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.  ouHThis essay will examine how effective the suffragette
movement was when campaigning for votes for women in the period before from 1867 to the
First World War.  It will discuss the
tactics used by the suffragettes historically and how their campaign went from
one that was peaceful to one that shocked the nation with its militancy and use
of violence.  Using examples of action
both from the NUWSS and the WSPU this essay will demonstrate that although,
ultimately, the suffragette movement failed to win the vote for women before
the First World War the campaign for votes kept the issue in the public eye no
matter the cost.

It could
be argued that the suffrage movement began as far back as 1832 when Henry Hunt
MP presented the first petition from an individual woman.  This woman was Mary Smith, from Stanmore in
Yorkshire who stated in the petition that ‘she paid taxes and was subject to the
rule of law, and therefore did not see why she should not vote’ (“Orator Hunt and the first suffrage
petition 1832”. nd).  The petition was laughed out of Parliament, but the issue was one that
would not simply disappear.  Over the
next eighty-six years the matter would come increasingly to the fore.  That same year the Great Reform Act expanded the vote but only to
men.  The Women’s Suffrage Committee was founded in
1866 by Barbara Boichon and campaigned for enfranchisement of all householders
regardless of their sex.  Together with
John Stuart Mill M.P they proposed an amendment to the second reform act of
1867 asking for a substitution of the wording from ‘man’ to ‘person’.  This was not successful, but it should be noted that
from 18701870 bills in favour of granting
votes for women were put forward on an almost annual basis (“petitions”
nd). 

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Following
the defeat women’s suffrage groups began to be set up around the country, most
notably in Manchester, Edinburgh and Bristol. 
The suffrage movements up to this point were localised and so had little
impact on the politicians and in the public eye.  These groups eventually united under the
banner of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage with the London Society
which, in turn, then became the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies
(NUWSS).  Lead by Millicent Fawcett their tactics were usually
peaceful, using petitions, silent protests and public speeches to raise awareness
of their aims and gain support by persuasion. 
In February 1907 for example over 3,000
women marched through London from Hyde Park to Exeter
Hall in what because known as the mud march.  Martin Pugh states ‘This attracted very
sympathetic reporting and comment; “the militant element was conspicuously
absent”, noted the Daily Graphic …’ (Pugh, 2007, p.182).  The NUWSS was happy to exercise
patience and wait for enfranchisement to happen.  Men had only gained political enfranchisement
in steps leading up the second reform bill in 1867, to give women the vote in
one fell swoop would be unlikely to receive broad ranging support. 

 There was
also the fear that getting the vote would be associated with birth
control.  What had become apparent was
that the middle and upper classes had started to considerably reduce the size
of their families in the nineteenth century whilst the working-class family
sizes had remained relatively stable due to a lack of access to birth control
and access to education (marie stopes?) This upset those who believed in a
‘National Efficiency’ as they thought this could signal a demise for the
intellectual side of society and a racial deterioration.

In 1903
the Women’s Social and Political Union was formed in Manchester by six women
including Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst.  They favoured a more direct route in
campaigning for the vote, but it
wasn’t until 1905 that they started to embark on more militarised tactics.  As Mrs
Pankhurst herself put it ‘We resolved to
… be satisfied with nothing but action on our question.  Deeds, not words, was to be our permanent
motto.’ (“deeds not
words” Purvis, 1995). 
Initially the militant approach was a direct response to the requests
from those in government such as Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith and Balfour ‘… wanted evidence that women
strongly desired the franchise’ (Pugh,
1986, p.22).   In June
1908 when Emmeline Pankhurst and a group of suffragettes arrived at
Parliament.  They were dispersed by the
Police as was usual but on this occasion two of the women Mary Leigh and Edith
New went on to throw stones at the windows of 10 Downing Street.  Both women were jailed, and it was from this
point that stone throwing became a regularly used tactic.   In his book Women’s Suffrage in
Britain, Martin Pugh argues that ‘…their activities may be judged in two
phases: 1905 to 1908 and 1909 to 1914’ (Pugh, 1986, p.22).  He suggests that rather than gaining support in the
first instance, their initial militancy ‘provoked women into declaring
opposition, ad drove the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League into amalgamation with
the male antis under Lords Cromer and Curzon in 1912’ (pugh)Indeed, even the grand dame of Suffrage
Millicent Fawcett had to concede that the WSPU, through that early campaign of
militancy, that the
WSPU had
been very successful in bringing suffrage back onto the political agenda once
more.    What is clear from this early campaign of
militancy is that up to 1908 the WSPU had successfully forced the issue of
enfranchisement further up the political agenda.  They managed to attract funds and membership
continued to rise. 

With a
campaign in 1909 of stone
throwing and hunger-strikes the public sympathy had started to wane.  Pugh states that ‘The
difficulty lay in the fact that, once begun, militancy had to
be taken further lest the momentum be lost’ (Pugh,
1986, p.24)It’s difficult to continue the momentum with a
campaign like that of the WSPU without losing momentum so it is understandable
that they would feel the need to up their game so to speak and keep themselves
in the public eye.  The first suffragette hunger strike was
undertaken in July 1909 by Marion Wallace Dunlop.  After nearly four days the authorities
authorised her release.  ‘Christabel
(Pankhurst) immediately pronounced that the Government had been decisively
beaten, for they would not dare in future to keep women in prison for more than
a few days’ (Pugh, 2007, p.196).  This
declaration proved to be over-optimistic as after the release of 37 suffragette
prisoners the prison authorities made the decision to bring in forcible
feeding.  This did give the WSPU grounds
for a propaganda campaign.  They resorted
to a campaign that ‘…graphically portrayed the sufferings of prisoners
subjected to forcible feeding…” (Pugh 2007, p.196).  The
introduction in 1913 of the Prisoners’
Temporary Discharge Bill
or the ‘Cat and
Mouse Act’ was a response to public sympathy towards
those suffragettes on hunger strike.  The
WSPU had, for some time, been
publicising accounts
of women who had been forcibly fed and in
1913 ‘… was
propagating the idea that Mrs Pankhurst was already at
deaths door …’
(Pugh 2007, p.204).  They even
gained some support from King George V
who ‘left the
Home Secretary in no doubt of his unease: “His Majesty cannot help feeling that there is
something shocking, if not almost cruel,
in the operation to which these insensate women are subjected” (Nicholson, 1952, p.212) The King
clearly believed the accounts given by suffragettes and wanted the government
to abandon forcible feeding’. (Pugh
book, 2007, p.205).  The act
was designed to allow those suffragettes on hunger strike who had become too weak to be forcibly fed to be released to convalesce for a
few weeks until they were fit enough to continue
their sentences.  There have been many accounts of women
absconding from the Police guarding the homes where they were convalescing, it has been widely assumed that they made what
Martin Pugh describes as a ‘mockery of the legislation (Pugh, 2007,
p.205).  He
goes on to conclude ‘… such a
conclusion is scarcely borne out by the mass of evidence in the Public Record
Office’ (Pugh, 2007, p.205).  According
to Home Office records
163 suffragettes were imprisoned in
1913 and 23 between
January and March 1914.  Only 42 had been
discharged under the new
legislation.  Martin Pugh argues ‘This
begins to put the problem in perspective. 
Most prisoners appear not to have been
in need of temporary
release’. (Pugh, 2007, p.205).

In January 1910, following the election that saw the Liberal
Government lose its overall majority. 
The promise of a conciliation committee to draft an electoral reform
bill that would be acceptable to all parties and in the hope that it would
result in the enfranchisement of women Emmeline Pankhurst announced the
suspension of militant action.  The
‘truce’ only lasted until November of that year when Henry Asquith the Prime
Minister did not mention the bill when he was outlining the Governments
Programme and made it clear that the Government would not allow the bill any
time.  Following a second General
Election in December 1910 the minority Liberal Government was returned to
power.  This time they announced that a
revised version of the Conciliation Bill would be introduced.  Again a ‘truce’ was announced.  Though the second Conciliation Bill passed
its second reading it was not allowed to proceed any further.  What is clear from the examination of Parliamentary
records is that following the increase in Suffragette violence support in
Parliament started to wane.  In the case
of the 1911 Conciliation Bill it gained 255 yes votes across all parties with
88 against (there were many abstentions). 
In 1912 the yes vote had deceased to 208 with 222 against and in 1913 at
the Dickinson’s Representation of the People Bill vote they had 221 for and 268
against (Pugh, 1986, p.28).

From 1912 a more aggressive militancy campaign began to be adopted in
response to the repeated failure of Parliament to pass bills enfranchising
women.  In March 1912 Emmeline Pankhurst
and two other Suffragettes broke windows at 10 Downing street.  At the same time over 100 suffragettes
smashed windows in the West End of London.  In her
article ‘deeds not words’ June Purvis states that ‘window breaking, especially of
well-known shops in London’s West End, became common; empty buildings were set
on fire; golf courses were burnt with acid; black fluid was poured
in letter boxes to destroy the mail.  The
aim throughout was always to damage
property, not life’ (“Deeds not words” June
Purvis 1995).  She goes
on to quote one of the suffragette’s, speaking in 1965 ‘Mrs
Pankhurst gave us strict orders about these fires: there was not a cat or a
canary to be killed; no life, we were only allowed to give our
lives (Gale, 1965, p. 9) (“Deeds not words” June
Purvis 1995). Speaking in 1912 Emmeline
Pankhurst argued ‘We have tried every way, but we have had contempt
poured upon us.  Violence
is the only way that we have to get the power that every citizen should have.’
(Emmeline Pankhurst,
1912).  What is clear is
that the increasing violence was ‘…directed at property rather than people…’
(Morley and Stanley, 1988).  The WSPU increasingly adopted illegal activities ‘…it had to be able to operate in ways similar to a guerrilla
force, moving rapidly so as to evade the superior forces ranged against it’
(Pugh,2007, p.179).  Martin
Pugh suggests that rather than gaining support in the first instance, their
militancy ‘provoked women into declaring opposition, and drove the Women’s
Anti-Suffrage League into amalgamation with the male antis under Lords Cromer
and Curzon in 1912’ (Pugh, 1986, p.22). 

Arson attack numbers increased in 1913 with several houses
including that of David Lloyd George being firebombed.  One of the most notorious incidents
attributed to the Suffragettes was that of Emily Wilding Davison, who in
1913 ran out in front of the Kings horse in the Derby at Epsom fatally
injuring herself. 
Though there is some evidence that she did not take this course of action
with the intention of dying that day she
undoubtedly through her actions became something of a martyr to the cause of
suffrage.  It
is also extremely likely that the leaders of the WSPU were unaware of her
intentions.  Martin Pugh notes that ‘Since Davison’s death occurred outside prison the political impact
was invariably
limited; press comment acknowledged her
bravery, but argued that society could not afford to yield to what was a form
of terrorism’ (Pugh, 2007, p.205). 

Martin Pugh suggests that the continual militancy of the
suffragettes increased membership of the NUWSS whose membership rose from 8,000
in 1908 to over 50,000 by 1914 many of whom were women who didn’t wish to be
associated with the suffragettes but nonetheless wished to take part in the
campaign for enfranchisement (Pugh, 2007, p.254) Following the outbreak of the
First World War all action by the WSPU was suspended.  The Pankhurst’s left the WSPU which developed
into a somewhat nationalistic and anti-German organisation.

On 19th June 1918 the House of Commons voted 385 to 55 to
vote into effect the Representation of the Peoples Bill, this granted some
women the opportunity to vote for the first time.  This was the
culmination of the work of the suffrage movement for the enfranchisement of
women.  From being laughed
out of Parliament some 86 years previously and although the granting of the
vote was something of an inevitability it had been continually overlooked by
successive governments.  Without the
suffragette movement being a consistent fly in the government’s ointment it is
likely that it perhaps would have taken longer to get a foot in the door.

 

 

 

Bibliography

British Library ‘Suffragette Timeline’
accessed 27 December 2017 http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/21cc/struggle/suffrage/background/timeline/suffragetimeline.html

National Archives ‘Britain 1906 to
1918’ accessed 2 January 2018

https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/britain1906to1918/timeline/g4_timeline.htm

Parliament website ‘the first petition’
accessed 27 December 2017

https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/parliamentary-collections/1866-suffrage-petition/the-first-petition/

Parliament website ‘petitions’
accessed 3 January 2018

http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/overview/petitions/

Pugh, Martin (2007) The March of
the Women: A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage,
1866-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pugh, Martin (1986) Women’s Suffrage
in Britain, 1867-1928. London: Historical Association.

Purvis, June (1995) ‘Deeds not Words’ Women’s Studies International Forum, , Vol.18(2), pp.91-101

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