The militant fight for women’s rights
The first petition, in Britain, for the enfranchisement of women’s votes was presented to Parliament in 1866 and was subsequently denied. Women continued peacefully protesting for political equality with little success – their cries continued to be ignored. However, 1912 marked a significant turning point for the women and organisations that made up the Suffragette movement in Britain. In the early 20th century increasing frustration developed, with women’s groups becoming more organised and vocal in their struggle after decades of their cause being brushed aside by an all-male parliament. Their approach had started with protests outside Parliament and local government buildings, with women congregating and shouting to be heard. As a result women across the country were arrested and imprisoned which soon led to a more drastic approach to their cause. Their anger at being treated as criminals rather than political prisoners led incarcerated women in Holloway Prison in London, such as Marion Wallace Dunlop, to escalate their actions which saw them go on hunger strike in 1909 in protest against their treatment. Rather than consider the desperation and strength of the enfranchisement, the authorities ignored their pleas and instead force fed those on strike.
This approach of ignoring the suffragettes despite mounting protest against their inequality contributed to a growing call for militant action amongst these women. Their non-violent approaches and voices had been disregarded and their cause mocked by a parliament which three times refused to put into law the ‘Conciliation Bill’ outlining the voting rights for women in Britain. Although militant acts by suffragette groups had taken place since 1908, it was only in 1912 that leading women called for violence as the best approach to forcing parliament's hand. Two small and seemingly innocuous pamphlets in the WCML archive give us an insight into the development of militant action within the movement - Crowned with honour, a speech delivered by leading women’s right activist Annie Besant, and Broken windows by Christabel Pankhurst, one of the leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and who was born and raised in Manchester [both items are at shelfmark: Suffragette Movement Box 2]. Both women justify the need for more forceful and violent action by the suffragettes as the only approach forward for their cause. Annie Besant in particular emphasises the injustices between men and women, the fact that women have the right to work and contribute to the country’s economy but not the decision-making powers, and the necessity of martyrs to secure women’s suffrage - ‘They realise that to suffer means in the long run to succeed and to able to face pain ensures the triumph of the cause for which the martyr is in pain’.
For the suffragettes and the WSPU, violence and pain were necessary evils to advance their cause, as history had proven when, over half a century earlier, working class men had used violence in much the same way to secure their right to vote. This was justification enough to adopt a similar approach to get what they wanted and rightly deserved.
Suffragettes across the country started breaking windows, inciting arson and attacking police officers in response to the WSPU’s call for violence. Whilst their escalation into violence is understandable after years of peaceful protest which got them nowhere, some historians in recent years have argued that this development towards a militant approach actually hindered their cause. Public support turned against the suffragettes, and MPs opposing women’s voting rights used this violence to their advantage, branding these militants during their speeches in Parliament as ‘terrorists’ who were too hysterical and insane for the vote. However by using violent protest the suffragettes ensured publicity surrounding the fight for women’s rights remained a prominent topic in the public and political spheres. This extreme approach, despite its unpopularity, contributed towards most women being given the vote in 1918.
Related blog posts about new acquisitions to the Library collection
15 March 2018 'They wouldn't let us go in - But we had a splendid fight outside' - children's book Votes for Catharine Susan and me, Kathleen Ainslie (c.1910/11)
14 Feb 2018 'I advise you ladies to be careful. There's going to be some trouble' - novel Intellectual mansions S.W. by Philip Gibbs (1910)
7 and 8 Feb 2018 'Haven't you heard', she said, 'that we can break windows?' - Way stations, a 1913 collection of articles, essays and speeches by self-proclaimed militant suffragette, US-born actress, playwright and novelist Elizabeth Robins
6 Feb 2018 'After all this is the seed time we are sowing and the harvest is bound to arrive' - votes for women - the Minute Book of the Rochdale branch of the WSPU for c.May 1907-November 1915
21 July 2017 An artistic autograph album with a Suffragette twist - an autograph album with line drawings including one of Charlotte Despard (see illustration above)
Related Objects of the Month
August 2017 - Stamp from the International Woman Suffrage Congress, 1913
Decorative stamp marking the seventh Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, held in Budapest in June 1913, with 22 countries represented.
September 2009 - suffragette pamphlet by Cicely Hamilton, 'Beware! A warning to suffragists'