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Reference group
Women's Social and Political Union (act. 1903–1914)
 Members of the Women's Social and Political Union (act. 1903–1914) by Mrs Albert Broom, 1910 [left to right: Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst, and Emily Davison on a suffragette march in Hyde Park] Members of the Women's Social and Political Union (act. 1903–1914) by Mrs Albert Broom, 1910 [left to right: Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst, and Emily Davison on a suffragette march in Hyde Park]
was the women's suffrage society that introduced ‘militancy’ to the twentieth-century campaigns for the vote. Formed in Manchester at the home of Emmeline Pankhurst, on 10 October 1903, it was initially intended to be a ginger group on women's suffrage within the Independent Labour Party, of which she was an active member.

Emmeline Pankhurst's interest in votes for women reached back to her school days, and in Richard Pankhurst, a Manchester lawyer, she had chosen a husband well known for his association with radical causes, including women's enfranchisement. Both were subsequently among the radicals who founded the Women's Franchise League in 1889. This body insisted on the controversial inclusion of married women in the demand for votes for women, whereas more cautious suffragists like Lydia Becker and Millicent Garrett Fawcett supported their exclusion. Among her closest colleagues at this time were the Manchester radicals Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and Ursula, and Jacob Bright. Disillusion with the Liberal Party led her and Richard Pankhurst to join the newly formed Independent Labour Party in 1894. Becoming a widow of limited means in 1898, Emmeline Pankhurst accepted a post as a local registrar of births, marriages, and deaths. She later recalled that her experience in this post and as a poor law guardian further reinforced her sense of the wrongs of women, and of the importance of securing the vote for her sex.

The early supporters of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) were mostly working-class and socialist women, like the mill worker Annie Kenney and the seamstress Hannah Mitchell. Pankhurst had, too, the support of her eldest daughter, Christabel Pankhurst, a law student who had recently campaigned alongside Esther Roper, secretary of the North of England Society for Women's Suffrage. The latter had concentrated, in the years around the turn of the twentieth century, in successfully building support for women's suffrage among women trade unionists in the region. Roper and her lifetime companion Eva Gore Booth also formed a new suffrage body in Manchester in 1903, the Lancashire and Cheshire Textile and Other Workers Representation Committee. Not surprisingly, the advent of these two new suffrage societies was welcomed by many among those suffragists of earlier years who identified with the radical wing of the Liberal Party, including Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, Ursula Bright, Anna Maria Priestman, and Dora Montefiore, as well as by the Manchester teacher and Independent Labour Party organizer Teresa Billington [see Greig, Teresa Mary Billington-] and the party's MP, Keir Hardie.

The creation of these two new suffrage organizations reflected the growing strength of the infant Labour Party in parliamentary politics, and a simultaneous struggle within its councils over whether or not to support women's suffrage. Many labour and socialist supporters opposed equal suffrage on the existing property qualifications. They argued the need to campaign rather for ‘adult’ or ‘manhood’ suffrage. Some socialists, notably Belfort Bax of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, rejected altogether the idea of votes for women. The Lancashire and Cheshire Representation Committee formulated its demand in terms of ‘womanhood’ suffrage, the vote for all adult women, one that implicitly supported the call for a fully democratic franchise. In contrast, both the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and the WSPU held to the more limited demand of equal votes for women.

Emmeline Pankhurst came to question the value of private-member women's-suffrage bills after watching the talking out of such a measure in May 1905 amid ridicule and ribaldry. She and other members of the union staged an impromptu protest at such treatment at the House of Commons, and she dated the commencement of ‘militancy’ from this. Other accounts dated it from October 1905, when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, having interrupted and been ejected from a Liberal Party public meeting in Manchester, held an impromptu protest meeting on the steps outside. They were arrested for refusing to move on, and for Christabel Pankhurst's technical assault on a policeman. They then refused to pay the fines imposed on them by the court, thus ensuring a period in prison and attracting substantial press coverage for their cause. The value of what has since been termed ‘the politics of disruption’ in the WSPU's campaigning was thus established. Unlike the non-party policy of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, the WSPU attacked Liberal candidates by such means, for a Liberal victory was anticipated in the coming general election.

Much of the subsequent historical debate regarding suffrage militancy treats this phenomenon as a single, self-evident, coherent category of political campaigning, unchanging in its essential nature and quite distinct from the ‘constitutionalism’ of the other suffrage organizations. The practice of militancy in its first few years, however, drew on the repertory of British radical constitutionalism, and more especially on the practice of civil disobedience. It also reflected a Romantic understanding of history, one that believed major social and political change was dependent on the heroic acts of individuals committed to such change. The shock value of the WSPU's campaigning arose from the frisson occasioned by the spectacle of respectable, middle-class women engaging in forceful challenges to the existing order. Equally, Mary Gawthorpe, one of the union's most effective speakers and polemicists, argued that women's militancy was altogether different from the often violent pursuit of enfranchisement by men in the past. Until 1908 at least, militancy remained a more assertive form of constitutionalism rather than something quite distinct from it. The union was happy, none the less, to take over and put to its own uses the belittling journalist's term ‘suffragette’, to denote someone quite distinct from a ‘suffragist’. It also sought to define the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies in relation to itself as ‘non-militant’ rather than constitutionalist.

Some outside the WSPU expressed dismay at these developments, none the less. However, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a leading figure in the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and not generally the most tolerant of people, warned other suffragists against any attack on militant methods. Not only did they require courage and dedication, but they were also waking up much larger numbers of women than ever before to the civil disabilities of their sex. So when her old friend Annie Cobden Sanderson (the daughter of Richard Cobden) emerged at the end of 1906 from a prison sentence following her involvement in a protest by the WSPU, as a result of which Adela Pankhurst [see Walsh, Adela Constantia Mary Pankhurst] had also been imprisoned, Fawcett organized a banquet in her honour at the Savoy. Such rituals of feasting and celebration were another legacy of radical constitutionalism and shortly became a regular part of the WSPU's campaigning, as more and more of its protesters found their way to a prison cell. Fawcett was clearly not alone in her appreciation, for among branch societies membership of the WSPU and the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies overlapped to some extent, at least up to 1912, and non-militants often provided ready assistance to the union's organizers when they first arrived in a locality.

In 1906, following their success in largely local campaigning in and around Manchester, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst decided to move the WSPU's headquarters to London. The family member and art student Sylvia Pankhurst together with Teresa Billington, now a full-time organizer of the union, had already made some headway there, largely among working-class women in the East End of London. Keir Hardie introduced the Pankhursts to a well-to-do couple, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, known for her benevolent work on behalf of working-class women, and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, a radical lawyer. They shortly joined the WSPU's metropolitan leadership, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence as a notably successful treasurer, for wealthy socialites such as Evelina Haverfield were increasingly recruited to its membership. The following year the Pethick-Lawrences established Votes for Women as the WSPU's own journal. At the same time support for adult suffrage and opposition to women's suffrage were gaining strength within the labour and socialist movement, alienating the WSPU's leadership, and in October 1906 Christabel Pankhurst announced that the WSPU would no longer support Labour Party candidates.

Other socialist suffragists among the leadership of the WSPU were disturbed by such developments, including the noted philanthropist Charlotte Despard and Annie Cobden Sanderson. They stated their personal determination to continue their support for Labour candidates at the Independent Labour Party conference in 1907, where Emmeline Pankhurst reaffirmed the WSPU's change of policy. Teresa Billington had the previous year drafted a constitution for the WSPU that had then been adopted by its first annual conference. As tensions grew in the following months between London headquarters and these leading socialist suffragists Emmeline Pankhurst cancelled the annual meeting due in September 1907 and scrapped the WSPU's constitution. The dissidents then summoned a special conference that attracted delegates from a large number of branches. Unable, however, to dislodge the London leadership from the union's headquarters or to gain control of its funds, the dissidents established a new body, the Women's Freedom League. This attracted some socialist suffragists, like Hannah Mitchell, away from the union while others, like Mary Gawthorpe, remained loyal to the Pankhursts. The original militant body now adopted the title National Women's Social and Political Union, with Mabel Tuke as honorary secretary, Elizabeth Robins as a committee member and speaker, and Cicely Hale organizing the information department.

Between 1906 and 1908 the WSPU continued to show its flare for organizing rallies and demonstrations that attracted large numbers, in the hope of demonstrating the popularity of their cause. The uniformed Flora Drummond headed processions on horseback; Vera Holme, another horsewoman, was a marshal; Elsie Howey led a demonstration in 1909 dressed as Joan of Arc. Cicely Hamilton and Ethel Smyth wrote the words and music, respectively, of the union's anthem ‘March of the Women’. The WSPU also organized regular ‘women's parliaments’ to coincide with each new session, from which demonstrators marched to the House of Commons. In 1907 Christabel Pankhurst stood trial for publishing a pamphlet that had called on demonstrators to ‘rush’ the House of Commons, and used the occasion effectively to further embarrass leading Liberal ministers whom she put in the stand while undertaking her own legal defence. However, despite the largest suffrage demonstration ever, in Hyde Park in the summer of 1908, Herbert Asquith, the new Liberal prime minister and noted anti-suffragist, shortly afterwards declared his plans for a manhood suffrage measure. A ‘rush’ on the House of Commons, in October 1908, resulted in numerous arrests, Clara Codd being among those imprisoned.

The WSPU's demonstrators now began to throw stones to break the windows of government offices (Mary Leigh did so at 10 Downing Street), giving expression to their growing frustration while also securing a quicker arrest, and the safety it offered from the violence of some among the crowds attracted to these events. Militants continued to contrast their own largely symbolic use of violence with the riots that had at times accompanied men's demand for the vote. An official was unintentionally injured, however, during a protest by the Women's Freedom League at a polling booth in which acid was used. Fawcett and other constitutionalists denounced the changing nature of militancy, and branches of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies were now expressly required to use only ‘constitutional’ methods. At the same time Fawcett repeatedly blamed the Liberal government for provoking such violence by its refusal to listen to reasoned argument.

The WSPU's demonstrators by this time were no longer being sentenced to the first division in the prison system, the usual location for political prisoners where far greater privileges were allowed. One militant prisoner, Marion Wallace Dunlop, began a hunger strike in protest at being sentenced to the second division in 1908. This tactic was taken up by other suffrage prisoners, such as Helen Archdale, ensuring early release. The government responded in 1909 by authorizing the forcible feeding of hunger strikers, among them the militant organizer Charlotte Marsh and Edith Rigby. The WSPU's supporter Lady Constance Lytton suspected that this ill-disguised form of torture was being used selectively against working-class women, while hunger strikers like herself were released, in her case on the grounds of her weak heart. So she disguised herself as a seamstress, secured a prison sentence, and was forcibly fed several times before her true identity was recognized and she was released, suffering a stroke some time afterwards.

With the re-election of a Liberal government in January 1910, Henry Brailsford, a radical journalist and dedicated suffragist whose wife, Jane Brailsford, a member of the WSPU, had been imprisoned in 1909, suggested a fresh initiative, a private-member Conciliation Bill that could unite parliamentary supporters of all parties. The WSPU declared a truce from militancy while this went before the House of Commons. The bill successfully passed its second reading, but the failure of the government to allow it further facilities provoked another protest by the union outside parliament (18 November 1910), of which Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was one of the leaders. This became known as Black Friday because of the brutality with which suffragist demonstrators such as May Billinghurst were treated by police and members of the crowd. Some, including Georgiana Solomon, claimed sexual assault, while others, like Emmeline Pankhurst's sister Mary Jane Clarke (1862–1910), were said to have died as a result of the injuries received that day. Another government betrayal, at least in the eyes of militants, led Evelyn Sharp and Maud Sennett to throw stones through the windows of the War Office and the Daily Mail, and prompted the first large-scale window-smashing raid in London's West End in 1912, in which Barbara Gould, Agnes Macdonald, and Alice Ker were among the participants, the latter breaking windows at Harrods department store.

The government retaliated with increasingly repressive measures: arresting Emmeline Pankhurst and the Pethick-Lawrences and successfully putting them on trial for conspiracy; censoring Votes for Women by pressuring its printers; threatening the financial assets of wealthier supporters. In 1913 it also introduced the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ that allowed it to release hunger striking prisoners on licence, and then to rearrest them once they had recovered, a tactic used against Gertrude Ansell, Jennie Baines, Rachel Barrett, Helen Crawfurd, Eleanor Higginson, Annie Kenney, Ethel Moorhead, and Mary Richardson. This process seriously undermined Emmeline Pankhurst's health, and her followers believed her close to death. Emily Wilding Davison was one of the ‘irregulars’ and ‘freelances’ among the protesters within the WSPU, militants who acted on their own authority and according to their own lights. She went on the course as the horses approached during the running of the Derby, falling under their hooves and dying shortly from her injuries. Her fate prompted Kitty Marion to burn down a racecourse grandstand, while Mary Richardson slashed the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery in protest at the treatment of Mrs Pankhurst. A Scottish organizer, Fanny Parker, attempted to set fire to Robert Burns's cottage. Christabel Pankhurst, having escaped arrest, continued to direct WSPU activities from France.

Militancy became increasingly clandestine and violent, involving on occasion the use of arson, bombs, and physical attacks on members of the government. Stella Newsome and Margaret Haig Thomas set fire to pillar boxes; Constance Lewcock did so to a railway building. Released from prison, the Pethick-Lawrences argued the need to return to building and demonstrating popular support for women's enfranchisement. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst opposed any such change and so the Pethick-Lawrences left the WSPU in October 1912, retaining control of Votes for Women. Sylvia Pankhurst, too, preferred working with sympathizers in the labour and socialist movements through the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which also drew in Mary Phillips, a former WSPU organizer, and Myra Brown. Sylvia Pankhurst was advised by her mother and sister that there was no place for this approach within the WSPU and was expelled.

In the summer of 1914 the Liberal government began negotiations with suffragists that were interrupted by war, and in which the WSPU was not included. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst suspended the militant campaign shortly after the beginning of the war and lent their services to government recruiting campaigns. The militants never regained the presence they once held in suffrage campaigning. In 1917 the Pankhursts relaunched the WSPU as the Women's Party, for which Christabel Pankhurst stood, unsuccessfully, in the 1918 general election.

Sandra Stanley Holton


E. Crawford, The women's suffrage movement: a reference guide, 1866–1928 (1999) · S. S. Holton, Feminism and democracy: women's suffrage and reform politics in Britain, 1900–1918 (1986) · S. S. Holton, Suffrage days: stories from the women's suffrage movement (1996) · S. S. Holton, ‘“In sorrowful wrath”: suffrage militancy and the romantic feminism of Emmeline Pankhurst’, British feminism in the twentieth century, ed. H. L. Smith (1990), 7–24 · J. Liddington and J. Norris, One hand tied behind us: the rise of the women’s suffrage movement (1978); new edn (2000) · The non-violent militant: selected writings of Teresa Billington-Greig, ed. C. McPhee and A. Fitzgerald (1987) · J. Purvis, Emmeline Pankhurst: a biography (2002) · A. Rosen, Rise up, women! The militant campaign of the Women's Social and Political Union, 1903–1914 (1974) · A. Morley and L. Stanley, The life and death of Emily Wilding Davison (1988) · L. Tickner, The spectacle of women: imagery of the suffrage campaign, 1907–14 (1988)


Mrs Albert Broom, cream-toned velox print, 1910, NPG [see illus.]