It is less than a hundred years since the suffragette movement and the right to vote being extended to English women on the same terms as men. The suffragettes had a prominent profile in the struggle – but who were they, and what was their real legacy?
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Thirst for Change
The movement to extend the franchise to women had begun to take shape in 1897 when the campaigner Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage. New Zealand had given the right to vote to women over the age of 21 four years earlier and South Australia had followed suit in 1895, but there was still no sign of change in Britain.
Millicent’s patient arguments that women held responsible roles on school boards, that they employed men who had the vote whilst they did not, and that they had to pay tax and were subject to the same laws as men, converted a handful of politicians – but progress was slow.
In 1903, frustrated by the failure of reasoned arguments to change the status quo, political activist Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union. This, she was clear, was to be an organisation dedicated to “deeds not words”. The suffragette movement was born.
The Campaign Escalates
It was not until 1905, however, that the WSPU began to create ripples on the surface of polite society. Emmeline’s daughter Christabel Pankhurst and a second activist, Yorkshire millworker Annie Kenny, interrupted a political meeting in Manchester to ask Winston Churchill and Edward Grey their position on votes for women. Receiving no reply, they unfurled a banner reading “Votes for Women” and shouted at the politicians until they were arrested and removed by the police, later being jailed when they refused to pay a fine.
As the years passed with still no sign of change, the suffragettes escalated their tactics. They set fire to post boxes, smashed windows, chained themselves to the railings of Buckingham Palace and even fire bombed the home of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George.
The Church of England paid the price for its opposition to giving women the vote – in 1914, seven churches across the country were set fire to, and a bomb was detonated in Westminster Abbey. “Militancy is right,” argued Emmeline Pankhurst, “No measure worth having has been won in any other way.”
Hunger as a Weapon
In all, around a thousand suffragettes – mainly educated, middle and upper class women – were imprisoned before the First World War. Refused the right to be recognised as political prisoners, many turned to hunger strikes in protest.
The tactic was first used by Marion Wallace Dunlop, imprisoned in 1909 for stencilling a passage from the Bill of Rights on a wall of the House of Commons. She went without food for 91 hours until the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, released her for fear that she would die and become a martyr to the cause.
News of her release spread quickly and her strategy was copied by other suffragettes, allowing them to be released after a few days in prison and to return to the fight. By September that year, the Government had had enough. Unwilling to keep releasing hunger strikers, it introduced the practice of force-feeding, previously used only in hospitals with patients who were unable to feed themselves.
With a conscious and resistant prisoner, the process was violent and painful. Women were strapped down and fed through a tube inserted in either their nostril or stomach. The side effects were severe, and some prisoners developed pneumonia or pleurisy as a result of a misplaced tube. Posters decrying the practice as torture increased the pressure on the Government.
In 1913, new legislation was passed. Known as the “Cat and Mouse Act” it allowed hunger strikers to be released temporarily and then returned to prison when their health improved to complete their sentence. The new approach meant that those convicted were only given their freedom when they were too weak to pose a threat to the Establishment, and brought about an end to the practice of force-feeding for most prisoners.
Paying the Ultimate Price
Perhaps the single most famous event in the history of the suffragette movement is the death of Emily Davison. A one-time teacher and governess, Davison left her job to work full time for the WSPU and was described by Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter Sylvia as “one of the most daring and reckless of the militants.” She was arrested on nine occasions, went on hunger strike on seven and was force-fed no less than 49 times.
On 4 June 1913, Davison took two flags bearing the WSPU’s colours of purple, white and green and boarded a train to Epsom in Surrey to attend the Derby. She positioned herself on the final bend before the home straight and ducked under the guard rail into the path of the King George V’s horse, Anmer.
The horse fell and both Davison and the jockey, Herbert Jones, were taken to hospital. Jones recovered but, despite an operation, Davison died on 8 June of a fractured skull.
Davison did not discuss her plans and her motives that day remain a subject of speculation. In 2013, a television channel digitised the film of the event, captured on three cameras that were present that day. Close examination suggested that she intended to hang a suffragette flag around the horse’s neck or attach it to his bridle. A flag was recovered from the racecourse and today hangs in the Houses of Parliament.
Davison was largely vilified by the media at the time and received hate mail whilst in hospital. Nevertheless, when her coffin – inscribed with the words “Fight on. God will give the victory” – was brought from Epsom to London, it was followed by 5,000 suffragettes and 50,000 people lined the route.
War and Peace
The outbreak of the First World War the year after Davison’s death marked a decisive turning point in the history of the movement. The Government released all suffragette prisoners and declared an amnesty. For their part, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst persuaded the WSPU to cease all militant activity in the face of the “German peril”.
Not all suffragettes were persuaded of the need for national unity – Emmeline’s other daughters, Sylvia and Adela, were committed pacifists and were horrified by their mother’s loyalty to the war effort. Sylvia continued the struggle, setting up a new organisation called the “Women’s Suffrage Federation”.
Historians are divided on the question of whether the suffragettes’ militant tactics helped or hindered their cause. Was it the patient lobbying of non-violent campaigners and the impact of the war, which for the first time saw women working at jobs that had been traditionally the preserve of men, that finally turned the tide? Did the suffragettes’ tactics simply add fuel to the fire of those who argued that women could not be trusted with the vote?
Or would the war and the lobbying not have mattered had not the suffragettes made it too uncomfortable for the Establishment to continue to ignore their cause? Was their decision to abandon militancy in the face of war a decisive factor in winning over public opinion?
Whatever the case, the suffragettes sacrificed their health, their freedom and their reputations in the service of the cause they believed in. British women owe them a debt of honour.