Policy and Tactics
important aspect of WSPU tactics was
to attack the government at by-elections, which came more frequently in
those days than they do now… The
suffragettes could make a much greater impact at by-elections than at
general elections, as their efforts could be concentrated on one
constituency, whereas at a general election they were dispersed. The
WSPU would even oppose suffragist Liberal candidates at by-elections,
arguing that the existing Liberal government would not grant votes for
women and the only way to bring down the government was to oppose all its
supporters. They wished
to break down the opposition of the Government to women's suffrage by
making its members realize 'that by refusing facilities to a women's
suffrage bill they are incurring the displeasure of the people of the
feature of attacks upon the government was the heckling of Cabinet
Ministers, practically all members of Campbell-Bannerman's and Asquith's
ministries suffering at one time or another, whether favourable towards
women's suffrage or not. Some
were particularly unlucky, Churchill, for instance, in the early days, as
his candidature for North-West Manchester was conveniently situated for
the whole period of the WSPU's activities, constitutional methods were
used as well as militant ones, but it is for militancy (i.e. defiance of
the law) that the suffragettes are best remembered. Militancy
Typical of the earlier phase of militancy was the clash with the police
following processions to
The second phase of militancy may be said to have developed with the commencement of stone-throwing in the summer of 1909. Before August 1909, the amount of damage which the suffragettes had inflicted had been negligible, but the forcible feeding to which hunger-strikers in prison were subjected had changed the temper of the movement, so that more extreme measures became acceptable. Even so, there was at first no deliberate attempt to destroy property on a large scale.
Stonethrowing had two objectives: one was largely symbolic, the windows of government offices being broken as a protest; the other was to cut short the struggle with the police, which often resulted in considerable physical suffering before arrest, by committing an offence which could not be ignored. At the start of this activity, the stones were usually wrapped in paper, to avoid injuring anyone accidentally. Sometimes, in addition, they were attached to string, the end of which was held by the thrower. It is difficult to imagine anyone but a middle-class Englishwoman resorting to such a procedure! Eventually stone-throwing became one of several methods used for the deliberate destruction of property.
militancy was resumed after the `Conciliation' bill truce of 1910, so many
of the suffragettes suffered violence during the six hours' struggle with
the police on `Black Friday' (I8
1910) that there seems to have been a spontaneous decision amongst the
rank and file of the WSPU to make their protest in future by attacking
property, instead of suffering further personal harm through struggles in
the streets. …
onwards, militancy entered into a much more dangerous phase. Attacks
on property became more and more extensive and violent. Instead
of courting arrest and imprisonment, the suffragettes eluded the police
and avoided arrest. Shop
windows were smashed on a large scale. Arson
was resorted to as a regular weapon in 1913 and 1914.
sort of destruction, short of deliberate injury to persons, became
acceptable. All sorts of
buildings were set fire to, including a church, a railway station, a pier,
a timber yard and a voluntary hospital. Works of art were
damaged, including the `Rokeby Venus', by Velasquez.
The activities which enraged the public most were the setting
fire to the contents of pillar boxes and damage to golf courses. What
the end of it all would have been if the outbreak of war had not broken
the deadlock, one shudders to think; it would undoubtedly have meant
martyrdom for some of the suffragettes who were hunger- and
thirst-striking in prison. The
chances of a peaceful solution declined, as the opposition hardened on
account of the outrages.
tactics included certain attitudes towards imprisonment. If
the Courts offered the option of a fine or of being `bound over', this was
refused. In prison, the
hunger-strike was started by Miss Wallace Dunlop on
height of martyrdom was attained by Miss Emily Wilding Davison, who threw
herself in front of the King's horse at the
Governor asked me why I had done my deed, and I told him I thought that
one big tragedy would save others.
the last two years before the war, the suffragettes developed considerable
skill in eluding arrest. Christabel
Pankhurst's escape when the Pethick Lawrences were arrested in March 1912,
subsequent disappearance and the announcement six months later that she
from the heroic to the trivial, a particular feature of the tactics of the
militant societies was the ingenuity shown in constitutional as well as
militant activities. They
were pioneers in the use of what we should now call `gimmicks'. In
a display stand devoted to women's suffrage in the
The women's suffrage movement was the first highly organized political movement to adapt itself successfully to the new publicity methods to which the national daily id. newspapers had given rise. The processions, demonstrations, bazaars and badges and regalia, parlour games and illustrated post cards, have all been copied by subsequent political agitations and exemplify the ingenuity with which public notice was directed to the demand for votes for women.
The Fawcett Library has, amongst other interesting propaganda material,
certain games developed as commercial propositions in the period of
suffragette activity. One is a card game called `Panko, or
Votes for Women', and has some similarity to rummy; another is played with
dice and is named `Suffragettes in and out of Prison' and resembles
`Snakes and Ladders'.
Another example of ingenuity was the defiance of the census of 1911.
was instigated by the Women's Freedom League and subsequently taken up by
the WSPU; if women were not to count as citizens for the purpose of the
franchise, then they would not be counted! Many
spent the night in empty houses, some at what seems to have been a
well-organized and enjoyable all-night party at the Aldwych Skating Rink.
(`Taking leave of their census', as Mr. Punch said).
One of the most enterprising propagandist activities, considering the
conventions of the time, was undertaken by Miss Muriel Matters of the
Women's Freedom League. Miss
Matters had already distinguished herself the previous year (1908) by
being one of three women involved in a disturbance at the House of
Commons, when two of them were found chained to the grille of the Ladies'
January 1909, the Postmaster-General played into the hands of the
suffragettes by making it possible to post `human letters!' As
may be imagined, steps were at once taken to post some suffragettes to Mr.
Asquith, a Miss Solomon and Miss McClellan being despatched by Jessie
Kenney (Annie Kenney's sister)- from Strand Post Office.
The ladies were escorted by a small messenger boy to
activities were a continuous accompaniment to militancy and the
suffragettes brought the organization of pageants, public meetings and
processions to a high pitch. The
most striking demonstration staged by the WSPU was held in
While nothing else quite approached the
After the death of Miss Emily Davison following the 1913