Suffragettes were members of women’s organizations in the late-19th and early-20th centuries which advocated the extension of the “franchise“, or the right to vote in public elections, to women. It particularly refers to militants in the United Kingdom such as members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Suffragist is a more general term for members of the suffrage movement, particularly those advocating Women’s suffrage.
The term suffragette is particularly associated with activists in the British WSPU, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, who were influenced by Russian methods of protest such as hunger strikes. Although the Isle of Man had enfranchised women who owned property to vote in parliamentary (Tynwald) elections in 1881, New Zealand was the first self-governing country to grant all women the right to vote in 1893 when women over the age of 21 were permitted to vote in parliamentary elections. Women in South Australia achieved the same right and became the first to obtain the right to stand for parliament in 1895. In the United States, white women over the age of 21 were allowed to vote in the western territories of Wyoming from 1869 and in Utah from 1870. But by 1903 women in Britain had still not been enfranchised, and Pankhurst had decided the movement would have to become radical and militant if it was going to be effective. The campaign became increasingly bitter, with property damage and hunger strikes being countered by the authorities with jailing and force-feeding, until it was suspended due to the outbreak of war in 1914.
Women in Britain over the age of 30, meeting certain property qualifications, were given the right to vote in 1918, and in 1928 suffrage was extended to all women over the age of 21. Opinion amongst historians today is divided as to whether the militant tactics of the suffragettes helped or hindered their cause.
British suffragettes were mostly women from upper- and middle-class backgrounds, frustrated by their social and economic situation. Their struggles for change within society, along with the work of such advocates for women’s rights as John Stuart Mill, were enough to spearhead a movement that would encompass mass groups of women fighting for suffrage. Mill introduced the idea of women’s suffrage on the platform he presented to the British electorate in 1865. He was subsequently joined by numerous men and women fighting for the same cause.
The term “suffragette” was first used as a term of derision by the journalist Charles E. Hands in the London Daily Mail to describe activists in the movement for women’s suffrage, in particular members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). But the women he intended to ridicule embraced the term, saying “suffraGETtes” (hardening the g) implied not only that they wanted the vote, but that they intended to get it.
The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, founded in 1897, was formed from local suffrage societies. The union was led by Millicent Fawcett, who believed in constitutional campaigning, issuing leaflets, organising meetings and presenting petitions but the campaign had little effect. In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded a new organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union. She thought the movement would have to become radical and militant if it was going to be effective. The Daily Mail gave them the name “Suffragettes”.
Some radical techniques used by the suffragettes, especially hunger strikes, were learned from Russian exiles from tsarism who had escaped to England. Many suffragists at the time, and some historians since, have argued that the actions of the militant suffragettes damaged their cause. Opponents at the time saw evidence that women were too emotional and could not think as logically as men.
Early 20th century in the UK
Memorial edition of The Suffragette newspaper dedicated to Emily Davison
From 1909, the “Pank-A-Squith” board game was sold by the WSPU to raise awareness of their campaign and raise money. The name is derived from “Pankhurst”, the surname of the leaders of the WSPU, and Asquith, the surname of the Prime Minister at the time and a largely hated figure by the movement. The board game is set out in a spiral, and players must lead their suffragette figure from their home to parliament, past the obstacles faced from Prime Minister H. H. Asquith and the Liberal government. The People’s History Museum in Manchester has a “Pank-A-Squith” board game on display in the main galleries and replica version for visitors to play.
7 October 1913 edition of The Suffragette
Also in 1909, suffragettes Solomon and McLellan tried an innovative method of potentially obtaining a meeting with Asquith -by sending themselves by Royal Mail courier post. However Downing street was unwilling to accept the parcel.
1912 was a turning point for the British suffragettes as they turned to using more militant tactics, chaining themselves to railings, setting fire to post box contents, smashing windows and occasionally detonating bombs. In 1914, at least seven churches were bombed or set on fire across the United Kingdom, including an explosion in Westminster Abbey aimed at destroying the 700-year-old Coronation Chair, which despite its proximity to the bomb, survived with only minor damage.
One suffragette, Emily Davison, died under the King‘s horse Anmer at The Derby on 4 June 1913. It is debated whether she was trying to pin a “Votes for Women” banner on the King’s horse or not. Many of her fellow suffragettes were imprisoned and refused food as a scare tactic against the government. The Liberal government of the day led by Asquith responded with the Cat and Mouse Act. Another prominent British suffragette, Sophia Duleep Singh, was almost forgotten for 70 years.
In the early-20th century until the First World War, approximately one thousand suffragettes were imprisoned in Britain. Most early incarcerations were for public order offences and failure to pay outstanding fines. The first suffragettes to be imprisoned were Christabel Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst) and Annie Kenney in October 1905. While incarcerated, suffragettes lobbied to be considered political prisoners; with such a designation, suffragettes would be placed in the First Division as opposed to the Second or Third Division of the prison system, and as political prisoners would be granted certain freedoms and liberties not allotted to other prison divisions, such as being allowed frequent visits and being allowed to write books or articles. Because of a lack of consistency between the different courts, suffragettes would not necessarily be placed in the First Division and could be placed in Second or Third Division, which enjoyed fewer liberties.
This cause was taken up by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a large organisation in Britain, that lobbied for women’s suffrage led by militant suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. The WSPU campaigned to get imprisoned suffragettes recognised as political prisoners. However, this campaign was largely unsuccessful. Citing a fear that the suffragettes becoming political prisoners would make for easy martyrdom, and with thoughts from the courts and the Home Office that they were abusing the freedoms of First Division to further the agenda of the WSPU, suffragettes were placed in Second Division, and in some cases the Third Division, in prisons with no special privileges granted to them as a result.
Arson, property damage and domestic terrorism
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Throughout the woman’s suffrage movement, many tactics were employed in order to achieve the goals of the movement. Throughout Britain, the contents of hundreds of letter boxes were set alight or corrosive acids or liquids poured over the letters and postcards inside, and thousands of shop and office windows were smashed with hammers. Telephone wires were cut, and graffiti slogans began appearing on the streets. Places that wealthy people, typically men, frequented were also burnt and destroyed, including cricket pitches, golf courses and horse racing tracks. Pinfold Manor in Surrey, which was being built for Lloyd-George, was targeted with two bombs on 19/2/13, only one of which exploded, causing significant damage. (In her memoirs, Sylvia Pankhurst claimed that Emily Davison carried out the attack.) There were 250 arson or destruction attacks in a six month period in 1913. Reports exist in the Parliamentary Papers, which includes lists of the ‘incendiary devices’, explosions, artwork destruction (including an axe attack upon a painting of The Duke of Wellington in the National Gallery), arson attacks, window-breaking, post box burning and telegraph cable breaking that occurred during the most militant years from 1910-1914.
Suffragettes were not recognised as political prisoners and many of them staged hunger strikes while they were imprisoned. The first woman to refuse food was Marion Wallace Dunlop, a militant suffragette who was sentenced to a month in Holloway for vandalism in July 1909. Without consulting suffragette leaders such as Pankhurst, Dunlop refused food in protest at being denied political prisoner status. After a 91-hour hunger strike, and for fear of her becoming a martyr, the Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone decided to release her early on medical grounds. Dunlop’s strategy was adopted by other suffragettes who were incarcerated. It became common practice for suffragettes to refuse food in protest for not being designated as political prisoners, and as a result they would be released after a few days and could return to the “fighting line”.
After a public backlash regarding the prison status of suffragettes, the rules of the divisions were amended. In March 1910, Rule 243A was introduced by the Home Secretary Winston Churchill, allowing prisoners in Second and Third Divisions to be allowed certain privileges of the First Division, provided they were not convicted of a serious offence, effectively ending hunger strikes for two years. Hunger strikes began again when Pankhurst was transferred from the Second Division to the First Division, inciting the other suffragettes to demonstrate regarding their prison status.
Militant suffragette demonstrations subsequently became more aggressive, and the British Government took action. Unwilling to release all the suffragettes refusing food in prison, in the autumn of 1909, the authorities began to adopt more drastic measures to manage the hunger-strikers.
Poster by “A Patriot”, showing a suffragette prisoner being force-fed, 1910.
In September 1909, the Home Office became unwilling to release hunger-striking suffragettes before their sentence was served. Suffragettes became a liability because if they were to die in custody, the prison would be responsible for their death. Prisons began the practice of force-feeding the hunger strikers through a tube, most commonly via a nostril or stomach tube or a stomach pump. Force-feeding had previously been practised in Britain but its use had been exclusively for patients in hospitals who were too unwell to eat or swallow food. Despite the practice being deemed safe by medical practitioners for sick patients, it posed health issues for the healthy suffragettes.
Memories of Winson Green September 18, 1909; Illustration from Mabel Cappers WSPU prisoners scrapbook
The process of tube-feeding was strenuous without the consent of the hunger strikers, who were typically strapped down and force-fed via stomach or nostril tube, often with a considerable amount of force. The process was painful and after the practice was observed and studied by several physicians, it was deemed to cause both short-term damage to the circulatory system, digestive system and nervous system and long-term damage to the physical and mental health of the suffragettes. Some suffragettes who were force-fed developed pleurisy or pneumonia as a result of a misplaced tube.
In April 1913, Reginald McKenna of the Home Office passed the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913, or the Cat and Mouse Act as it was commonly known. The act made the hunger strikes legal, in that a suffragette would be temporarily released from prison when their health began to diminish, only to be readmitted when she regained her health to finish her sentence. The act enabled the British Government to be absolved of any blame resulting from death or harm due to the self-starvation of the striker and ensured that the suffragettes would be too ill and too weak to participate in demonstrative activities while not in custody. Most women continued hunger striking when they were readmitted to prison following their leave. After the Act was introduced, force-feeding on a large scale was stopped and only women convicted of more serious crimes and considered likely to repeat their offences if released were force-fed.
In early 1913 and in response to the “Cat and Mouse Act”, the WSPU instituted a society of women known as the “Bodyguard” whose role was to physically protect Emmeline Pankhurst and other prominent suffragettes from arrest and assault. Known members included Katherine Willoughby Marshall and Gertrude Harding; Edith Margaret Garrud was their jujutsu trainer. Members of the “Bodyguard” participated in several violent actions against the police in defence of their leaders.
The origin of the “Bodyguard” can be traced to a WSPU meeting at which Garrud spoke. As suffragettes speaking in public increasingly found themselves the target of violence and attempted assaults, teaching jujitsu was a way for women to defend themselves against angry hecklers. Incidents including Black Friday, at which 200 suffragettes were assaulted by police, served to illustrate the need for militant women to be able to defend themselves against male violence.
At the commencement of the First World War, the suffragette movement in Britain moved away from suffrage activities and focused their efforts on the war effort, and as a result, hunger strikes largely stopped. In August 1914, the British Government released all prisoners who had been incarcerated for suffrage activities on an amnesty, with Pankhurst ending all militant suffrage activities soon after. The suffragettes’ focus on war work turned public opinion in favour of their eventual partial enfranchisement in 1918.
Women eagerly volunteered to take on many traditional male roles – leading to a new view of what women were capable of. The war also caused a split in the British suffragette movement; the mainstream, represented by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst’s WSPU calling a ceasefire in their campaign for the duration of the war, while more radical suffragettes, represented by Sylvia Pankhurst‘s Women’s Suffrage Federation continued the struggle.
The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which had always employed “constitutional” methods, continued to lobby during the war years and compromises were worked out between the NUWSS and the coalition government. On 6 February, the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed, enfranchising women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications as well as men over 21 – before this not all British men were enfranchised. About 8.4 million women gained the vote. In November 1918, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was passed, allowing women to be elected into parliament. The Representation of the People Act 1928 extended the voting franchise to all women over the age of 21, granting women the vote on the same terms that men had gained ten years earlier.
Nineteen-year-old Fay Hubbard selling suffragette papers in New York, 1910
Historians generally argue that the first stage of the militant suffragette movement under the Pankhursts in 1906 had a dramatic mobilizing effect on the suffrage movement. Women were thrilled and supportive of an actual revolt in the streets; the membership of the militant WSPU and the older NUWSS overlapped and were mutually supportive. However a system of publicity, Ensor argues, had to continue to escalate to maintain its high visibility in the media. The hunger strikes and force-feeding did that. However, the Pankhursts refused any advice and escalated their tactics. They turned to systematic disruption of Liberal Party meetings as well as physical violence in terms of damaging public buildings and arson. Searle says the methods of the suffragettes did succeed in damaging the Liberal party but failed to advance the cause of women’s suffrage. When the Pankhursts decided to stop the militancy at the start of the war, and enthusiastically support the war effort, the movement split and their leadership’s role ended. Suffrage did come four years later, but the feminist movement in Britain permanently abandoned the militant tactics that had made the suffragettes famous.
Whitfield concludes that the militant campaign had some positive effects in terms of attracting enormous publicity, and forcing the moderates to better organize themselves, while also stimulating the organization of the antis. He concludes:
The overall effect of the suffragette militancy, however, was to set back the cause of women’s suffrage. For women to gain the right to vote it was necessary to demonstrate that they had public opinion on their side, to build and consolidate a parliamentary majority in favor of women’s suffrage and to persuade or pressure the government to introduce its own franchise reform. None of these objectives was achieved.
Gold ear rings in suffragette colours
From 1908, the WSPU adopted the colour scheme of violet, white and green: violet symbolised dignity, white purity, and green hope. These three colours were used for banners, flags, rosettes and badges, They also would carry heart shaped vesta cases, and appeared in newspaper cartoons and postcards.
Mappin & Webb, the London jewellers, issued a catalogue of suffragette jewellery for Christmas 1908.
In 1909 the WSPU presented specially commissioned pieces of jewellery to leading suffragettes Emmeline Pankhurst and Louise Eates. Some Arts and Crafts jewellery of the period incorporated the colours violet, white and green using enamel and semi-precious stones such as amethysts, pearls, and peridots. However jewellery that incorporated these stones was already quite common in women’s jewellery during the late 19th century, before 1903 and could not be connected with the suffragettes, before the WSPU adopted the colours. Also, the notion that the colours were green, white, and violet, to spell GWV as an acronym for “Give Women Votes” is a modern fallacy.
The colours of green and heliotrope (purple) were commissioned into a new coat of arms for Edge Hill University in 2006, symbolising the University’s early commitment to the equality of women through its beginnings as a women-only college.
Vida Goldstein was the first woman in the British Empire to stand for election to a national parliament.
UK WSPU Hunger Strike Medal 30 July 1909 including the bar ‘Fed by Force 17 September 1909’. The Medal awarded to Mabel Capper records the first instance of forcible feeding of hunger striking Suffragette prisoners in England at Winson Green Prison in Birmingham.
Portrait badge of Emmeline Pankhurst (c. 1909) sold in large numbers by the WSPU to raise funds
Suffragette Banner (c. 1910)
Votes for Women poster (1909)
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