Passionate about women's rights, in 1903 the suffragettes of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) split from the suffragists of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) to follow the militant agenda 'deeds not words'. In the years that followed, these women took radical steps to force a change in the laws in Britain for women. But how much do we really know about the suffragettes?


1. Women did not get the vote on the same terms as men in 1918

Many people assume that, as a direct result of women’s war work during the First World War, they were given the vote on equal terms to men. However, they were not.

The Representation of the People Act of 1918 was primarily needed to resolve the issue of soldiers returning from service in the First World War who were not entitled to the vote, as they did not meet existing property qualifications. The 1918 act abolished almost all property qualifications for men over the age of 21 and gave the vote to women over 30 – but only if they met minimum property qualifications or were married to a man who did.

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Emmeline Pankhurst
Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Emmeline Pankhurst, British suffragettes, c1908. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Women could also vote as part of a university constituency if they were a university graduate. The age differential was to ensure that, following the loss of men in the war, women did not become the majority voters. After the act was passed, women made up 43 per cent of the electorate.

Women were not given the vote on the same terms as men until a decade after the act was passed: on 2 July 1928, the Second Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Actwas passed into law. In a cruel twist of fate, Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the militant WSPU, died on 14 June 1928, some 18 days before equal suffrage rights were granted.

More like this

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

2. Suffragettes were accused of being ‘unladylike’ and ‘unnatural’

The bedrock of the anti-suffrage movement was an appeal to women’s femininity and the ‘natural order’. Suffragettes supposedly fell foul of the ‘norm’ and engaged in ‘unladylike’ and public activities. They were presented as women who had failed to reach the ultimate female goal in life of marriage and motherhood. They were depicted as bitter spinsters and caricatured as masculine, plain and ‘unnatural’. Their presence also apparently ‘feminized’ men, too.

The suffragette represented a figure outside of the order of society; they supposedly lacked ‘womanliness’; were seen to be sexually repressed; and were even against ‘God’s order’.

3. Not all suffragists were women

The suffrage campaign and particularly militancy is almost always presented as a protest by women only. However, this is untrue, as many men were committed to the suffrage cause. Keir Hardie MP regularly raised questions in the House of Commons, and George Lansbury MP resigned his seat over the issue. Lansbury was also arrested at a suffrage rally in 1913 after speaking in support of the campaign of arson attacks.

British Labour politician George Lansbury with his wife
British Labour politician George Lansbury with his wife during the Bromley and Bowe by-election, London. The following year he was arrested at a suffrage rally. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Even more closely involved with the movement was Frederick Pethwick-Lawrence. The WSPU did not admit male members, but Fred and his wife, Emmeline, became joint editors of the WSPU journal Votes for Women. Fred also represented the WSPU in legal matters, including trials, as women were not permitted to do so.
Fred was imprisoned many times for his involvement with the movement. Like his wife and other suffragettes, Fred went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed (from 1909, women demanding the status of political prisoners began to refuse food, and the government’s response was to forcibly feed them).

In his autobiography, Fate Has Been Kind (1943), he described how he was force-fed: “The head doctor, a most sensitive man, was visibly distressed by what he had to do. It certainly was an unpleasant and painful process and a sufficient number of warders had to be called in to prevent my moving while a rubber tube was pushed up my nostril and down into my throat and liquid was poured through it into my stomach. Twice a day thereafter one of the doctors fed me in this way. I was not allowed to leave my cell in the hospital and for the most part I had to stay in bed.”

4. Force-feeding was a serious problem

The force-feeding of hunger-striking suffragettes was invasive, demeaning, and dangerous, and in some instances it damaged the long-term health of the victims. It should also be remembered that women were given disproportionately long sentences for minor offences such as protesting, resisting arrest, or smashing a window.

The Cat and Mouse Act of 1913 attempted to address the issue, but instead created a vicious circle: women whose health was damaged were released from prison to recover, only to be returned to prison when they were fit again to finish their sentence.

Professor June Purvis’s study of the letters, diaries and autobiographies written by prisoners [in particular Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography (2003) and Votes For Women (1999)] indicate the horrors of force-feeding and the particularly harsh treatment of poor or working-class women.

A poster showing a suffragette prisoner being force-fed
A poster showing a suffragette prisoner being force-fed, 1910. The poster exhorts people to stop the 'torture' of this 'modern inquisition' by voting against Herbert Asquith, the Liberal prime minister. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Purvis describes the experiences of Lady Constance Lytton, who disguised herself as a poor woman named Jane Warton in order to gather evidence of differential treatment. Warton was “held down by wardresses as the doctor inserted a four-foot-long tube down her throat. A few seconds after the tube was down, she vomitted all over her hair, her clothes and the wall, yet the task continued until all the liquid had been emptied into her stomach. As the doctor left ‘he gave me a slap on the cheek’, Constance recollected, ‘not violently, but, as it were, to express his contemptuous disapproval’.”
Warton was forcibly fed seven more times before her true identity was revealed and she was released. Constance never fully recovered from her ordeal – she suffered a stroke in 1912 and died in 1923.

Forcible feeding was humiliating, Purvis states, “especially so for women, such as Fanny Parker, fed through the rectum and vagina. The knowledge that new tubes were not always available and that used tubes may have been previously inflicted on diseased people undoubtedly added to the feelings of abuse, dirtiness and indecency that the women felt.”

5. No-one knows how many suffragettes there were

The question of how many suffragettes there were is impossible to answer. Many women drifted in and out of the various movements due to personal circumstances, as well as political disagreements. Many suffragists and women in the Labour Movement often had other affiliations, including involvement with trade unions. Others held membership under pseudonyms or fictitious names to protect themselves and their families. Furthermore, the NUWSS and the WSPU were not the only suffrage organisations – there were many other national and local groups with varying longevity.

We can estimate the number of women who went to prison at somewhere more than 1,000, but many were imprisoned under public order offences and are not always easy to identify. Neither can we be certain how many went on hunger strike or were forcibly fed.

What we can be certain of is that votes for women had mass support. Marches attracted vast numbers of militant and non-militant supporters, both male and female, from all walks of life. The Women’s Sunday Procession in June 1908 attracted more than 300,000 protesters carrying 700 banners through London. There were certainly more suffragist members of the NUWSS than militant members of the WSPU. By the outbreak of the First World War, the NUWSS had 50,000 members, but estimates on membership numbers for the WSPU vary massively from between 2,000 to 5,000.

The Women's Franchise Demonstration, London
The Women's Franchise Demonstration, London, 1910. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

6. Adela: the lost Pankhurst sister

You are probably aware that Emmeline and her husband, Dr Richard Pankhurst, had two daughters who went on to become prominent suffragettes – Christabel (born in 1880) and Sylvia (born in 1882). But in fact they had five children – three daughters and two sons.

Their first son, Frank, was born in 1884 but died of diphtheria in 1888. The Pankhursts’ other son, Henry Francis, was born in 1889. In-between was the ‘lost sister’ Adela, born in 1885. Like her sisters, Adela played an active role in the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign. She was imprisoned for her involvement and went on hunger strike, although she never supported what she perceived to be the “excesses of militancy”.

Adela Pankhurst
Adela, the 'lost' Pankhurst sister. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Adela and her sister Sylvia left the WSPU in 1913. Sylvia became a socialist, and Adela was encouraged to emigrate to Australia after her mother gave her a ticket and £20. The rift within the family never healed.

7. There was more funding for the Suffragettes than for the Labour Party

After the WSPU split from the NUWSS in 1903, the WSPU quickly became better-funded than the early Labour Party. In 1908, Labour Party subscriptions and donations were around £10,000, while by 1909 the WSPU had an annual income of £21,213 and growing.

However, this was of little comfort to the poorer individuals involved in the moment. In her autobiography, Memories of a Militant (1924), Annie Kenny acknowledged: “I left the Movement, financially, as I joined it, penniless. Though I had no money I had reaped a rich harvest of joy, laughter, romance, companionship, and experience that no money can buy.”

Suffragettes in prison clothing after their release
Suffragettes in prison clothing after their release, 1908. Wearing their prison numbers on badges, they wave joyfully to the crowds. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

8. Many suffragettes refused to complete the 1911 census in protest

In addition to highly visible acts of civil disobedience, such as window smashing and setting fire to postboxes, many women also carried out quieter forms of civil protest. In 1911, the Women’s Freedom League launched a campaign to encourage women to refuse to complete the 1911 census, and in April that year a meeting was held in Trafalgar Square instructing women not to participate.

The protesters followed the slogan: “I don’t count so I won’t be counted”. Some spoiled their papers with slogans such as “No persons here, only women!”; they gave their occupations as ‘suffragette’, and listed their ‘disenfranchisement’ in a column headed ‘Infirmity’.

9. Suffragettes used the Royal Albert Hall for rallies

The Royal Albert Hall was regularly hired by both suffrage and anti-suffrage groups, including the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.

There were also more than 20 suffragette meetings and rallies at the Royal Albert Hall between 1908 and 1918. The WSPU became the first group to be banned from the hall, because of costly disruption and damage.

10. Suffragettes ran for seats in parliament

Lady Nancy Astor was the first woman to take her seat in parliament; her husband, Waldorf, was the sitting MP and (supported by him) she won his Sutton Plymouth seat at a by-election in 1919.

Astor was not the first woman to stand for parliament or to be elected, however – this was Sinn Féin’s Constance Markievicz, who was elected at the general election of 1918 but did not take her seat. The 1918 general election had seen 17 female candidates, including Christabel Pankhurst, who stood for the Women’s Party in Smethwick. Despite the Conservative Party agreeing not to field a candidate, Christabel narrowly lost to the Labour Candidate by 775 votes.

In 1919, suffragettes were dismayed that the first woman MP had played no role in the suffrage movement and had succeeded her husband. Initially Nancy Astor was unsupported by any faction of the movement – after all, she was upper class, elite, and an American! She soon won them round though, by making clear her commitment to women’s causes, supporting other female MPs, and by campaigning vigorously for the Equal Franchise in 1928.


Dr Jacqui Turner is a lecturer in modern history at the University of Reading, and is the author of Battleaxes and Benchwarmers, Early female MPs 1919-1931 (2017)