Anecdotes and Quotations

Following are excerpts from publications written by key figures involved in struggle for suffrage – the supporters and their opponents.

The Pankhurst Family

In 1903 the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union was founded in the home of Emmeline Pankhurst aged 45 and included her daughters, Christabel, 23, Sylvia, 21 and Adela, 18. Also present were a group of women labour activists and suffragists. Sylvia gave a detailed account of the early years of the WSPU in her book, The Suffragette (1911):

After Dr. Pankhurst’s death, in 1898, Mrs. Pankhurst retired from the Board of Guardians and became a Registrar of Births and Deaths.

For the next few years, my mother took no active part in politics, except as a member of the Manchester School Board, but in 1901 my sister Christabel became greatly interested in the Suffrage propaganda organised by Miss Esther Roper, Miss Eva Gore-Booth, and Mrs. Sarah Dickinson amongst the women textile workers. She was also elected to the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee, of which Miss Roper was Secretary. Christabel soon struck out a new line for herself. Impressed by the growing strength of the Labour Movement she began to see the necessity of converting to the question of Women’s Suffrage the various Trade Union organisations, which were upon the eve of becoming a concrete force in politics. She therefore made it her business to address as many of the Trade Unions as were willing to receive her.

We were all much interested in Christabel’s work and my mother’s enthusiasm was quickly re-awakened. The experiences of her later years had brought her a keener insight into the results of the political disabilities of women, against which she had rebelled as a high-spirited girl, and she now realized more strongly than ever before, the urgent and immediate need for the enfranchisement of her sex. She became filled with the consciousness that her duty lay in forcing this one question into the forefront of practical politics, even if in so doing she should find it necessary to give up all her other work. The Women’s Suffrage cause, and the various ways in which to further its interests were now constantly present in all our minds. A glance at the early history of the movement, to say nothing of personal experience, was enough to show that the Liberal and Conservative parties had no intention of taking the question up, and, after mature consideration, my mother at last decided that a separate women’s organisation must be formed. Therefore, on October 10th, 1903, she invited a number of women to meet at our home, 62 Nelson Street, Manchester, and the Women’s Social and Political Union was formed. Almost all the women who were present on that original occasion were working-women, Members of the Labour Movement, but it was decided from the first that the Union should be entirely independent of Class and Party.

The phrase “Votes for Women” was now for the first time in the history of the movement adopted as a watchword by the new Union (6).

Emmeline Pankhurst

Mrs. Pankhurst, the family matriarch, describes the dramatic rise of the WSPU and the extraordinary efforts on her and her team’s part to speed the passage of legislation for women’s suffrage.

I want to say right here, that those well-meaning friends on the outside who say that we have suffered these horrors of prison, of hunger strikes and forcible feeding, because we desired to martyr ourselves for the cause, are absolutely and entirely mistaken. We never went to prison in order to be martyrs. We went there in order that we might obtain the rights of citizenship. We were willing to break laws that we might force men to give us the right to make laws. Emmeline Pankhurst My Own Story, (1914)

Christabel, her eldest daughter, was an inspiration to Mrs. Pankhurst from the beginning, “she would never be deflected from her purpose in life by her affections, as most women were apt to be. We are politicians, Christabel and I” (Sylvia Pankhurst. The Suffragette Movement, 1931).

Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel both resigned from the Independent Labour Party in l907.

Christabel wrote several years earlier that she believed socialists would never prioritize suffrage for women:

Some day when they are in power, and have nothing better to do, they will give women votes as a finishing touch to their arrangements. Why are women expected to have such confidence in men of the Labour Party? Working men are just as unjust to women as are those of other classes. Christabel Pankhurst, ILP News, August, (1903)

Now, I want to say to you who think women cannot succeed, we have brought the government of England to this position, that it has to face this alternative: either women are to be killed or women are to have the vote. Mrs. Pankhurst’s speech, “Freedom or Death,” Hartford, CT, USA (1913)

There are degrees of militancy. Some women are able to go further than others in militant action and each woman is the judge of her own duty so far as that is concerned. To be militant in some way or other is, however, a moral obligation. It is a duty which every woman will owe to her own conscience and self-respect, to other women who are less fortunate than she herself is, and to all those who are to come after her. If any woman refrains from militant protest against the injury done by the Government and the House of Commons to women and to the race, she will share the responsibility for the crime. Submission under such circumstances will be itself a crime. “Letter from Mrs. Pankhurst to Members of the WSPU” (1913).

In a speech given in the USA in 1918 Mrs. Pankhurst publicly expressed her support for the British Empire and recommended that in order to change its long history of heartlessness over its colonized populations it should organize the sharing of some of its vast wealth to address inequity:

Some talk about the Empire and Imperialism as if it were something to decry and something to be ashamed of. It is a great thing to be inheritors of an Empire like ours…great in territory, great in potential wealth…If we can only realize and use that potential wealth we can destroy thereby poverty, we can remove and destroy ignorance” Biba Kang. “On the centenary of some women gaining the vote, we must also remember the failings of early feminists” The Independent. (6 February 2018)

Mrs. Pankhurst’s support of Empire was consistent with her alignment with the government’s anti-communist stand regarding Russia. It also underlined the ideological schism that had formed between her and her daughter Sylvia who promoted her growing belief in the Russian October Revolution of 1917, and that the Soviet model of government could work for a potential socialist government in Britain.

In 1920-21 Mrs. Pankhurst and four recently adopted young girls (First World War ‘war babies’) and a governess temporarily relocated to Canada for several years and settled in a house in Toronto where she worked as a popular advocate for Eugenic Feminism. In 1923 she travelled with a group of women across Northern Ontario speaking on social issues for the Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene. Here is a link for more background on Canada’s history in eugenics.

In 1924 Mrs. Pankhurst placed two of her “war babies” with wealthy families and then left Canada and moved to Bermuda. In 1925 she moved to the French Riviera to open an English Teashop financed by a wealthy friend. Christabel joined her there, but the business quickly floundered, and Christabel returned to California. Mrs. Pankhurst returned to England in 1926 where she joined the Conservative Party. In 1928 she had to drop out of the race for MP at White Chapel and St. George because of her declining health. She died in 1928.  When she was imprisoned in April 1913 for the arson of Lloyd George’s property, she went on hunger strike and was forced fed by authorities. Nine days later she was released in an extremely weakened condition. She joined her partner Ethel Smyth at their home in Surrey to convalesce, but she never fully recovered or regained her former vigour. Her funeral in 1928 revealed the depth of regard that her followers still held for their former Commander and Chief.

Mrs. Pankhurst died in 1928 the same year that the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was passed by the Conservative government.

It gave the vote to all women over the age of 21 regardless of property ownership and a historic marker that Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel never publicly supported. Full democracy of this sort was never the policy of the Pankhurst’s and the WSPU:

Introducing ‘equal suffrage’, for which the suffragettes were fighting, would have benefited the Conservative Party from an electoral perspective, since most of the new voters would be middle- and upper-class. ‘Universal suffrage’, on the other hand, would probably increase the number of Liberal and Labour voters. The precise proportions by which the various parties might benefit from an extension of the franchise was therefore of crucial importance.

The majority of MPs may well have been in favour of votes for women, but that did not mean that they were about to commit political suicide by creating a huge new tranche of voters likely to vote against them at the next election. Simon Webb, The Suffragette Bombers, Simon Webb, (2014, 21)


Dame Christabel Harriette Pankhurst, DBE

Remember the dignity of your womanhood. Do not appeal, do not beg, do not grovel. Take courage, join hands, stand beside us, fight with us. Unshackled: Story of How We Won the Vote (1959)

A memoir from the top tactician of the WSPU written in the 1930’s was only published after her death in California in 1958. Her colleague Grace Roe presented Christabel’s unfinished manuscript and notes to Frederick Pethick-Lawrence in London who published them in book form and created the title. In the book the author praised her mother as an inspiration and role model for all women. She does not give any details about the permanent family split that occurred in l914 which saw her mother expelling her younger sisters Sylvia and Adela from the WSPU at her request.

The chapters of The Great Scourge and How to End It (1913) first appeared in serial form in the WSPU periodical, the Suffragette. “Rise Up Women!” was the motto. The book was a manifesto to the women of Great Britain.  Christabel accused the Liberal government, elected by and comprised solely of men, of owning a vested interest in the exploitation of women economically and sexually either for profit or pleasure. She proposed that this political and economic travesty resulted in a plague of devastating venereal disease, spread by countless immoral men from all classes to vulnerable young women and mothers which threatened the race and the nation. This was in part Christabel’s attempt to counter a popular discourse that had scapegoated women working in the sex industry for the spread of gonorrhoea and syphilis:

There has been vigorous criticism of the policy of destroying property for the sake of Votes for Women. That criticism is silenced by the retort that men have destroyed and are destroying, the health and life of women in the pursuit of vice. It is in the interests of the nation that these same hypocritical opponents profess to resist votes for women. How hollow that argument is seen to be when it is realized that men are constantly infecting and reinfecting the race with vile disease, and so bringing about the downfall of the nation! The Great Scourge and How to End It (1913, ix).

The Suffragettes are, according to the judges, not unacquainted with conspiracy of one sort, but we would point out that it is long since they refused to be a party to the conspiracy of silence regarding venereal disease. (ibid, 2)

As the hope of curing venereal disease is so illusory, prevention is obviously the true policy. No individual can hope to avoid these diseases except by abstaining from immoral sexual intercourse, and similarly a nation cannot remain unaffected so long as prostitution exists. (ibid, 5)

The cause of sexual disease is the subjection of women. Therefore, to destroy one must destroy the other. Viewed in the light of that fact, Mr. Asquith’s opposition to votes for women is seen to be our overwhelming public danger. (ibid, 13)

Firstly, owing to the campaign of silence, now breaking down, medical certificates for the cause of death are often so arranged as to conceal the part played by syphilis, and therefore the available statistics do not represent the facts. (ibid 14)

Here we have the reason why a man-made Socialism is not less dangerous to women than man-made Capitalism. So long as men have the monopoly of political power, it will be impossible to restrain their impulse to keep women in economic dependence and so sexually subservient. In this case, as we have said, the question of White Slavery is an economic one. (ibid 45)

The fact is that the Government are themselves White Slave-mongers and upholders of vice. That is why they dare not meet the judgement of women voters. (ibid, 146)

From a contemporary reading on agency and prostitution in London:

The question of a prostitute’s agency remains a contentious one, and one that lies at the heart of the divisions within present-day feminism over the issue of prostitution. For those feminists who see prostitution as inherently exploitative and violent, prostitutes cannot choose to sell sex: they are prostituted women. Other feminists, while recognizing the large amount of abuse and exploitation within the sex industry, acknowledge that prostitutes tend to frame their move into prostitution as a choice, albeit a difficult choice amongst worse ones. Historians of London and British prostitution have uncovered evidence that in the main supports the latter view and argue that the decision to become involved in prostitution must be considered alongside women’s other-often poor- economic choices. Prostitution routinely challenges any tidy historical conceptualization of agency and victimhood, which appear as false dichotomies in the face of individual women’s complex and contradictory experiences. Selling Sex in the City: A Global History of Prostitution, by Julia Laite, (2017)

(An overview of the current criminalization of prostitution in Canada.)

Christabel had shown exceptional skill at appropriating individual spontaneous creative acts of protest by suffragettes and of transforming them into weaponized strategies for the WSPU. Whether two activists interrupting a politician’s speech or a single hunger strike in prison or two activists smashing some windows with small stones at 10 Downing Street or a single activist using arson in three post boxes, Christabel was key in facilitating the dream she shared with her mother of creating a women’s army.

Christabel visited her mother in Toronto in 1921 and soon after re-emerged in public as a popular evangelical speaker  at local Protestant churches. Her first guest sermon was at the Knox Presbyterian Church, on Spadina Ave. It was not long before she moved to Santa Monica, California with former suffragette Grace Roe to continue this new path of writing and giving sermons about the Second Coming of Christ.

E. Sylvia Pankhurst

International solidarity is a sentiment which only attains a sturdy growth among those who are fully convinced that capitalism has had its day. India and the Earthly Paradise, 1926)

Pankhurst continued the narrative she began with her first book, The Suffragette (1910), expanding at length on her observations and thoughts about the movement and the challenges and changes in the WSPU. She also charted her founding of a parallel organization promoting suffrage and socialism among women of the working class in London’s East End. She reveals the different paths she and other family members took after they parted ways in 1914.

While on scholarship as an art student in London in 1906, Pankhurst reached a crossroads and decided to abandon her studies and to participate full time in organizing for the WSPU and her own East End branch:

Are we brothers of the brush entitled to the luxury of release from utilitarian production? Is it just that we should be permitted to devote our entire lives to the creation of beauty, whilst others are meshed in monotonous drudgery? Now, facing alone the hard struggle of life as an unknown artist, nervous, diffident and in poor health, came the frequent question: Why? As a speaker, a pamphlet-seller, a chalker of pavements, a canvasser on doorsteps, you are wanted; as an artist the world has no real use for your; in that capacity you fight a purely egotistical struggle. The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals, (1931), 266.

The following is a quote by Sylvia Pankhurst’s biographer that describes Sylvia’s relationship with Kier Hardie:

Their friendship and later love affair developed Pankhurst’s attitudes toward love, marriage and sexuality as well as her political commitment to socialism and feminism. To Pankhurst, Hardie was a friend, father figure and mentor, as well as lover, and their relationship, which lasted from 1904 to 1913, strengthened her political convictions and activism. Barbara Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism, (4)

Convention meant so much to Hardie that he never left his wife to marry Pankhurst. Although their affair was known in some circles, they were not public loves. General knowledge of their affair would have hurt Hardie politically. If Pankhurst was saddened, disappointed or angered at Hardie’s refusal to marry her, or to put her first in his affections publicly, she never mentioned it in her writings. Nor did she ever write about the complications and contradictions of having an affair with a married man. (ibid, 11)

Emmeline Pankhurst and the composer Ethel Smythe shared a home together in the last years of suffragette militancy. The nature of the relationship with Smythe was something that both Pankhurst and Christabel wanted to play down and they urged Smythe not to write about it. Yet in Smythe’s book, Female Piping’s in Eden (1933) she not only hints at her own and Emmeline’s homosexuality but she indicates that Pankhurst’s homosexuality might have been a reason for her estrangement from mother and sister. Smythe quotes a letter she wrote to Emmeline in 1913: “I couldn’t help reminding (Christabel) that I always said … that Sylvia would never fall into line and would always be a difficulty given the fact that since C. is not on the spot. Sylvia will never be an Amazon. If it isn’t JKH it will be somebody else” (ibid 13).

Those Suffragists who say that it is the duty of the richer more fortunate women to win the Vote, and that their poorer sisters need not feel themselves called upon to aid in the struggle, appear in using such arguments, to forget that it is ‘the Vote’ for which we are fighting. The essential principle of the vote is that each one of us shall have a share of power to help himself or herself and us all. It is in direct opposition to the idea that some few, who are more favoured, shall help and teach and patronize the others. It is surely because we Suffragists believe in the principle that every individual and every class of individuals has a right to a share both in ruling and in serving, and because we have learnt by long and bitter experience that every form of government but self-government is tyranny – however kindly its intention – that we are fighting for the Vote, and not for the remedying of some of the many particular grievances from which women suffer. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Woman’s Dreadnought, (March 1914)

In 1921 Sylvia Pankhurst penned an article about Keir Hardie and the central role that Marxism played in his social and political foundation. It also gives an insight into the influence he had on her own Marxist development.

For a contemporary analysis of Sylvia Pankhurst’s role as a  transnational partisan in the fight against fascism and colonialism specifically regarding Italy’s invasion and conquest of Ethiopia under the dictator Benito Mussolini in 1935 -36.  by: Neelam Srivastava. “The intellectual as partisan: Sylvia Pankhurst and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia,”Postcolonial Studies Volume 24, 2021 – Issue 4

For a brief summary of the differing political paths separating the Pankhurst family members see Spartucus Educational. “Why did Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst join the Conservative Party?”.

James Keir Hardie  

By 1913 Keir Hardie found himself under siege in the political arena. He had long lost all credibility with the Pankhurst leadership. At this point they commanded that all members of the WSPU to abandon Labour and socialism and they openly rebuked Hardie personally. From the other side the Labour Party and Millicent Fawcett criticized his steadfast support for the Pankhurst’s terrorism campaign. In his personal life he and Sylvia Pankhurst had ended their romantic relationship and he stopped wearing his signature red tie.

Women have no voice in making the laws which they are expected to obey. “What about Mrs. Pankhurst?” from the audience to which Mr. Hardie retorted, “If women are not allowed a say in making the laws, they are justified in breaking them.” (Loud shouts of dissent and a voice, “What about burning houses?” Mr. Hardie continued: “When men were agitating for the franchise not only were houses burnt, but there was armed revolution and rioting. I will oppose every Franchise Bill, including what is called plural voting, until women have the franchise.” The Times, (March 1913)

Annie Kenney

Kenney, who worked as a labourer in a textile mill near Manchester from the age of 10, recorded the dramatic turn in her life at age 24 after meeting up with Christabel Pankhurst when she spoke at an Independent Labour Party event where she encouraged women to join the WSPU. A week later she and Christabel were friends, and she left her mill job and moved in with the Pankhurst’s who supported her in exchange for her help with the WSPU. Her first contribution was the tactic of interrupting Liberals giving speeches, it was something she excelled at. In 1905, Mrs. Pankhurst seeing her potential, sent her to “rouse London.” She stayed with Sylvia Pankhurst in her small studio apartment in the East End and helped her recruit working class women to Sylvia’s branch of the WSPU. She became a paid full-time organizer for the WSPU after it moved headquarters from Manchester to London in l906. In 1912 she became part of the WSPU executive as a deputy organizer:

Mine being of the active, impulsive, intuitive temperaments of the world, I was naturally drawn to a personality like that of Christabel Pankhurst. If I have faith in a person, no arguments, no persuasion, nothing outside can shake my faith. I had faith in Christabel. It was exactly the faith of a child – it knows but it cannot explain. Memories of a Militant (1924) (118).

One Sunday evening in June, Mrs. Pankhurst had been invited to speak on Women’s Suffrage to a meeting held under the auspices of the Oldham Independent Labour Party. During the proceedings glees were sung by a choir of men and women cotton operatives, and one of the members of the choir was Annie Kenney, who was afterwards to take so prominent a part in the Votes for Women Movement. Annie Kenney was deeply impressed by all that Mrs. Pankhurst had to say, and shortly afterwards, when my sister Christabel also lectured in Oldham, she asked to be introduced to her. Christabel then asked her to pay a visit to our home in Manchester, and the friendship which was to have such far-reaching results began. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette, (1911, 19)

A week later she and Christabel were friends, and she left her mill job and moved in with the Pankhurst’s and Mrs. Pankhurst promised to support her in exchange for her help with the WSPU. Her first contribution was her distinctive style of interrupting Liberals giving speeches, it was something she excelled at. In 1905, Mrs. Pankhurst seeing her potential, sent her to “rouse London.” She stayed with Sylvia Pankhurst in her small studio apartment in the East End and helped her recruit working class women to Sylvia’s branch of the WSPU. She became a paid full-time organiser for the WSPU after it moved headquarters from Manchester to London in l906. In 1912 she became part of the WSPU executive as a deputy organizer:

After Kenney was released from her first detention in 1905 in Manchester, “Mrs. Pankhurst greeted me by saying, ‘Annie, as long as I have a home you must look upon it as yours. You will never have to return to factory life’” (ibid, 121).

The changed life into which most of us entered was a revolution in itself. No home life, no one to say what we should do or what we should not do, no family ties, we were free and alone in a great brilliant city, scores of young women scarcely out of their teens met together in a revolutionary movement, outlaws or breakers of laws, independent of everything and everybody, fearless and self-confident. (n.p.)

Sylvia Pankhurst recorded in 1907 that she and Annie Kenney, aged 25 and 28 respectively, infiltrated a public meeting organized by the Liberal Party with guest speaker, Herbert Henry Asquith, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who during the following year would become the next Prime Minister. Asquith was nicknamed the “sledgehammer” among colleagues for his skills in Parliamentary debate with his monotone voice and extensive use of memorized facts and figures. Prior to this he had built a reputation as a clever, astute and unscrupulous lawyer. Asquith was in the middle of his speech when Annie Kenney, “held the seat of her chair in both hands, and started off in a sort or wail, which sounded more like a mechanical siren than the human voice, repeating over and over again without pause the familiar words: ‘Will the Liberal Government give women the Vote?’ The men in the audience struck at her with fists and umbrellas and continued to do so as she was carried out of the venue. “Asquith stood silent with contracted lips.” Sylvia tried to explain their cause to the crowd but was drowned out by shouts, “I was soon flung into the street.”

One cannot help but wonder all about the old reformers who have gone by, and I often wonder what they must have felt about their reforms, what they must have felt about their movements, and knowing that every reform that strove for liberty, that worked against oppression and slavery, that worked for the up-lifting of the human race, was won at a price of human sacrifice and human life. Speech at Royal Albert Hall (1908)

Adela Pankhurst

Adela, the youngest Pankhurst daughter, was expelled from the WSPU at age 29 in 1914. Sylvia invited her to join her independent East End Federation of Suffragettes, but she declined as her mother would never approve of it. She agreed instead to submit to her mother’s plan for her to be exiled to Australia. Mrs. Pankhurst was fearful that Adela would become a damaging public critic of the WSPU over its turn to escalating violence against property. She provided Adela with one-way passage with an extra £20 and a letter of introduction to the prominent feminist  and political reformer Vida Goldstein in Melbourne. There Adela started as an organizer for Goldstein’s, Women’s Political Association of Victoria. She would go on to become a prominent leftist and a co-founder of the Communist Party of Australia in 1920 and much later a prominent right wing extremist when she would be among the founding members of the fascist, Australia First Movement of l941-2.

A large proportion of capitalist activity is directed to stirring up sensuality in mankind; books, pictures, songs and plays are produced for no other purpose, and hotels, houses and other establishments yield large profits to those who cater for their satisfaction… Profits and prostitution—upon these empires are built and kingdoms stand… “Communism and Social Purity,” The Woman’s Dreadnought (1921)


Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

The author records some twenty odd years later details of the pivotal role she and her husband played as executives in the WSPU administration. She chose to accentuate the positives during their tenure and glossed over the terrible disappointment she must have experienced over how she and her husband were pushed out of the organization in 1912.

Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel were, ’two of the most remarkable people I have ever known. They cannot be judged by ordinary standards … and those who run up against them must not complain of the treatment they receive. There was something quite ruthless about Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel where human relationships were concerned … Men and women of destiny are like that. From that time forward I never saw or heard from Mrs. Pankhurst again and Christabel, who had shared our family life, became a complete stranger. The Pankhurst’s did nothing by halves! My Part in a Changing World (1938)

 She gave a glowing characterization Annie Kenney:

Her strength lay in complete surrender of mind, soul and body to a single idea and to the incarnation of that idea in a single person. She was Christabel’s devotee in a sense that was mystical; I mean she neither gave nor looked to receive any expression of the personal tenderness: her devotion took the form of unquestioning faith and absolute obedience. St. Paul says that the truest freedom is to be the slave of Christ. I understand that to mean that in absolute obedience there is no division of will and therefore no sense of external discipline. Just as no ordinary Christian can find that perfect freedom in complete surrender, so no ordinary individual could have given what Annie gave—the surrender of her whole personality to Christabel. That surrender endowed her with fearlessness and power that was not self-limited and was therefore incalculable. She was lit up with a spiritual flame. The visible Annie was rather a moving person, at any rate to me, but it was the invisible Annie that possessed world-moving power; I felt it the first time I met her.

Frederick William Pethick Lawrence

Frederick William Pethick Lawrence’s book Fate Has Been Kind (1942), written four years after his wife’s publication gives his perspective on the struggle between the WSPU and the Government from 1906-1912 and at the same time he relays a sympathetic account of key players and events within the organization.

 In 1906:

I remember I was sitting out in the garden of my home in the country on a July morning in 1906, when a telegram came to me from her (his wife) asking me to come up to London and help to secure defence for some prisoners.  I went up at once and joined her in a police court. It was a dingy and dirty place, and, as we waited for the three suffragettes to be brought in, I noticed that the dock was not clean. I stepped forward and rubbed It dry with my pocket handkerchief. I mention this trivial incident because it illustrates the French proverb, ‘C’est le premier pas qui coûte.’ Ridiculous as it may seem, this single act, which I performed out of courtesy to my wife’s friends, made a greater demand on my courage and resolution than anything I did later in the campaign, not excluding my own prison sentence and forcible feeding. By it I testified that in this matter of the women’s revolt I had taken sides with the dock against the bench, and I accepted the full implication of all that that entailedThe three prisoners presented a sorry spectacle to the casual observer. All were working women and poorly dressed. Apart from her flaming eyes, Annie Kenney looked an ordinary north country mill girl. Mrs. Sbarboro was the wife of an Italian workman resident in East London. Mrs. Knight was lame and insignificant. Except my wife and myself they had few friends in Court, and they had no assurance that, if they were sent to prison, they would have any sustained backing when they came out. Yet they were standing there undismayed when charged with disorderly conduct. They had been in Cavendish Square trying to see Mr. Asquith ringing his doorbell and refusing to go away. Annie Kenney was accused of having had a whip in her hand. She denied it, her sincerity was so obvious to the Court that the policeman withdrew the accusation and said that he might have mistaken a string bag she was carrying for a whip. It was alleged during the proceedings that in Cavendish Square a policeman had said, ‘These are the sort of women who want a pint of gin in the morning’ “No, sir,” said Mrs. Sbarboro solemnly to the magistrate without any intentional humour, ‘he did not say that, he said, ‘These women are the sort who want half a pint of gin in the morning.’ In the end they were bound over to keep the peace and on their refusal as a matter of principle, were sent to prison. These were the first imprisonments in London in the campaign. Fate Has Been Kind (1942) (69)

I doubt whether future generations, who may read in cold print the story of the suffragettes, will ever fully comprehend the measure of enthusiasm which the campaign engendered Still less, I fancy, will they understand the exuberant gaiety which permeated all ranks, in spite of the serious nature of the issue and of the sacrifices which individuals had to make for its realization One explanation is that it was in very truth a case of ‘youth knocking at the door’, which was not belied by the presence of a few grey haired veterans who belonged to the ranks of the eternally young Like Wagner’s hero Siegfried, the suffragette had still the song of the bird ringing in her ears when she went forth to slay her dragon. (ibid, 86).

During the whole period of my connection with the WSPU I bailed out most of the Suffragettes who were arrested in London, amounting to nearly a thousand in all, and it is worth putting on record that not one of them ever attempted to escheat her bail. It used to be rather a tedious business waiting several hours at the police station, but it was often relieved by sallies of humour between the women and their captors, for in general, once the arrest had been affected, there was no animosity between them. The police were glad to be through with their unpleasant duty. Many of the women, to my surprise at the tune, were singularly debonair and gay. I realized afterwards that having cast aside tradition and convention and having dared to take action they had broken down life-long inhibitions and already achieved a freedom that they had never before known. (ibid, 74).

The window breaking campaign, which was a feature, of the later raids, arose as a spontaneous outburst of women who were not prepared to be knocked about prior to arrest. It was a short and simple act of defiance which resulted immediately in being marched off to the police- station. It had the further advantage that in general it was punished directly by fine or imprisonment instead of by bringing over the alternative of a long sentence. (Technically given for contempt of Court) At first Christabel frowned on these more violent methods but later they were recognized and planned I even remember going with her one dark evening to a country lane and selecting a bag of suitable missiles. (ibid, 81).

The whole situation has come upon us with startling suddenness and at the time nearly stunned us. To be asked to leave the WSPU to which we had contributed our life and blood was like asking a mother to be parted from her child. And yet as we faced the situation in all its aspects, we saw that the only alternative was to carry into the public arena our difference with the inevitable result that the Union would be smashed to bits. It was better we felt to leave it intact in the hands of those from whom we differ. Letter to George Lansbury, October (1912)

Emily Wilding Davison

As I am a woman and women do not count in the State, I refuse to be counted. Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God. (Emily Wilding Davison’s on the 1911 National Census.

Some are truer warriors than others, but the perfect Amazon is she who will sacrifice all even unto this last, to win the Pearl of Freedom for her sex.” “The glorious and inscrutable Spirit of Liberty has but one further penalty within its power, the surrender of Life itself. It is the supreme consummation of sacrifice, than which none can be higher or greater.

To lay down life for friends, that is glorious, selfless, inspiring! But to re-enact the tragedy of Calvary for generations yet unborn, that is the last consummate sacrifice of the Militant!

 ‘Nor will she shrink from this Nirvana. She will be faithful “unto this last.’’’  The Price of Liberty, The Suffragette, (1914)

Davison along with Mary Richardson planned to unfurl a large WSPU banner across the track in order to halt a race that included the King’s horse. She also sewed the WSPU flag onto the lining inside her coat. However, after the leading horses and the main body of other contestants had passed by their position at a corner of the course Davison spontaneously walked out onto the track to intercept one of several horses bringing up the rear, thinking she could somehow attach a WSPU flag to one as it ran by her at full gallop. In the subsequent collision she received a fatal head injury and tragically died in hospital several days later.

Suffragette, Grace Roe, organized a very large and stately military style funeral procession that partly aimed at formalizing Davison’s legacy as a martyr for women’s suffrage and at the same time enhancing the perception of a united vision between her and the WSPU leadership even though Davison continued to be an avid supporter of socialism to the end which the WSPU had formally abandoned. She was also a devout Anglican and reference to her Christian religious beliefs appeared prominently in her writings about the struggle for suffrage even though the Pankhurst leadership viewed the Anglican Church as an enemy for its support of the Liberal government. The police refused to give a permit for the procession, but it went on anyway. Mrs. Pankhurst planned to attend by escaping her house arrest under the Cat and Mouse Act but the police anticipating her plan arrested and imprisoned her instead.

Teresa Billington Greig

An insider’s look at the earliest years of the WSPU and its transition from democratic to authoritarian in 1906 the year she resigned from the organization. She reflects on the pros and cons of courting and gaining approval in public opinion.

But in October the arrest of ten suffragettes at the House of Commons (1906) was followed by a storm of protest which entirely changed the situation. The first phase of the movement came suddenly to an end, and we who had struggled and foundered in shifting sand found our- selves on firm ground.

The Government had gone too far, and their foolish severity caused a revulsion of feeling. Among the imprisoned suffragists were women of family and position and one of great historic name, while it was obvious that three of them had been arrested without good cause. The attention and sympathy of the public were won by the publication of these facts and attempts to secure our release came from most unexpected quarters. While we lay in Holloway, we were conscious of the changed atmosphere, for we were removed from the Second to the First Division, were permitted many privileges and relaxations, and ultimately were released when our sentences were but half expired. We came out of prison to find ourselves heroes. On every side there was laudation and approval. We were invited into “respectable” social circles, the constitutional suffragists made a great banquet in our honour at the Savoy, a group of well-known writers and sociologists endorsed our claims and poured ridicule upon the Government, a prominent artist presented us with a memorial sketch of our triumphal progress towards the House of Commons; the rebound from contempt and obloquy carried us to sudden heights of dizziness. The Militant Suffrage Movement: Emancipation in a Hurry, (1911) (69-70)

It is a commonplace that many people who rise to the heights in adversity and live lives of simple usefulness and dignity under ordinary conditions cannot stand the strain of success. It is the same with movements.

But beyond this question of immediate results we should, by our revolt, be awakening women to see, rousing them to rebel, undermining the superstructure of servitude by sapping at the roots of woman’s acquiescence in her own subjection. The sudden rehabilitation of October changed this outlook at once. It began to appear as though women and the world were riper for advance than we had dreamed. We held out our hands to the acknowledgment we had never counted upon and felt the sudden promise of the dawn. And almost before we had uttered our thanks for the unexpected lifting of our burden, we knew that it was a false promise, a mistaken acceptance, not a dawn but a mirage. We had won a new position indeed, but one full of dangers. (ibid, 71-72)

Under these influences of rehabilitation, the movement became conventionalized and narrowed and hypocritical. We were accepted for what we were not, and immediately began to live up — or down — to the standard expected of us. There came to be one speech for the council chamber and another for the platform; the propaganda of the society suffered a sudden loss of breadth; the industrial evils which had formed the basis of much of our appeal were gradually pushed aside for the consideration of technical, legal, and political grievances; the advocacy of reformed sex-relations was reduced to the vaguest generalities, and even these were discouraged; the working- class women were dropped without hesitation and the propaganda of the organization confined to the middle and upper classes; the ” advanced ” women, an eminently undesirable class in a socially superior society, were even more speedily driven out or silenced. (ibid, 75-76).

In its own way the movement has become as effective in its methods of revivalism, advertisement, and management as the Salvation Army, to which it bears more than a superficial resemblance. Nothing done is allowed to go unchronicled; there is constant Press notice and much personal advertisement; everything is big in a spectacular, noisy way. (ibid, 14).

Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer-Lytton

Based on the authors experiences of imprisonment and forced feeding as a suffragette. The following is her description of how Annie Kenney convinced her that joining the WSPU was the best way to support the movement:

One evening, after incessant rain, Annie Kenney and I marched arm-in-arm round the garden, under dripping trees. I explained that though I had always been for the extension of the suffrage to women, it did not seem to me a question of prime urgency, that many other matters of social reform seemed more important, and I thought class prejudice and barriers more injurious to national welfare than sex barriers. I was deeply impressed by her reply in a tone of utmost conviction: “Well, I can only tell you that I, who am a working-class woman, have never known class distinction and class prejudice stand in the way of my advancement, whereas the sex barrier meets me at every turn.” Of course, she is a woman of great character, courage and ability, which gives her exceptional facilities for overcoming these drawbacks, but her contention that such powers availed her nothing in the face of sex prejudices and disabilities, and the examples she gave me to bear out her argument, began to lift the scales of ignorance from my eyes. She was careful to point out that the members of her own family had been remarkably free from sex prejudice, and her illustrations had no taint of personal resentment. She explained the lot of women being not understood of men, and they being the only legislators, the woman’s part had always got laid on one side, made of less importance, sometimes forgotten altogether. She told how amongst these offices of women was the glorious act of motherhood and the tending of little children. Was there anything in a man’s career that could be so honourable as this? Yet how often is the woman who bears humanity neglected at such times, so that life goes from her, or she is given no money to support her child. I felt that through Annie Kenney’s whole being throbbed the passion of her soul for other women, to lift from them the heavy burden, to give them life, strength, freedom, joy, and the dignity of human beings, that in all things they might be treated fairly with men. I was struck by her expression and argument, it was straightforward in its simplicity, yet there was inspiration about her. All that she said was obvious, but in it there was a call from far off, something inevitable as the voice of fate. She never sounded a note of sex-antipathy; it was an unalloyed claim for justice and equity of development, for women and for men. Prison and Prisoners, (1914


Dame Ethel Smyth

From 1911 to 1913 composer Ethel Smyth set aside her career to devote herself completely to Emmeline Pankhurst and the WSPU. Two of her books published afterward relate some of her experiences and observations during that period of her commitment to activism. The Final Burning of Boats Etc. (1928) and Female Pipings in Eden (1933).

I went to a meeting at Lady Brassey’s to hear Mrs Pankhurst and be introduced to her. A graceful woman rather under middle height; one would have said a delicate looking woman, but the well-knit figure, the quick, deft movements, the clear complexion, the soft bright eyes that on occasion could emit lambent flame, betokened excellent health. She knew I was an artist of sorts and connected with no Suffrage society, hence my reception was, if anything, chilly. But a very short time afterwards, at the fiery inception of what was to become the deepest and closest of friendships… Female Pipings in Eden (191) 

One of the most enchanting, certainly the most comic of my magic lantern slides, shows Mrs. Pankhurst training herself to break a window. As dusk came on we repaired to a secluded part of Hook Heath….that lies in front of my house. And near the largest fir tree we could find I dumped down a collection of nice round stones…. I imagine Mrs. Pankhurst had not played ball games in her youth, and the first stone flew backwards out of her hand, narrowly missing my dog. Once more we began at a distance of about three yards, the face of the pupil assuming with each failure – and there were a good many – a more and more ferocious expression. And when at last a thud proclaimed success, a smile of such beatitude….stole across her countenance, that much to her mystification and rather to her annoyance, the instructor collapsed on a clump of heather helpless with laughter. (Mrs. Pankhurst’s sense of humour was always rather uncertain)… Alas! the lesson availed nothing! The Downing Street window selected by Mrs. Pankhurst was duly bombarded – I think she had two shots at it before they arrested her – but the stones never got anywhere near the objective. I broke my window successfully and was bailed out of Vine Street at midnight by wonderful Mr. Pethick Lawrence, who was ever ready to take root in any Police Station, his money bag between his feet, at any hour of the day or night. Female Pipings in Eden (208-9)

Man after man, who, when nothing but winning women’s support at elections was in question, had glibly voiced our claims, would cast his promises to the winds when the hour struck for effective action; displaying the same stupidity, treachery, obstinacy, conceit and hypocrisy that had begotten, and was now feeding militancy. ‘Sex war indeed’, cries Constance Lytton ‘is not this sex war? It is sex peace that we want!’ Final Burning of Boats (165)

…. escape to the Continent in order that Mrs. Pankhurst may consult with Christabel, who had crossed to Paris after her last imprisonment, taking with her the deeds and securities of the W.S.P.U., and other documents the Government hoped to find when shortly afterwards they raided the office. From that time onward the movement was directed from Christabel’s flat in the Avenue de la Grande Armeé, and messengers – such, of course, as were not under sentence – passed openly to and fro between London and Paris. It was Christabel who evolved and worked out every detail of the strategy, her mother being like all the rest a willing executant.” Female Pipings in Eden (201)


Millicent Garrett Fawcett

The war revolutionized the industrial position of women. It found them serfs and left them free. It not only opened to them opportunities of employment in a number of skilled trades, but, more important even than this, it revolutionized men’s minds and their conception of the sort of work of which the ordinary everyday woman was capable. It opened men’s eyes to the national waste involved in condemning women to forms of work needing only very mediocre intelligence. It also opened their eyes to the national as well as the personal value of the ordinary domestic work of women, which has been in their hands for uncounted generations. It ploughed up the hardened soil of ancient prejudice, dissolving it and replacing it by a soil capable of fructifying the seeds of new ideas. Not even the most inveterate of antisuffragists could have ventured to say, that apart from breeding, women were of no national importance whatsoever. The Women’s Victory and After: Personal Reminiscences  (1920)

Besides the positive gains to women and to the whole country which women’s suffrage has brought about, it is satisfactory to note than none of the disasters so freely prophesied by the anti-suffragists have materialized. The prophets themselves seem to recognize that they were the baseless fabric of a vision now utterly vanished even from remembrance. The Women’s Victory – and After: Personal Reminiscences, (1911-1918)

Queen Victoria

Victoria wrote in a private letter in response to a letter from a woman friend who expressed interest in the newly emerging women’s suffrage movement:

If women want to “unsex themselves by claiming equality with men they would become the most hateful, heathen and disgusting of beings and would surely perish without male protection” (Interview with Dr. Carolyn Harris. “What exactly are suffragettes and why did Queen Victoria hate?“) 

King Edward VII 

In a letter to Prime Minister Henry Campbell Bannerman in l907 the King criticized the WSPU campaign for women’s suffrage as, “outrageous and does their cause much harm.” (Edward VII Vol. 2, Sidney Lee, 468)

In 1906 the King had donated £8000 (£870,000 in 2022) and a further £5,000 for twelve months towards a gallery dealers purchase price of £40,000 for a Diego Velazquez painting, Venus at her Toilet, 1647-51. The painting was obtained thanks to a collaboration with the National Art Collections Fund so it could be donated to the National Gallery in London. In March 1914 the painting was attacked and sliced seven times with a small meat cleaver by Mary Richardson, a suffragette, who grew up in Canada. This action would be consistent with other attacks during this period on ‘sexist’ historical paintings in museums that was orchestrated by Christabel Pankhurst although Richardson never said as much instead, she focused on the great toll taken on Mrs. Pankhurst physically by authorities inflicting repeated forced feeding:

I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas. Times. London. (11 March 1914).

King George V

We all left for Epsom at 12.40 to see the Derby. The police say it was the largest crowd that has ever been there, the road was blocked, and it took us some time to get on the course. It was a most disastrous Derby…I ran Anmer…just as the horses were coming round Tottenham Corner a Suffragette (Emily Wilding Davison) dashed out and tried to catch Anmer’s bridle. Of course, she was knocked down and seriously injured and poor Herbert Jones and Anmer were sent flying. Jones, unconscious and badly cut, broken ribs and slight concussion, a most regrettable and scandalous proceeding…A most disappointing day…Got home 5:15…Tea with May (Queen) in the garden. King’s Diary, (June 4, 1913)

Winston Churchill

Churchill years later recalled events he witnessed in the fall of 1905 at the Liberal Party meeting at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. It was here that Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst became the first women activists to disrupt a formal political party gathering by speaking out of turn. Something about Christabel impressed him most:

 In those days it was a novelty for women to take a vigorous part in politics. The idea of throwing a woman out of a public meeting or laying rough hands up on her was rightly repulsive to all. Painful scenes were witnessed in the Free Trade Hall when Miss Christabel Pankhurst, tragical and dishevelled, was finally ejected after having thrown the meeting into pandemonium. This was the beginning of a systematic interruption of public speeches and the breaking up and throwing into confusion of all Liberal meetings. Indeed, it was most provoking to anyone who cared about the style and form of his speech to be assailed by the continued, calculated shrill interruptions. Just as you were reaching the most moving part of your peroration of the most intricate point in your argument, when things were going well and the audience was gripped, a high-pitched voice would ring out: ‘What about women? When are you going to give women the vote?’ and so on. No sooner was one interrupter removed than another in a different part of the hall took up the task. It became extremely difficult to pursue connected arguments. Peter Mendelssohn. The Age of Churchill,  (1961, 230)

Sylvia Pankhurst in her book of 1911 titled, The Suffragette, described what happened at this very same meeting. Sir Edward Grey, the future cabinet minister was the first speaker. He made a spirited speech filled with many progressive promises for change.

Mrs. Pankhurst had sent a letter prior to this event asking Grey for a meeting with delegates from the WSPU to discuss the issue of suffrage. Since the letter was not answered Christabel and Annie Kenney attended his talk in order to get some answers from him directly. Earlier that day Annie Kenney said cheerfully, “I shall sleep in prison tonight.” Churchill was on the platform that evening with Grey, the chairman and other delegates. After he got word that the two activists were detained at Strangeways jail he offered to pay their fines, but the jail administrator declined his offer. After the story hit the news Lady Grey, the wife of the guest speaker at the Hall, said to friends she supported the activists cause commenting, “What else could they do?”

On February 4, 1907, Churchill gave his own speech to the Liberal Party membership at the same Hall. He negotiated a deal with the WSPU in advance where in exchange for not interrupting his speech he would answer one question in writing during the question period. Everything went to plan, and he responded to the WSPU note which asked if he would now support women’s right to vote. His disingenuous response was, “I regret that earnest, goodhearted women should pursue courses which brought them suffering and humiliation, but God forbid I would mock them by concealing my opinion.” Adela Pankhurst broke ranks and quickly asked him if he spoke for himself or the Liberal government. Security staff immediately pounced on her and threw her to the ground and kicked her. A suffragette sitting next to her tried to intervene but was roughly grabbed by the throat and both women were quickly ejected from the Hall. Outside Adela nursed a swollen eye and her associate had a bruised throat and neck.

Churchill in 1908 was running as incumbent in a by-election in the Manchester North West district and was favoured to win handily as he had done in l906. However, the WSPU campaigned against him intensively throughout the riding and consistently interrupted his speeches. They felt they played a role in his humiliating defeat, by a narrow margin, to the Conservative candidate. In any case Churchill quickly bounced back and won a seat in Dundee, a Liberal stronghold. Asquith had already appointed him to the cabinet as President of the Board of Trade. In December, l909, he went to Newcastle to inspect a new battleship. The Pankhurst’s and the WSPU were waiting for him. They petitioned him relentlessly at the train station, at his hotel lobby, at a reception held in his honour, on the pier, on his launch boat and on the battleship itself and again at every point on his return from Newcastle.

Churchill was an enthusiastic supporter of eugenics, a pseudo-scientific theory that was widely popular among the elite and tirelessly lobbied within the Liberal Party for legislation during these years.