Lady Constance Lytton

The aristocrat in disguise

As the daughter of the Viceroy of India, Lady Constance Lytton (1869–1923) was born into a life of immense privilege. But her involvement in the women’s suffrage movement saw her swap palaces for prison cells.

Advertisement
Suffragette Lady Constance Lytton
Suffragette Lady Constance Lytton. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Lytton was converted to the cause after meeting suffragettes while campaigning for prison reform. Soon she was speaking across the country and petitioning her influential political connections on behalf of the Pankhursts. In 1909, Lytton was imprisoned in Holloway but was swiftly released when officers learned of her illustrious family background. In order to avoid similar special treatment on later arrests, Lytton adopted the alias Jane Warton, disguising herself as an “ugly London seamstress” during activities that might land her in prison, such as pelting MPs’ cars with stones.

Lytton’s dedication to the cause ran so deep that she even attempted to carve the words ‘Votes for Women’ into her skin while in prison. However, after carving a letter ‘V’ over her heart, she was prevented from completing the job by prison doctors. In 1914, she published a book about her experiences of incarceration and force feeding, reflecting: “When the ghastly process was over, I tapped on the wall and called out... ‘No surrender’ and there came the answer past any doubt… ‘No surrender’.”

Deeds not Words: the suffragette story

Member exclusive | The suffragettes' campaign for equal rights would see them not just rallying crowds with speeches and marching on the streets, but setting fire to politicians’ homes and planting bombs in public places. Find out more in our podcast series: Deeds Not Words.

Listen to all episodes now

Sophia Duleep Singh

The publicity-grabbing princess

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh (1876–1948) didn’t fit the standard profile for a street-fighting political activist. Descended from Sikh royalty that had once ruled in northwest India, Sophia was a goddaughter of Queen Victoria and a fixture of the royal court. She spent her earlier years as a well-known socialite, preoccupied with parties, fashion and scandal.

Sophia Duleep Singh
Sophia Duleep Singh, a goddaughter of Queen Victoria and a fixture of the royal court. (Image by Alamy)

But after a 1903 trip to India opened her eyes to racism and Indian nationalism, Sophia became increasingly politically minded. On her return to Britain, she turned her attention to women’s suffrage.

More like this

Sophia’s fame put her in a unique position to generate publicity for the cause, with attention-grabbing antics such as refusing to pay taxes (since she couldn’t vote on how they were spent), spoiling census papers and selling suffragette newspapers outside Hampton Court Palace. She donated huge sums to the WSPU and was even embroiled in fights with police during the infamous ‘Black Friday’ march of 1910.

Emily Wilding Davison

The ultimate martyr

Today, Emily Wilding Davison (1872–1913) being trampled by the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913 is probably the most famous incident in the suffrage campaign. Yet although Davison’s death secured her legacy as a martyr for the cause, it is debated as to whether she intended the fatal consequences of her actions. While Davison had spoken of the movement needing the “sacrifice of human life”, some believe her death was accidental and she was simply trying to interrupt the race.

Emily Wilding Davison wears a graduate cap and holds a degree scroll
Emily Wilding Davison. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Either way, by the time of her death, the 40-year-old Londoner was an ardent supporter of votes for women, with years of activism under her belt. After joining the WSPU in 1906, Davison was arrested several times for activities including throwing stones, obstruction, smashing windows in the House of Commons and setting fire to a postbox. Five thousand women marched in her funeral procession.

Lilian Lenton

The daring escapee

“Whenever I was out of prison my object was to burn two buildings a week,” Lilian Lenton (1891–1972) wrote of her time as a suffragette. “The object was to create an absolutely impossible condition of affairs… to prove it was impossible to govern without the consent of the governed.”

Known as the “tiny, wily, elusive Pimpernel”, Lenton – who gave up a career as a dancer to join the suffragettes – spent much of 1912–13 leading the police on a wild goose chase. After being suspected of a Doncaster arson attack in 1913, she evaded the police disguised as an errand boy before jumping on a yacht and escaping to France.

Lenton was also at the centre of a scandal over the treatment of suffragettes in prison, when it was made public that she had contracted pleurisy after being force-fed (due to food entering her lungs). The Home Secretary falsely denied Lenton’s ordeal, and serious embarrassment ensued when the truth was revealed. Despite her contributions, Lenton was too young to vote when the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918.

Annie Kenney

The working-class hero

Having experienced the struggles faced by working-class women in Edwardian Britain first-hand, Annie Kenney (1879–1953) saw the vote as a means of improving their lives. Hailing from Springhead, an area of Oldham, Kenney worked in a cotton mill from the age of 10. She and her sister Jessie became involved in the movement after witnessing a speech from Christabel Pankhurst.

Suffragette Annie Kenney
Suffragette Annie Kenney Arrested by Police. She was an important recruiter for the suffragettes. (Photo by Daily Mirror Photograph/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

Kenney was an important recruiter and co-founded the first London branch of the WSPU, becoming one of the only working-class women in the WSPU’s leadership. Arrested 13 times in total, postcards of her were sold to adoring fans.

Keir Hardie

The political ally

Keir Hardie
Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party. (Photo by: HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

To most politicians, the suffragettes were objects of derision and even hatred. But they did have one key ally on the inside – Keir Hardie (1856–1915). The founder of the Labour Party saw suffrage as the key to improving the lives of working women and was a frequent speaker at rallies. Hardie spoke out in the House of Commons against the brutal treatment of suffragettes in prison, and even helped smuggle WSPU members into political meetings in order to cause mayhem.

Although this gained Hardie many political enemies, he saw the suffrage question as one that transcended party divisions, writing in 1905: “To those who are opposed on principle to women having the vote at all I have little to say. These I find it easier to pity than to reason with…”

Edith Rigby

The eccentric doctor’s wife

Edith Rigby
Edith Rigby, a suffragette who confounded society’s expectations. (Image by Alamy)

Even before she became a suffragette, Edith Rigby (1872–1950) was a woman who confounded society’s expectations. Married to a doctor in Preston, the unconventional Rigby raised eyebrows with her sandals, Turkish cigarettes, heavy amber necklaces and “extraordinary dresses that looked as if they were made of blue sacking”. She ruffled the feathers of her middle-class neighbours by arguing that servants should be treated as equals and even deigning to scrub her own doorstep. Keen to help those less well off, in 1899 Rigby opened a night school for working women.

Edith’s neighbours’ disapproval turned to disgust when she became involved with the WSPU. She was an influential recruiter and actively engaged in militant activities, planting a bomb in Liverpool Corn Exchange and setting fire to a bungalow belonging to former MP William Lever. Like other WSPU members, Rigby was force-fed in prison, and received a hunger strike medal for her efforts.

Flora Drummond

The commander of the troops

Flora Drummond photographed when she was arrested
Flora Drummond photographed when she was arrested in Hyde Park, London, 1914. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Nicknamed ‘The General’, Flora Drummond (1878–1949) was often seen marshalling marches wearing a military-style uniform atop a horse. A working-class Scottish firebrand whom Emmeline Pankhurst hailed as “a woman of very great public spirit”, she was renowned for her public speaking and no-nonsense approach to silencing hecklers.

Advertisement

Drummond was inspired to join the women’s suffrage movement after witnessing the poor working conditions of women in Manchester. She became a full-time organiser in 1906, teaching WSPU members Morse code to communicate between prison cells, and was arrested a total of nine times.

Authors

Ellie CawthornePodcast editor, HistoryExtra

Ellie Cawthorne is HistoryExtra’s podcast editor. She also contributes to BBC History Magazine, runs the podcast newsletter and hosts several live and virtual BBC History Magazine events.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement