The struggle for women to win the right to vote was a tremendous revolt that shook the British establishment to its core. Demonstrations saw hundreds of thousands march and women flooded to mass meetings across Britain.
Cabinet ministers who refused to support women’s rights were under constant attack. No part of society was untouched.
Behind the myths, the true story is about much more than a few audacious women who blew up post boxes.
This titanic struggle peaked during a time of mass political upheaval that challenged the very stability of the British state.
The years leading up to the First World War saw the Great Unrest. This was an explosion of trade union organisation and militancy, and women were very much part of it.
In 1911 alone there were ten million strike days. At the same time the British ruling class faced rising resistance to its imperialist rule in Ireland.
Britain’s rulers were terrified of losing control. Protesters were assaulted and women who went on hunger strike in prison suffered the agonising torture of force feeding.
The fight for women’s suffrage was already many decades old when Emmeline, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst created the Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU) in 1903.
Contrary to the film’s account, there was never one homogenous movement of women from all backgrounds. Alice Milne, a working class supporter, visited the WPSU offices in 1906. She described her discomfort at seeing “the place full of fashionable ladies in silks and satins” having tea and cakes.
Yet such was the establishment’s intransigence against change, even these women joined the fight.
In contrast women in Lancashire’s cotton mills formed the core of a movement of radical suffragists. For them, the fight for the vote was inseparable from the fight against the bosses.
Selina Cooper, a cotton worker, had worked in the mills from the age of seven. She campaigned all over the north west of England to win trade unions to women’s suffrage. Speaking at one open air public meeting in Wigan in 1906 she argued that working women had their own aims.
They “do not want their political power to enable them to boast that they are on equal terms with men. They want to use it for the same purposes as men—to get better conditions.”
Women from different backgrounds did at times organise and march together. But the issue of class was never absent.
Within the labour movement arguments raged about whether to support a law giving women the vote on the same basis as men, as many working class men were still excluded. Some in the Labour Party dismissed such a law as a “ladies bill”, saying it would benefit the Tories as only better off women would gain.
This argument led some to demand “universal suffrage”, so including all working class men. This was Labour’s official position till 1912.
It sounded more radical but was also sometimes used as an excuse to avoid supporting women’s suffrage. Suffragists argued for women’s suffrage but always as part of a fight for more rights for all workers. In contrast, the Pankhursts argued that the only struggle was “votes for women”.
The Daily Mail newspaper coined the name Suffragettes for the WPSU. But Suffragettes became synonymous with the whole movement despite sometimes sharp differences about how to take the struggle forward.
The Pankhursts called for ever more dramatic attacks to keep the campaign in the headlines. These undoubtedly unsettled the rich and powerful. Some actions showed great imagination.
One day golfers around the country arrived to play and found the slogan “Votes for women” burned in acid across their greens. But inevitably these only involved a small number of women.
Such tactics alienated some working class activists who wanted to build a mass base. And they knew they suffered the severest punishments if they got caught.
Friends of the Pankhursts were welcomed on release from prison with a testimonial banquet at the Savoy Hotel on London’s Strand. Most women didn’t have such connections.
The paths of the radical suffragists and the Suffragettes increasingly diverged. After 1907 the WPSU cut its links with the labour movement.
One activist, Teresa Billington, wrote, “Working class women were dropped without hesitation”.
Christabel declared that MPs were “more impressed by the feminine bourgeoisie than the female proletariat.”
The grassroots campaigning of working class women saw them on soap boxes, taking round mass petitions, and leafleting factories and mills. They were inspired by the sense that they could change things.
Leading suffragist Ada Nield Chew described her feelings about the time saying it was “full of ‘crowded hours of glorious life’.”
Campaigning on the stump needed its own brand of courage.
Cooper faced a crowd throwing rotten eggs and tomatoes in the market in Haworth during a by-election.
She stood on the platform and declared, “I’m stopping here whatever you throw… this blooming village would never have been known but for three women—the Brontes.”
When the First World War broke out the class differences among women activists became sharper. The upper class women almost entirely fell behind the war and dropped demands for suffrage (see below).
But for working class activists, and socialists such as Sylvia Pankhurst, the war was being fought for profit and had to be opposed.
After the war women over 30 who met a property qualification finally got the vote—but that still excluded 40 percent of adult women. It was another decade before women won equal voting rights when all women over 21 got the right to vote.
The fight for the vote showed that unity among women across the class divide is only ever temporary.
As German revolutionary Clara Zetkin put it, soon the unity of interests between all women against all men melts away like “scintillating bubbles”.
But it also shows that nothing has been won without struggle.
We have never succeeded simply by appealing to the most powerful in society to do the right thing. For them, doing the right thing is keeping all of us down.
Each and every reform, whether the vote, maternity pay or abortion rights, has had to be wrested from the grip of those at the top of society.
We have the right to vote today—but we still have a world to win.
The Pankhurts—a politically divided family
The Pankhurst family’s political roots were in the Independent Labour Party in Manchester.
But the political trajectory of Emmeline and two of her daughters Christabel and Adela took them far from these beginnings.
Sylvia went on to organise among the poor in east London. She spoke alongside Irish socialist James Connolly in support of the workers striking in the Dublin Lockout of 1913-14.
Her commitment to socialist politics and working class struggle caused a breach with the rest of her family and the WPSU.
The WPSU east London group eventually became the Workers’ Socialist Federation. Its paper the Women’s Dreadnought became the Workers’ Dreadnought during the1917 Russian Revolution.
Inspired by the revolution, Sylvia became a Communist.
Her mother and sisters fulfilled predictions made by revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg about women of their class.
She wrote, “Most of those bourgeois women who act like lionesses in the struggle against ‘male prerogatives’ would trot like docile lambs in the camp of conservative and clerical reaction if they had suffrage.”
Emmeline announced the suspension of the suffrage campaign to support the ruling class war effort in 1914.
The Suffragette newspaper was renamed Britannia in 1915 and the Pankhursts whipped up a jingoistic campaign.
They gave white feathers to men they thought should be fighting for their country. They also denounced workers who went on strike. “We called it the anti-Bolshevik campaign”, said one of their supporters.
Following the war Emmeline campaigned on the evils of venereal disease and the need for male chastity.
She joined the Tories, standing as a candidate in Stepney in east London in 1927. She and Christabel both volunteered in the Women’s Special Police Force during the 1926 General Strike to try to break the dispute.
Adela emigrated to Australia and became a fascist. She was interned during the Second World War because of her support for the Nazis.
Suffragette film brings titanic struggle to fresh audience
The struggle through which women won the vote is a fascinating story. The new film Suffragette is filled with noted actors and no expense has been spared to recreate Edwardian London, both rich and poor.
But the first words that scroll across the screen reveal its fundamental flaw. The film puts a working class woman, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) at its centre, but portrays the movement as no more than Emmeline Pankhurst’s puppet.
Women do her bidding, as if the fight was all about a few charismatic women and their followers.
Maud works long grueling hours in a laundry. Despite some effort the fresh faced Mulligan rarely looks like she has grown up in grinding poverty.
She accidently comes across Suffragettes when she witnesses them attacking West End shops. We follow her giving evidence in Westminster about her working conditions. She sits in front of ranks of MPs explaining how she has worked since she was a child and earns 13 shillings a week.
The ruling class’s brutality in trying to break the movement is well portrayed. Those without influential husbands or bail money suffered the most.
But the film has a simplistic view of the period and class. The refuge for a young woman rescued from the sexual harassment of her boss is as a servant of a wealthy Suffragette.
The thousands of working class suffragists don’t get a mention. Sylvia Pankhurst gets only one, as rejecting “militant” acts.
But in this case “militancy” means the Pankhurst’s campaign of violent sabotage, which is presented as the only way forward. Wanting a mass movement, the Suffragists rejected such tactics as elitist.
But despite its flaws this film is welcome. It puts the spotlight on historic struggles against oppression and injustice for a new and wide audience.
It has already provoked debates about how women won their rights. Now people are talking about the need to challenge the law and to take direct action.
These are lessons we need to learn today.
by Judith Orr
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