The Effect of Militancy in the British Suffragette Movement

by Marcie Kligman, RMHS '96

This document originally appeared on the Welsh Communists' Website at

This site went down in September 2010, so I have copied it here.


This document was written by and is therefore copyright Marcie Kligman.

The ideal for women at the turn of the century in Great Britain was to maintain a composed facade, a delicate and demure manner, and a distaste for all things violent. This ideal did not allow for breaking street lamps, destroying golf courses, shattering windows, setting arson to palaces, destroying works of art, and fist-fighting with policemen. Frustrated with a sidestepping government, a majority of the suffragettes of Great Britain eventually turned to such militant measures in order to campaign for women's rights and, especially, women's voting rights. Although these extreme measures in the short term delayed the implementation of women's suffrage, combined with the increased respect women received during World War I, the passionate protests actually helped ensure the granting of suffrage to women in Great Britain in January of 1918.

The struggle for women's equality in Great Britain started long before the turn of the twentieth century. One of the very first "suffragettes" (the term coined as an insult by the London Daily Mail, but adopted easily by the female suffragists1) was Mary Smith, an unmarried property owner. In 1832 she quietly petitioned Parliament urging the inclusion of propertied women as those privileged to vote for members of Parliament. The House of Commons laughed at the petition, a reaction that would be repeated several times over the next few decades, until the entire nation was forced to consider the question of women's suffrage seriously. Through much effort, by the early twentieth century English feminists had accomplished many goals: women could serve on town councils and school boards, could be factory inspectors, could even vote in select regional elections if they had enough property, and could even become mayors, like Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.2 But they still could not vote for Parliament. At this time the first organizations for women's suffrage began, most notably the Female Political Association, founded by a Quaker named Anne Knight, but their patient efforts to gain the vote yielded no results.

In 1906 one of the first major attempts to achieve suffrage gained national attention when an envoy of 300 women, representing over 125,000 suffragists, male and female, argued for women's suffrage with the Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. The Prime Minister agreed with the delegation's arguments, but "was obliged to add that he proposed to do nothing at all about it."3 His reasons were that there were too many differences of opinion on the matter in the Cabinet and the Liberal Party (of which he was a member), and that "his hands were tied."4 He urged the women "'to go on pestering', and to exercise 'the virtue of patience.'"5 Some of the women to whom Campbell-Bannerman advised to be patient had been working for women's rights for as many as fifty years; his advice to "keep on pestering" was soon to prove quite unwise. His thoughtless words infuriated his audience, and "by those foolish words the militant movement became irrevocably established, and the stage of revolt began."6 The younger suffragettes realized that the polite methods previously used by the older generation were achieving nothing. The only option left was to act up for the press; the activists realized that "tea parties would not do it: sensational publicity and martyrdom might. The Press would not be able to resist publishing sensational exploits."7 Most suffragettes turned to these methods, which will be explained later.

Not all suffragettes agreed with the necessity of sensationalism. It was at this point that the (as yet unorganized) women's suffrage movement split into two major factions, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, and the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Sylvia. The NUWSS restricted itself to peaceful demonstrations and more petitions (and more or less disappeared from print), while the WSPU quickly switched to more press-baiting methods, but still was far from the more militant tactics it would eventually attain. However, in its policy the WSPU was already stressing the importance of publicity; the members were encouraged to "conduct the biggest publicity campaign ever known; make it more colourful and more commanding of attention than anything ever seen before."8 It was not until over 300 arrests had been made that the suffragettes began to hurl stones through windows, in 19089.Suffragettes were arrested at any gatherings that threatened to be less than totally peaceful, but at this point, before 1910, they offered no resistance when arrested. When tried, the suffragettes refused to be fined; they chose imprisonment instead, and insisted on being categorized as political prisoners. Once in prison, they went on hunger strikes. Marion Wallace, in 1909, became the first hunger striker10, and though she refused food and water without any previous discussion with Pankhurst or the other members of the WSPU (members of the NUWSS refrained from such drastic measures), other suffragettes quickly followed her lead; the strikes drew the press's, and the public's, interests. The response of the prisons to the suffragettes' hunger strikes was force-feeding, a gory process that involved shoving a steel tube down the throat or nose of the inmate. This process, once known to the press, aroused public outcry on the side of the suffragettes; this form of torture: especially its being applied to women, still thought of as the weaker sex: "helped to stir up public anxiety. Even Conservative MPs [members of Parliament] joined in the the protest in Parliament."11 Thanks to the press, soon the whole country knew of the horrors that were being inflicted on the suffragettes in London, where the effort was centralized, and "public opinion was undoubtedly beginning to assert itself on the side of the women."12 Suffrage had become a national issue, and support grew even more between 1910 and 1912. More than 150 local councils passed resolutions supporting the enfranchisement of women, and sent them to London.

Because of the mounting public pressure, the government was forced to react, although, because of its inflammatory nature, it had been trying to avoid the issue for as long as possible. In 1910 the Conciliation Bill was drafted in Parliament, its intent to "embody a degree of women's enfranchisement that would be acceptable to the greatest number of MPs of all parties."13 The WSPU, thinking at last that justice would be served, declared a truce on all militancy (still relatively mild) for the next nine months, "so that no excuse could be used by the government for delaying the Bill"14; but the Bill failed to pass. The WSPU, discouraged, resumed its tactics, and public support grew even more as the Parliament dawdled. In 1913, the Franchise Reform Bill, another suffrage bill, had reached the appropriate levels of Parliament. When the Bill was immediately tossed out due to a bureaucratic slip-up, the WSPU became dangerously frustrated. Years of struggling and self-sacrifice, in the form of socially accepted forms of protest, allowed the suffragettes no closer to enfranchisement than when they had started. Even some Parliamentary members sympathized with the suffragettes; MP Kier Hardie said, "What else is left to the women but militant tactics?"15 "Destructive militancy," wrote Sylvia Pankhurst, "now broke out on an unparalleled scale."16

The first result of women's suffrage again being shot down was what would later be termed "Black Friday." On November 18, 1913, a crowd of Pankhurst's suffragettes, angry at the news of disaster, strained to see the exiting MPs and ministers, were held back by police who were sick of controlling crowds of self-righteous women. The first true suffragette riot ensued:

Nothing quite like it had been seen before in the precincts of Parliament. For six long, violent, sometimes brutal, hours there raged in Parliament Square what can only be described as a battle between the police and not the unemployed, the homeless or the destituteI but middle- and upper-class women of all ages.17

The police were no longer skittish about how to treat women, as reported by Emmeline Pankhurst herself: "One woman I saw thrown down with violence three or four times in rapid sucession. Every moment the struggle grew fiercer."18 Eventually the police arrested the rioters, but the women were not prosecuted; according to Winston Churchill, then the Home Secretary, "no public advantage" would be gained by prosecution19; that is, the government was afraid to prosecute out of fear of further demonstrations. Unfortunately, the following Tuesday, when Prime Minister Herbert Asquith announced that no other suffrage bill would be considered for an indeterminate time, an even worse riot occurred, called the "Battle of Downing Street" by the press.20 Over 185 suffragettes were arrested, and the violence rose to such a level that the London Times called the demonstrators "demented creatures, and it was evident that their conduct completely alienated the sympathy of the crowd."21 Indeed, it was at this point that the WSPU faction of the suffragette movement both severely increased its militancy (they issued a statement declaring that "as the Prime Minister will not give us the assurance that women shall be enfranchised next year, we revert to a state of war"22) and began to lose public support.

The actions the WSPU now undertook were specifically done to ensure publicity. Both public and private property were destroyed, intending a call on the the insurance companies of Great Britain "so great that they would force the government to capitulate"23 to the suffragette's demands. Among other actions, the suffragettes set arson to houses, seared golf courses with acid, burnt down sports pavilions, broke street lamps, stomped on flower beds, painted "Votes for Women" on the seats at Hampstead Heath24, plugged up keyholes with lead pellets, slashed the cushions of train seats, staged false fire alarms, threw rocks at the windows of the Parliament building and houses of elected officials, severed telephone wires, blew up fuse boxes, placed bombs near the Bank of England, "hacked thirteen pictures in the Manchester Art Gallery"25, including the "Rokeby Venus"26, slashed by well-known suffragette Mary Richardson. These drastic measures culminated on June 4, 1913, when one of the more famous suffragettes, Emily Davison, threw herself under the King's racehorse at Tattenham Center, toppling both the horse and the horse's jockey.27 A riot ensued, and by the time Davison's body was recovered from the track and taken to a hospital, it was far too late; Davison became the movement's first, and only, true martyr.28

These actions by the WSPU, while attracting huge amounts of publicity, had the opposite effect intended; the public began to disapprove of the suffragettes, as well as their cause. While most people, before the outbreak of rampant militancy, supported the cause of women's suffrage, once the new actions started, began to disapprove. Opponents of women's suffrage in Parliament used the terrorist actions the women were using to their advantage in debate, citing the insane actions as a very good reason why women should not get the vote. The Parliament and the suffragettes thus reached a stalemate. The more militant the WSPU became, the more reluctant Parliament was to grant women the vote, and the more firmly Parliament stood on the issue of suffrage, the more violent and desperate the suffragettes became. However, the stalemate did not last long; in 1914, World War I interrupted the women's suffrage movement. As in most countries, the women of Great Britain took the jobs the soldiers left behind. Pankhurst and the WSPU patriotically suspended all militancy during the war, knowing that both distractions would be too much for British society. Women took "jobs and undertook responsibilities which were undreamed of before the war,"29 such as working in munitions factories, hospitals, and municipal offices, proving a stability and maturity that had been contradicted by the wild suffragettes' actions. The government was understandably grateful for the unselfish actions of all British women; women "had shown themselves capable of taking part in Civil Service work, industrial workIand thus shown their fitness and their right to further responsibility."30 Although the government, in later granting women the vote, was acknowledging the services of women during the war, they were also afraid of further militancy once the war ended, as well as "split the nation from top to bottom"31. Lord Crewe, supporting the bill that would eventually give women the vote, "warned the House that if the vote was refused to women the old violent atmosphere of the question would return."32 The government enjoyed the domestic quiet granted by the suffragettes during the war, and were not eager to sink once again into the terrorist and destructive acts of the WSPU. The main effect of World War I on the suffrage movement was that "women's contribution to the war effort was seen and appreciated"33; instead of being insulted for wanting to take part in government, women were praised for being patriotic. It would have been embarrassing for the British government to turn its back on all women did for Great Britain during the war. Although Parliament was clear on the fact that it was not rewarding women for their job in the war, it was in fact recognizing the part women played in the war effort.

On January 10, 1918, the Reform Bill was passed by a considerable majority of 63 in the British Parliament34; Prime Minister Asquith, though he bitterly opposed it in principle, signed it into law to avoid further conflict. The bill allowed women above the age of 30 (women under that age were considered unreliable35) to vote in national elections. Although it may be thought that the women's work in World War I was the sole reason they were granted enfranchisement in 1918, it must be surmised that women would not have gained the vote even then if they had not so emphatically demanded it for the previous 70 years. The militancy of the suffragettes served an invaluable purpose; without it, the government could have (and did, before 1913) stated that there was no real "evidence" suggesting that women even wanted the vote. The militants destroyed this theory, in the most public way available in those days: through the press. By destroying property, staging demonstrations, and creating riots, the militants kept "the cause" constantly in the papers and constantly an issue. The WSPU created an emergency situation of the suffrage question, keeping the question fresh in the minds of both the public and Parliament. The domestic effects of World War I were not negligible in the enfranchisement of women; they raised women in the eyes of the Parliament and all men who remained in Britain during the war, but they also raised many women's estimations of themselves, giving many a new sense of self-worth, causing them to realize the necessity of the vote. But the militancy of the suffragettes is the main factor women's suffrage was achieved in 1918; although before the war the suffragettes' militancy angered many, and seemed as if it would delay the enfranchisement process, it was necessary to threaten the government out of a stalemate and into a state of action. The women of England, by throwing off Victorian ideals, created a new identity and a new place in society for themselves.



1Marian Ramelson, The Petticoat Rebellion: A Century of Struggle for Women's Rights (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1967), p.133.

2Bonnie S. Anderson and Judith P. Zinsser, A History of Their Own: Women in Europe (New York: Harper, 1988), p.362.

3Ray Strachey, The Cause: A Short History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain (Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1928), p.301.

4Strachey, p.301.

5Strachey, p.301.

6Strachey, p.301.

7David Morgan, Suffragists and Liberals: The Politics of Woman Suffrage in England (Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1975), p.38.

8Ramelson, p.136. "Colourful" the campaign was at this point; one tactic the suffragettes used was surprise. Since suffragettes were barred from Cabinet Ministers' meetings, because of the disturbance they tended to cause, the women would often smuggle themselves inside during the nighttime and hide; the next day, they would pop out of organ stalls, orchestra pits, and other strange places.

9Ramelson, p.137.

10Ramelson, p.138.

11Barbara Castle, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), p.117.

12Ramelson, p.138.

13Ramelson, p.139.

14Ramelson, p.139.

15Castle, p.114.

16Castle, p.114.

17Morgan, p.71.

18Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story (London: Everleigh Nash, 1914), p.180.

19Morgan, p.71.

20Morgan, p.71.

21The Times (London), November 23, 1913, p.7, col.4.

22The Times, p.7.

23Ramelson, p.140.

24Castle, p.114.

25Castle, p.115.

26Ramelson, p.140. Emergency measures were undertaken to protect the other art treasures of Great Britain.

27Ramelson, p.140.

28At Davison's funeral, a procession of 6000 accompanied her coffin to the cemetery. Mary Richardson, who, like everyone else, had not known Davison's intentions, describes Davison's death: "For the first time the movement seemed all night. All darkness. A hopeless groping through the fogs of human hatred." Mary Richardson, Laugh a Defiance, p.20, 1953, as cited in Ramelson, p.140.

29Ramelson, p.167.

30The Times (London), January 11, 1918, p.8, col. 3.

31The Times, p.8.

32The Times, p.8.

33Ramelson, p.205.

34The Times, p.8.

35On May 23, 1928, the age limit was lowered to 21, the same age limit for men.


Works Cited


Secondary Sources

Anderson, Bonnie S., and Judith P. Zinsser. A History of Their Own: Women in Europe. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988.

Bowie, John. The English Experience: a survey of English history from early to modern times. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1971.

Castle, Barbara. Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.

Morgan, David. Suffragists and Liberals: The Politics of Woman Suffrage in England. Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1975.

Ramelson, Marian. The Petticoat Rebeliion: A Century of Struggle for Women's Rights. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1967.

Rover, Constance. Women's Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain, 1866Q1914. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.

Severn, Bill. Free But Not Equal. New York: Julian Messner, 1967.

Strachey, Ray. The Cause: A Short History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1928.


Primary Sources

Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: Everleigh Nash, 1914.

Richardson, Mary, Laugh a Defiance, p.20, 1953. as cited in Ramelson, Marian, The Petticoat Rebellion: A Century of Struggle for Women's Rights. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1967.



The Times (London), November 23, 1910.

The Times (London), January 10, 1918.

The Times (London), January 11, 1918.