The suffragettes were by far the most prominent suffrage campaigners in Europe. Moderate suffrage campaigners elsewhere were gaining momentum in the decade before the First World War, spurred on by the first congress of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) in Berlin in 1904. But no other European country witnessed anything like the campaign of arson waged by the Women’s Social and Political Union.
In France, Hubertine Auclert smashed windows and overturned a ballot box during elections in Paris in 1908. But few followed her example and such isolated pockets of militancy never took the form of a concerted campaign. It was a similar story across Europe. Speaking in 1909, Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the IWSA, noted that, “none of our adherents on the continent has resorted to the spectacular methods of our radical sisters in England”.
So why did the campaign turn violent in England alone? Although the suffragettes were rarely treated gently here, police forces in Europe were far more ruthless in suppressing disorder. Moreover, the prospect of enfranchisement was more remote elsewhere so matters didn’t seem so urgent.
In England, on the other hand, the House of Commons had been voting on the issue for years so women’s suffrage seemed to be within reach. Every time it failed to materialise the resentment intensified and the militancy escalated.