I don’t feel it is the right thing and yet the spectacle of so much self-sacrifice moves people to activity who would otherwise sit still and do nothing”.
Recognising the need to be visible as well as vocal, the NUWSS organised a series of demonstrations to impress upon the government just how much support women’s suffrage enjoyed.
The first of these took place in February 1907, when over 3,000 women from 40 suffrage organisations braved atrocious weather and muddy streets on a slow march to Hyde Park. As the Manchester Guardian noted: “Nobody can suppose that most of the women who took part can have done so for sport or for the pleasure of the thing”.
The ‘Mud March’ proved the effectiveness of carefully planned mass marches. The tactic also allowed the NUWSS to go some way to emulating the enthusiasm and resolve displayed by their militant counterparts while also remaining loyal to their constitutional approach.
A year later the WSPU organised their own march in response to Prime Minster Asquith’s comment that he would abandon his opposition to women’s suffrage if it could be demonstrated that enough women wanted the vote. On 21 June 1908 Emmeline Pankhurst led seven processions to Hyde Park, where 250,000 women gathered for the largest mass meeting London had ever seen. When the government failed to respond, Christabel concluded that peaceful agitation was useless.
Downing Street, London
Eager to strike at the very heart of the government that continued to ignore their demands, the suffragettes set out to target the prime minister’s residence. On 17 January 1908 two WSPU members, Edith New and Olivia Smith, chained themselves to the railings outside 10 Downing Street. Shouting for ‘Votes for Women’, they hoped to create a diversion so that Flora Drummond could slip into the house and burst in on a cabinet meeting.
In the event, she was apprehended in the passageway and quickly arrested. But her attempts to intimidate the cabinet would be repeated over and over again in the following years.
Just a few months later, in June, Edith New returned to Downing Street with Mary Leigh. In protest against the way fellow demonstrators had been roughed up in Parliament Square earlier in the month, the two former teachers threw stones through the prime minister’s windows.
It was the first time the suffragettes had smashed windows in the name of the cause and the perpetrators were unrepentant. “It will be a bomb next time,” Leigh was reported to have declared when the pair were arrested.
Princes Street, Edinburgh
The WSPU had branches throughout the country but almost all protests took place
in London, where the power brokers were. In 1909, however, the WSPU laid down the gauntlet to Scottish women in its weekly paper, Votes for Women: “Beautiful, haughty, dignified, stern Edinburgh, with your cautious steadfast people, you have not yet woken up to take part in out militant methods”.
Rising to the challenge, Flora Drummond organised a mass march in central Edinburgh. In October 1909, tens of thousands of spectators thronged Princes Street to watch the thousand-strong parade, a colourful procession of women, many of whom had dressed as famous historical figures. Decked out in her military regalia, Drummond herself led the procession astride her horse.
“The imposing display achieved its object,” reported the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch. “It advertised to tens of thousands the aim of the suffragettes… Behind this movement there is a solid phalanx of resolute and unflinching womanhood bent upon obtaining the vote and fully determined that they will triumph over every obstacle.”
Houses of Parliament, London
For most of 1910 the WSPU suspended militancy while the Conciliation Committee gathered parliamentary support for its Conciliation Bill, which would have given the vote to women who were already local voters. But Asquith killed the bill. In protest the WSPU sent 300 women to the House of Commons on 18 November. The violent clash with the police that followed became known as Black Friday.
When women had previously attempted to rush past police lines they had been arrested with as little fuss as possible. This time was different. This time the police were seen to indecently assault the women during a six-hour struggle. The doctors who treated the injured women reported numerous “black eyes, bleeding noses, bruises, sprains and dislocations”.
As the secretary of a parliamentary committee established to investigate the incident wrote in 1911: “We cannot resist the conclusion that the police as a whole were under the impression that their duty was not merely to frustrate the attempts of the women to reach the House of Commons, but also to terrorise them in the process. They used in numerous instances excessive violence, which was at once deliberate and aggressive, and was intended to inflict injury. They frequently handled the women with gross indecency.”
Four days after Black Friday, Asquith promised that progress would be made in the next parliament. But the WSPU regarded the pledge as another attempt to postpone reform and began a campaign of destruction designed to force the nation to accept that ordinary life could not continue until suffrage had been granted.
Llanystumdwy, North Wales
By the summer of 1912 the WSPU was engaged in a campaign of attacks on property and violent confrontation. Asquith himself had narrowly avoided injury after a hatchet had been flung into his carriage during a visit to Dublin while his chancellor, David Lloyd George, was harassed in early September as he attended the National Eisteddfod at Wrexham.
Two weeks later he saw more serious disturbances at the opening of the village institute in his native Llanystumdwy, north Wales. When he addressed the assembled crowds, Lloyd George’s opening sentences were immediately drowned out by a cry of “Votes for women” from a woman near the platform.
“Put her in the river,” shouted the crowd as the woman was escorted away and buffeted by hostile bystanders. As the chancellor urged his listeners not to harm the suffragette sympathisers, a succession of further interruptions led to a fracas. According to Sylvia Pankhurst” “Men and women were beaten, kicked, stripped almost naked,” and “the hair of the women was torn out in handfuls”.
A picture of women being assaulted dominated the front page of the Daily Mirror while other newspapers were full of lurid reports of the mauling dished out that day. Whatever the truth, disturbances at such a remote village sent a clear message that no matter how far they went, the government was not going to be allowed to forget women’s suffrage.
Epsom Downs racecourse, Surrey
The most famous incident in the suffragette struggle came in the summer of 1913. On Wednesday 4 June, Emily Wilding Davison, a Greenwich-born veteran suffragette, ran in front of the king’s horse as it rounded the Tattenham Corner in one of the world’s most prestigious horse races, the Derby at Epsom.
“The horse struck the woman with its chest,” recorded the Daily Mirror, “knocking her down among the flying hoofs… and she was desperately injured… blood running from her mouth and nose.”
Davison suffered a fractured skull and never regained consciousness. She died four days later in Epsom Cottage Hospital. Like much of the nation, Queen Mary was unimpressed. She sent the unfortunate jockey, Herbert Jones, a telegram commiserating with him upon his “sad accident caused through the abominable conduct of a brutal lunatic woman”.
With the nation transfixed by her death, the WSPU capitalised on the publicity by organising
a heroine’s funeral for Davison. Thousands of mourners attended the ceremony in Bloomsbury, with ten bands accompanying her coffin from Victoria station to King’s Cross.
Just as the government was attempting to stop hunger-striking suffragettes from dying in prison, Davison had provided the suffrage movement with its first martyr.
National Gallery, London
Perhaps the most symbolic incident occurred on 10 March 1914 when Mary Richardson strolled into the National Gallery and attacked the Rokeby Venus – a famous painting by Velázquez – with a meat cleaver.
Having stood in front of the painting for some time, Richardson suddenly smashed the glass and began “hacking at the picture with a chopper which, it is assumed, she had concealed under her jacket.”
Richardson was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison. She later explained that she had “tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history”.
Within a few months Britain was thrown into the First World War and the WSPU suspended all political activities. The painting itself was restored to its former glory and can still be seen at the National Gallery, with precious little to remind us of the drama that took place there.
Words by Daniel Cossins. Historical advisor: Julia Bush, author of Women Against the Vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain (OUP, 2007).