A Primer on Britain’s Suffragettes

The term “suffragette” was penned in 1906 by the Daily Mail , a populist conservative tabloid, and was directed at the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Founded in 1903 it was a militant offshoot of the national women’s suffrage movement. WSPU members referred to themselves simply as “the Union” and their motto was, “Deeds not Words.”


From the beginning the group’s leaders adopted a strategy of direct action, staging public demonstrations that would invite media attention and keep the issue of suffrage front and center in the public’s imagination. On October 13, 1905, for example, two activists from the WSPU joined the audience at a liberal party meeting in Manchester to challenge the politicians to take a stand on suffrage.  After a speech given by a future cabinet minister on reforms that he promised to support, one woman asked the speaker what the Liberals would do to make women politically free and displayed a ‘Votes for Women’ banner across the gallery. The question was met with silence so the same woman then shouted: “Will the government give women the vote?” The question was again ignored while unrelated questions from men in the audience were taken and answered instead. The activist once again tried to speak but this time security staff confronted her, and one pushed his hat over her face while forcing her to sit. Shouts were heard:“Let the Lady Speak!” Others countered:“Be Quiet!” At this point the woman’s partner stood and asked the speaker, “Will the Liberal government give women the vote?” The speaker did not answer.


As shouts rang out from the audience the Manchester chief of police, who was heading the security team, asked the women to put the question in writing and he would deliver it to the speaker. The note read: “Will the Liberals give votes to working women? It was signed by an activist who listed herself as a member of the Oldham and Blowing Room Operatives and also noted that she was one of 96,000 cotton workers. The speaker read the question, smiled and passed it on to the chairman who passed it on to each member of a panel and then it was set aside and not addressed. At this point the second activist implored, “May I as a woman be allowed to speak?” In response, there was a motion to thank the speaker and the Chair and to conclude the meeting which was seconded and then the audience moved to leave. The first activist to ask the question stood on her chair this time and aggressively screamed out, “Will the Liberal Government give working women the vote?” Instantly a chorus of angry men shouted her down. Security staff began to drag her out as she and her partner linked arms. Her partner then shouted: “the question, answer the question!” Shouts rang out, “Throw them out!” In reply some others shouted back “Shame!” in rebuke.


After the two women were gone, the guest speaker addressed the audience to calm things down: “I am not sure that unwittingly and in innocence I have not been a contributing cause. As far as I can understand the trouble arose from a desire to know my opinion on the subject of Woman’s Suffrage. That is a question which I would not deal with here tonight because it is not, and I do not think it is likely to be, a party question.” He finished by saying he just did not think it was, “a fitting subject for this evening.” Meanwhile outside the women ignored police requests to leave the area and were taken into custody and charged with resisting arrest after the second questioner spat at and slapped a police superintendent and then an inspector. The story made the national news. Editorials suggested the activists were setting back not advancing their cause with such unladylike behaviour. One paper offered, “the discipline of the nursery” as a more appropriate punishment. Many readers responded in writing expressing support for the activists and stating that their treatment was extremely unfair.

In December 1911 Emily Wilding Davison was arrested for setting several mailboxes on fire near Parliament for which she was sentenced to six months in prison. Her action was not approved by Mr. and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence. Davison’s spontaneous act would set in motion a very particular amplification in urban terrorism to be refined by Christabel Pankhurst.

Lloyd George stated in a speech that militancy was spreading like, “foot and mouth disease” throughout the country.

A young suffragette organizer stationed in Dublin gained possession of confidential letters from the office of the Secretary of State. The letters revealed that Asquith and Lloyd George were solely responsible for the forced feeding of suffragettes in prisons in response to hunger striking.

The WSPU was involved in an ambitious protest action in March, 1912 that involved a window smashing campaign , targeting shops and offices in London’s West End. In May, Mrs. Pankhurst and the Pethick Lawrences went on trial for conspiracy and were sentenced to nine months in prison. Mrs. Pankhurst responded to her conviction at court, “I feel I have done my duty. I look upon myself as a prisoner of war. To the women who have faced these terrible consequences I want to say: I am not going to fail you but will face it as you face it.”

Emily Wilding Davison was being force fed in prison at this time. At the first opportunity out of her cell she jumped from the 4th floor in an attempted suicide. She was saved by an iron mesh screen spread around the ceiling of the mezzanine. She jumped again from the mesh into the iron staircase headfirst and injured herself. She continued her hunger strike and was again force fed several more times before being released.

McKenna continued the tactic of force feeding and bolstered it with the Cat and Mouse Act in 1913.

From 1912 to 1914, Christabel Pankhurst headed two additional campaigns against property to complement window smashing in order put maximum pressure on the government to negotiate in good faith. One called for damaging original art works, paintings and prints, in art museums. The other was arson and fire-bombing property. Sylvia Pankhurst noted in her book, The Suffragette Movement, that early in 1912 Christabel fled to France, because Scotland Yard had included her in an arrest warrant for Mrs. Pankhurst and Mr. and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence for ‘conspiracy to incite certain persons to commit malicious damage to property’ after the big window smashing event. In Paris, Christabel, who had assumed sole control and coordination of attack directives for the WSPU, utilized suffragette couriers to communicate her written orders to activists in England. During this period Mrs. Pankhurst travelled tirelessly abroad primarily in the US and in Canada and across Britain and Ireland giving speeches where her celebrity raised awareness for women’s suffrage and gained donations for the WSPU. In 1913 Christabel relayed a command to Sylvia to visit the Manchester Art Gallery where she was to attack art works that had been selected for her. Sylvia declined the order. Shortly afterward three suffragettes smashed the protective glass for thirteen historical paintings at the museum.

Six years earlier, as an art student in London, Sylvia had completed a series of paintings that offered alternative representations of women. “I secured permission to paint in a near-by mill. The mule-spinning room, where I started my work, was so hot that I fainted in the first hour, and the manager, who had not so much as asked my name, but liked the notion of an artist painting pictures of the mill, gave permission for a little window to be kept open near me. The girls told me they were all made sick by the heat and bad air when they first began work in the mills. The ring-spinning room where the little half-timers were employed, was worst of all: I found it impossible to work there.”

In 1912 the Pethick-Lawrence’s travelled to France, for two meetings called by Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel. The Lawrence’s had been personally held liable by the government for the window smashing campaign even though they had never agreed to its use. They were obliged to pay court fees £1,100 after being sentenced to nine months in prison for their accessory roles plus £5000 for replacement windows. At the meetings Mrs. Pankhurst stood resolutely behind Christabel’s plans for attacking property, “Short of taking human life we shall stop at no step we consider necessary to take.” Christabel revealed plans for arson and fire bombing and added that the activists carrying them out would use stealth to avoid arrest.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence tried to convince Christabel to return to London to face charges and to launch a media response to counter the negative publicity in the Press. His plan was rejected, and Mrs. Pankhurst angrily threatened, “If you do not accept Christabel’s policy we shall smash you!” The Pethick Lawrences then went on a trip to British Columbia and received a letter from Mrs. Pankhurst in which she recommended they resettle there and start a new suffrage organisation of their own. She warned the couple that the intensified terrorist campaign would end up bankrupting them. She also mentioned that WSPU headquarters had been moved from Clement’s Inn to Lincoln’s Inn House, Kingsway, a plush new five story building. The Pethick Lawrence’s replied that they preferred to continue working with the WSPU. On their return to England a meeting was called for the couple at the new headquarters with Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel, who had returned from Paris in disguise to avoid arrest. Mrs. Pankhurst demanded the couple’s resignation, and the decision was final. Mrs. Pankhurst in one sense was glad to see them gone as she had resented their preferential relationship with Christabel. The WSPU membership accepted this turn of events with enthusiasm. The collection of funds from donors dipped initially but by the next year skyrocketed. A program of setting off hundreds of false fire alarms began. Mrs. Pankhurst had already assumed full control of the organisation’s financial accounts. Votes for Women was not transferred to the Pankhurst’s so they launched a new paper of their own called, The Suffragette, with Christabel as editor and chief.

Mrs. Pankhurst in 1913 declared to the WSPU membership that their attacks against property were henceforth to be defined as a terrorist campaign.

That same year Annie Kenney gave a call to arms to the suffragette membership. As proof that she did not place herself above those of lesser rank she was arrested by police after she was spotted by alert parishioner’s placing a bomb under a pew during a Sunday service at the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Smith Square in Westminster.

Punch magazine published a political caricature of McKenna lifting by a hair a small but very unsightly creature labelled ‘Militancy’. Rendered with mouth screaming under bulging eyes and with two tiny arms extended holding an incendiary torch in one and a hammer in the other that symbolised the Pankhurst’s terror campaign. It gives the reader today a hint of the level of disdain that the Liberal government and the British establishment held for the Pankhurst’s and the WSPU all along. The cartoon also inadvertently pointed out risks for the WSPU for if they were to prevail it was essential that they maintain favour in public opinion to insure effective political leverage with the Liberals and critical financing gained primarily from donations. A peak of popular support for the WSPU was reached from 1908 to 1912.  After that public approval became more complex influenced as it was on the one hand by the negative publicity from the Press over the accelerated bombing and arson attacks on property that was countered somewhat on the other hand by rising public outrage towards the Liberal government over the cruelty of the continued force feeding of hunger striking suffragettes. For example, by the end of July 1914, seven women who were hunger striking had been forced fed every day for up to eight weeks with one, Gertrude Ansell, suffering thirteen weeks. The list of the others is, Hilda Burkitt, 12 wks. Florence Tunks, 12 wks. Nellie Hall, 10 wks. Grace Roe, 9 wks. Phyllis North, 8 wks. Mary Spencer, 10 wks.

In London the Daily Mail editorialised on the introduction of the Cat and Mouse Act. “It will not do. No one who has read the reports of their sufferings, such as Sylvia Pankhurst’s in yesterday’s edition, can have any other feeling than this, that however necessary it may be to use such methods in the case of the insane, their application to women, who in full possession of their senses, choose to offer violent resistance, is barbarous and uncivilized. It converts a sentence of a month or two into a sentence of unbearable torment, degrading to the community which inflicts it. What we suggest is that the Minister cut forcible feeding completely out of his scheme.”

The Act was extended first to women accused of arson, then to those of lesser offences like window breaking and finally to those women in custody awaiting trial. Even though the Home Secretary said the Act did not permit police to have forced entry into private homes while searching for “Mice” the reality was that the police were entering homes anyway as a strategy of intimidating suffragette supporters sheltering them. As the periods of forced feeding lengthened before conditional release the WSPU replied with increased attacks on property.


Each time Mrs. Pankhurst was delivered back to prison under the Act she was humiliated by authorities who forcibly strip searched her unnecessarily.


Lloyd George in a speech denounced the WSPU as a “copious fountain of mendacity!” About a month later at a small town in Wales, he tried to give a dedication speech but was interrupted by suffragettes which provoked a particularly vicious reprisal from young men in the crowd. This backlash spread to WSPU demonstrations and marches. The Liberal leadership had never seriously discouraged this behavior and in doing so signalled silent approval for these increasingly nasty faceoffs between the sexes. For their part the Pankhurst leadership saw themselves as military leaders in a battle against male dominance and had always ordered their troops to stand firm in counter attacks from authorities and Liberal supporters and this enthusiasm for confrontation continued to escalate in the later years of the campaign. Sylvia Pankhurst wrote that organised gangs of hired young men were sent to all suffrage gatherings for the sole purpose of making speech giving impossible with loud jeering and booing and general noise making. The police were asked to intervene, but they refused and directed inquiries to the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary in turn ordered that all meetings by the WSPU, The Women’s Freedom League and all non-militant suffrage organisations in addition to any male organizations in support of women’s suffrage be broken up in the future. Meetings were not illegal, but they would be broken just the same. The WSPU even brought in some East End dock workers who had volunteered to try and keep the hired gangs at bay.

Employees of The Suffragette paper were charged by police with aiding and abetting. The Home Office issued a statement that the paper was open to anyone to print and publish provided that, after publication, no incitement to crime or destruction to property was to be found in its columns.

Millicent Fawcett and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies organized an ambitious five-week march in l913 from branches all over England that converged for a rally in Hyde Park on August, 2. As the marchers made their way to London through numerous communities in route they endured vigorous harassment from male gangs.

Marital fidelity for Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers was never the norm for the majority and it continued apace with the Liberal government during the pre-war years. Lloyd George however redefined the definition of promiscuity. In 1913 Mrs. Pankhurst took responsibility for a firebombing attack, ordered by Christabel, on Lloyd George’s new home, that was under construction near a golf course. Emily Wilding Davison and two other suffragettes were the arsonists. Mrs. Pankhurst was charged and sentenced to 3 years in prison as a result. She managed to spend much her sentence outside prison by hunger striking under the Cat and Mouse Act, but enduring repeated force feeding at age 55 took a toll on her health.

Mrs. Pankhurst, at Christabel’s request, expelled both her younger daughters from the WSPU for insubordination and in so doing created an unreconcilable split in the family.

The WSPU terrorism campaign continued right up until August 4, 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany. Mrs. Pankhurst then reached an agreement with the Home Secretary. Militancy towards the government would be suspended until after the war in return for the pardon and release of all suffragette prisoners. On August 10, the government released all imprisoned suffragettes. Mrs. Pankhurst was now free. Christabel returned to London from France on Sept. 8th and gave a public speech where her sole topic was “The German Peril.” Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel’s speeches thereafter focused solely on supporting the governments campaign to build a unified national war effort.

In 1915 The Suffragette was retitled “Britannia” and its motto was “For King, for Country, for Freedom!” Christabel editorialised on how the government was responsible for the dismal results on the Front and that prominent anti-war advocates should be publicly denounced as traitors. The paper also called for the detention of foreign nationals from enemy countries. She demanded legislation to allow the conscription of all eligible males into the military and the mandatory conscription of eligible females into “national service” to meet the replacement needs for workers in industry. Suffragettes were asked to join the government’s controversial, White Feather Brigade.

Britain’s armed forces were at this time hampered by inadequate stores of ammunition due to supply chain issues. Asquith appointed Lloyd George as a temporary Minister of Munitions to solve the problem. The Pankhurst’s understood that labour shortages were a key factor and Mrs. Pankhurst met with Lloyd George. Afterward the Minister publicly offered equal pay to women who would go and work in munitions factories. Mrs. Pankhurst and the WSPU along with Millicent Fawcett and NUWSS intensively promoted recruitment campaigns encouraging women to apply for these jobs. By July 1916, there were 340,844 women working in the arms industry addressing production short falls. By the end of the war two million women had been employed in a range of vital industries across Britain. It is widely believed that it was this successful development in transforming the workplace that finally secured legislation for partial suffrage for women two years later.

In the April 1916 Christabel published in Britannia a piece titled “A Message from Mrs. Pankhurst” that criticized Sylvia for leading an anti-war protest called “Adult Suffrage Against Conscription” at Hyde Park. The article begins: “Hearing of a demonstration recently held in Trafalgar Square, Mrs. Pankhurst, who is at present in America, sent the following cable: Strongly repudiated and condemn Sylvia’s foolish and unpatriotic conduct. Regret I cannot prevent use of name. Make this public.”

In 1915 and 1916 the WSPU experienced two serious breaches in the suffragette rank and file over the fact that the Pankhurst’s had instituted and continued a freeze on advocating for women’s suffrage.

In early 1917 the Press announced that a special Speaker’s Conference Report would ignore the subject of “Votes for Women.” When the Report was released after discussions with women’s suffrage groups, excluding Sylvia Pankhurst’s, Women’s Suffrage Federation, it advocated a limited Franchise,” Votes for women over thirty or thirty-five years of age and who were local government electors or wives of same and university graduates over thirty or thirty-five years of age.” The “Nation” editorialized, “You cannot have a property basis for the women’s vote and a flesh and blood basis for the men. You cannot maintain so wide an age-space between them and the woman voter as twenty-one and thirty-five.” Sylvia Pankhurst on behalf of the WSF sent a letter to PM Lloyd George stating that according to the 1911 census enfranchisement for women starting at age twenty-one would include 2,699,369 citizens. The numbers between 35 and 65 were, 793,036. A pauper disqualification would debar large numbers of working-class widows and unemployed. All the other suffrage societies met and agreed to accept the Speakers Conference Report as is. The Labour Party endorsed it. Mrs. Pankhurst asked Lloyd George to proceed with the measure as she felt it was “just and practicable” and that it would be a “wonderful thing” if Votes for Women came in wartime.

The Liberal government added that any changes would force them to abandon the complete measure. The Bill passed third reading in December l917. Those women who lobbied for full enfranchisement knew that this precedent setting legislation was the beginning of the end of the sex barrier and that suffrage for women aged 21, no matter what their station, would be won over the long term. Later every single woman’s suffrage organisation from the original movement advocated for universal suffrage in the end. Earlier ideas that class would create barriers between women turned out to be misled.

The Representation of the People Act was passed into law on February 6, 1918. The goal Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel had long struggled for as won and as WWI ended that year so too did the need for the Pankhurst’s role in supporting it.In 1917 the Pankhurst’s removed the WSPU title for their organisation and replaced it with the Women’s Party that stood for “equal pay for equal work, equal marriage and divorce laws, the same rights over children for both parents, equality of rights and job opportunities in public service, and a system of maternity benefits.” The party also called for the abolition of Trade Unions. In the General Election in 1918 Christabel representing the new party ran against an Independent Labour Party candidate and was defeated in a race for Smethwick.

Notably the Pankhurst’s showed no interest in advocacy for suffrage for the countless women who were locked out by the new legislation. The Women’s Party with few members and donors slipped into insolvency. In June 1919 the Pankhurst’s closed their organisation which left them at a crossroads professionally and financially.