History - Suffragettes, 1903-14 (Theme 6)

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  • Created on: 12-06-18 15:19

The Origins of the WSPU

Why did the Pankhursts not seek female suffrage by working within the NUWSS, which had been established in 1897?

  • The first petition had been submitted to Parliament in 1866; more than 30 years later, women still did not have the vote
  • Constitutional suffrage societies relied on lobbying sympathetic MPs, but most in Parl. did not take the issue seriously 
  • Private members’ bills supporting female suffrage had been rejected almost annually since the 1860s
  • Between 1886 and 1892, women’s suffrage had not been debated once within the House of Commons
  • The large number of constitutional suffrage societies (400 by 1914) arguably lacked strong coordination
  • The NUWSS avoided outdoor meetings, public appeals and by-election interfering
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The Origins of the WSPU (2)

Why did the Pankhursts not continue to work closely with the ILP, which had been formed in 1893?

  • Many members of the ILP were against giving the vote to middle- and upper-class women
  • The working class vote had only recently started to count; they didn’t want that to be undermined
  • Many ILPers placed class before gender in the struggle for the vote; 40% of working class men were still not enfranchised
  • Basically, whilst some ILPers such as Keir Hardie were highly committed to female suffrage, for others it was less of a priority
  • The main organiser of the WSPU was the eldest daughter Christabel; as she matured (22 by 1903), she moved to the political Right
  • The branch of the ILP where a statue of Richard Pankhurst was unveiled (1903) was open only to men
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WSPU Tactics

  • Liberal election rally, Manchester, October 1905 - Christabel Pankhurst started yelling 'Votes for Women' & than reportedly spat at a police officer to get arrested
  • Anne Cobden-Sanderson & 9 other suffragettes were arrested after breaking into the Hourse of Commons lobby waving flags and making speaches, October 1906
  • In February 1907 the WPSU held the first of their annual 'Women's Parliament' before marching on Parliament where 38 of them are arrested, including Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst; they are improsoned in Holloway prison for a few weeks
  • Hyde Park demonstration in support of 'Votes for Women', June 1908, attended by 250,000-500,000 people
  • June 1909, the window-breaking campaign that had started sporadically in summer 1908 heats up when the windows at the Treasury are smashed
  • In June 1909 Marion Wallace Dunlop becomes the first suffragette to refuse prison food, hunger-striking in protest at not being treated as a political prisoner
  • June 1911: during a period of truce with the Liberal government the suffragettes take part in a Coronation procession full of pagentry, one week before the coronation of George V
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WSPU Tactics (2)

  • 1912: Brings the star of the pillar boxes being set on fire by the suffragettes
  • 1912: Also brings about the start of the smashing of shops in London which would not sell WSPU propaganda - i.e. sashes and banners
  • In 1913 Prime Minister Herbert Asquith is assulted by suffragettes weilding dog-whips
  • In June 1913, Emily Wilding Davidson is killed by the kin'g horse at the Epsom Derby after trying to pin a suffragette sash onto the bridle of the horse
  • March 1914: Mary Richardson slashes the painting the 'Rokeby Venus' by Diego Velasquez
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Structure of the WSPU

Central Committee:

  • Chief organiser = Christabel Pankhurst
  • Salaried organiser = Annie Kenney
  • Secretary = Sylvia Pankhurst
  • Treasurer = Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

Subcommittee (unelected):

  • Role = assistant Central Committee
  • Membership = Family and friends of the Pankhursts

'At Home Sessions':

  • Role = Recieve instructions about policy/strategy
  • Membership = WSPU members
    • Met every Monday, at WSPU headquarters, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London
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Structure of the WSPU (2)

Eleven Regional Offices:

  • Where = Bristol, Torquay, Manchester, Preston, Rochdale, Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh & Aberdeen
  • Role = Implement aims and objectives of the central WPSU but with considerable local autonomy

Emmeline Pankhurst:

  • Role = Roving ambassador for the WPSU, speaking at meetings, organising by-election campaigns
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Splits & Extensions

  • The two younger daughters in the Pankhurst family, Sylvia & Adela, remained socialists, despite the rightward shift of Emmeline & Christabel. In 1914 Sylvia was expelled for being too independent & socialist; Adela emigrated to Australia.
  • In October 1912, Emmeline and Fred Pethick-Lawrence, treasurer of the WSPU & organiser of Votes for Women respectively, fell out with the Pankhursts over the excessive use of violence. They were banned from the WSPU.
  • At the end of 1907 prominent suffragettes Teresa Billington-Greig & Charlotte Despard left the WSPU in protest at the lack of democracy in the movement and the reliance on violence. They formed the Women’s Freedom League.
  • Commenting on the highly centralised structure of the WSPU and the lack of democracy, one suffragette remarked that although Emmeline Pankhurst ‘wishes women to have votes she will not allow them to have opinions’.
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Although the WSPU peaked during 1907-11, arguably it went into decline due to internal splits and loss of public support due to increased militancy, including arson, during 1912-14. Arguably the issue was shifting from one of votes for women to one of law and order.

  • At its peak the WSPU employed more fully paid members of staff than the Labour Party.
  • The move from Manchester to London in 1906 attracted wealthy & influential supporters, such as Lady Constance Lytton, a sister of a member of the Lords.
  • The WSPU increased from 3 branches in 1906 to 122 branches by 1911. In 1910 the circulation of the journal, Votes for Women, was over 40,000.
  • Between 1906 & 1907 the WSPU spent £2,500 on campaigning, but towards the end of 1907 it was able to raise £20,000 due largely due to the move south.
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WSPU Members

Emmeline & Christabel PankhurstBoth were adored by most WSPU members. Christabel was behind many of the militant tactics, such as window-smashing & arson attacks. She was also responsible for the move to political Right.

Annie Kenney: The most prominent working-class member of the WSPU, she was an ally of Christabel Pankhurst. She effectively acted as Christabel’s lieutenant during the latter’s absence in Paris from 1912.

Sylvia Pankhurst: Despite not fully supporting the militancy of Emmeline & Christabel, she was arrested three times in 1913 alone, going on hunger strike. In 1911 she published a history of the suffragettes. In 1913 she founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS).

Emily Wilding Davison: Davison was a strong example of the many suffragettes who acted on their own initiative. She often initiated acts of arson, and her decision to make a heroic gesture at the Epson Derby in 1913 was made by her alone.

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The Liberals

The Liberals had won a landslide victory in the 1906 election following ten years of Conservative rule, 1895-1905. However, like the other parties, they were divided over the issue of female suffrage, often because of tactical considerations rather than principle.

Asquith, the PM from 1908, was opposed on principle, but even those more favourably disposed such as Lloyd George & Churchill had specific electoral concerns. They worried that a limited enfranchisement of women would benefit the Conservative Party in elections. Having just regained power, they did not want to lose it.

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Tactics of Liberals - Reason & Outcome

Tactic: Non-cooperation with the WSPU: 

Women had to have a signed ticket to attend Liberal meetings; the government refused to meet WSPU deputations or to accept petitions.


The jeers by C. Pankhurst & Annie Kenney at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1905. Churchill’s by-election speeches at Manchester & Dundee in 1906 were also interrupted.


WSPU became more committed to militancy. Herbert Gladstone still claimed that to compromise  ‘would be an exhibition of weakness in the face of these threats’. 

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Tactics of Liberals - Reason & Outcome (2)

Tactic: Private Members' Bills

Introduction of Private Members’ Bills by Liberal MPs. In 1909 Geoffrey Howard introduced a bill in favour of male and female suffrage based on 3-month residency.


Most Liberal backbenchers supported female suffrage but this issue had not been included in the government’s manifesto in 1906. Many Liberal MPs were frustrated.


The bill carried its 2nd reading by 35 votes, but failed to pass after it was ‘talked out’. It was too radical for Conservatives & Asquith; even the WSPU wanted a more realistic bill.


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Tactics of Liberals - Reason & Outcome (3)

Tactic: Conciliation Bills

Conciliation Bills were introduced by cross-party Conciliation Committees of 54 MPs to gain support for female suffrage. Bills were introduced 1910, 1911 & 1912


Though many MPs from different parties supported female suffrage, they needed to work together so that the terms of female enfranchisement would not damage some parties.


1st bill was not given time due to crises of that year; 2nd was replaced by a bill for male & female suffrage due to LG’s concerns; 3rd was defeated, due partly to a reaction against new militancy.

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Tactics of Liberals - Reason & Outcome (4)

Tactic: Arrests/Force Feeding/Violence

Before, during and after the Conciliation Bills the Liberal government also resorted to arrests, force-feeding and violence in its struggles with the suffragettes. 


Although the WSPU held a truce during 1910-11, the years 1908-9 & especially 1912-14 saw high levels of militancy, including arson and the destruction of property.


Over 1,000 arrests, 1906-14; moved from 1st division of prisoners to 2nd in 1908; use of force-feeding 1909-13, described by suffragettes as ‘oral ****’; Black Friday Nov. 1910 – 300 suffragettes beaten by policemen.

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Tactics of Liberals - Reason & Outcome (5)

Tactic: Prisoners' Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act

In April 1913 the Home Secretary Reginald McKenna introduced the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act. It enabled release of ill prisoners & their later re-arrest.


The hunger strikes of Emmeline Pankhurst (especially intense during 1912-13) & others gained sympathy, whilst the force-feeding had been a major PR problem for government.


The WSPU dubbed it the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, but the bombing of LG’s house in Feb. 1913 amongst other acts of militancy meant that public opinion was shifting against WSPU

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Gains Made by 1914

  • Emily Wilding Davison’s death in June 1913 had brought some renewed public sympathy; the funeral was widely reported
  • Asquith met delegations from the NUWSS in 1913 and from Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation of Suffragettes in June 1914
  • The NUWSS had 400 branches by 1914; Lady Knightley of the NUWSS claimed that the militants had helped their cause by their ‘pluck and determination’
  • Historian Martin Pugh has claimed that ‘by drawing criticism upon themselves, the suffragettes helped the constitutional suffragists to be better appreciated by the press and politicians’
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Losses Made By 1914

  • Militancy led to considerable loss of public support during 1912-14 (even Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy acknowledged this)
  • Sympathetic politicians like Lloyd George were put off by the violence; the issue became one of law and order
  • The 3rd Conciliation Bill (March 1912) had been rejected my MPs, unlike the two earlier Conciliation Bills.
  • Millicent Fawcett of the NUWSS argued that the violence of the WSPU had undermined the idea that women were morally superior to men
  • By 1914 the leadership of the WSPU had been diminished due to: splits, Christabel Pankhurst’s absence in Paris from 1912; and Emmeline Pankhurst’s regular incarceration and ill-health under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’
  • From August 1914, ‘the sex war was swamped by the Great War’.
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Why Were Women Given The Vote by 1918?

Their service during the war (women comprised 60% of workers in shell factories by the end of the war) had undermined many old stereotypes

The patriotism of the suffragists and suffragettes had counted in their favour

The creation of a coalition government in December 1916, led by Lloyd George, made it easier to overcome party disagreements over the terms of a new suffrage bill.

Liberal opposition was reduced once it was realised that working class men would have to be enfranchised, as the newly enfranchised middle- and upper-class women would be counterbalanced by the increase in working class voters.

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Main Campaigners against Female Suffrage

Mrs Humphrey Ward:

  • Novelist
  • President of the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League, 1908-10

Lord Curzon:

  • Joint-President from 1912 of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage 
    • Formed in 1910 by merging the WNASL with the Men's League for Opposing Woman Suffrage
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