ON 6 FEBRUARY 1918, the Representation of the People Act extended the franchise to some women over 30 and all men over 21, so that for the first time in the history of Britain’s ‘centuries old democracy’, a majority of the adult population had the right to vote.
Yet millions of the women who had worked in the fields, shipyards, and factories during WW1 were under 30 and were excluded from the franchise. About 22 per cent of women over 30 did not pass the property qualification for the right to vote. The centenary of women’s suffrage being celebrated in 2018 was deformed at birth by the profound sexism and class oppression of British society.
The struggle for universal, direct and equal suffrage lasted almost 100 years from the first ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832, to the 1928 Equal Franchise Act. Its extension was resisted at every step of the way by the oligarchy of capitalists and landowners ruling Britain.
Throughout the 19th century, Britain’s ruling elites viewed the term ‘democracy’ with fear and contempt, associating it with the revolutionary upheavals and ‘mob rule’ that had overthrown numerous European rulers, and periodically threatened to do the same in Britain and Ireland.
Prior to 1832, just three per cent of the adult population made up the the total UK electorate. In the 1831 election two thirds of constituencies returned their MPs without any ballot being held. As late as 1910 a quarter of seats were still uncontested. Even after the 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts 40 per cent of men who failed the property qualification remained ineligible to vote. In Ireland the figure was 50 per cent.
At every stage, reforms were extracted as piecemeal concessions, with property qualifications that restricted the franchise to the middle classes and skilled workers. Whether reforms were made in response to, or to pre-empt popular unrest, the guiding principles were, firstly, that the extension should not challenge the elite’s monopoly of parliament, and secondly – that there were no circumstances under which women could be granted the right to vote.
For most of its history, Britain’s ‘democracy’ has been an instrument of managing the common affairs of the capitalists and landowners who ruled the country as an oligarchy through ‘their’ parliament.
This ruling class intransigently opposed virtually every extension to the franchise, until the social and political disruption brought about by WW1 and the socialist revolution in Russia convinced them to concede the franchise to the working class and women – rather than risk having it taken by force.
The struggle for the enfranchisement of women was seen by its opponents not simply as one about changing the electoral arithmetic, but as the thin end of the wedge of a challenge to the whole social order, which was being reshaped by the titanic struggle between the new proletariat and bourgeoisie.
This is the story of how the women’s movements emerged, split, sought allies, fought alone, and, eventually, won equal suffrage, overturning centuries of political subordination, and opening a new chapter in the struggle for the final emancipation of women and humanity.
The demand for women to have an equal vote with men was first raised by the Radicals and Chartists during the 1830s and 40s, although the People’s Charter itself only demanded universal male suffrage, reflecting the views of the time before women were drawn into non-domestic labour in large numbers.
Interest in reform declined along with the Chartists, but by the 1860s, the new industrial working class in the cities was holding major demonstrations demanding the vote. For the first time, and following important reforms such as the right to divorce, the question of women’s suffrage and public participation in political life started to be taken seriously.
The modern women’s suffrage movement traces its origins to the formation of the Ladies Discussion Society and the Women’s Suffrage Committee in 1865. In the same year, the Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill was elected to parliament on a Radical ticket where he became a prominent advocate for women’s suffrage and parliamentary reform. In 1866 he presented a petition for women’s suffrage organised by Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett (Britain’s first woman doctor), and in 1867 tabled an amendment to the Reform Act, which was defeated by 196 votes to 73.
The years after saw the emergence of the first women’s political groups, such as the Conservative Primrose League and the Women’s Liberal Associations, which weakened sex segregation, giving women from the middle classes opportunities to engage in political discussion. Working class women had participated in the Chartist movement, and the first women’s trade union, the Women’s Protective and Provident League was founded in 1875 by feminist and trade unionist Emma Paterson.
Lydia Becker and Helen Taylor led the first attempt to found a truly national suffrage movement with the creation of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1867 but splits between Liberals and Conservatives rendered the campaign largely ineffective. For 20 years the women’s suffrage movement remained local, parochial and almost exclusively composed of women drawn from the landed gentry and urban bourgeoisie.
It wasn’t until 1897, under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett, that 17 local groups were finally united under the banner of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which campaigned for women’s suffrage on the same terms “as it is, or may be” granted to men. Although many of its leaders were personally in favour of universal suffrage, the organisation’s strategy of lobbying the Liberal Party for parliamentary reform led it to oppose a campaign to widen the franchise, fearing this would detract from securing the principle of “some recognition for women”.
Liberal politicians generally declared themselves in favour of a limited extension of the franchise to some women and working class men. In practice, its leaders, like William Gladstone, always refused to insert women’s suffrage into Reform Acts on the basis that the House of Lords, which had a huge Tory majority, would reject it outright. In this way the Liberals sacrificed the cause of women’s suffrage in the interests of securing limited reforms for men – and avoiding a constitutional crisis.
On 10 October 1903, six women met at Emmeline Pankhurst’s house in Nelson Street, Manchester, to found the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The women-only WSPU would become known as suffragettes, to distinguish them from the mixed sex suffragists of the NUWSS.
Emmeline and her husband Richard had been politically active in the 1870s and 1880s on the radical wing of the Liberal Party and had fought to extend the franchise to women. By the late 1880s, having moved to London, they were swept into the burgeoning unemployment and labour struggles in the capital. They marched with the unemployed on Bloody Sunday in 1887, where police killed two demonstrators in their attempt to disperse the ‘illegal’ demonstration, and Emmeline helped out in the famous matchgirls’ strike of 1889. When the Pankhursts returned to Manchester they were quickly attracted to the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which was founded in 1893. After Richard’s death in 1898 Emmeline became more active in the ILP, even though she was the sole breadwinner for the family. She was soon joined in the ILP by her older daughters, Christabel and Sylvia.
Following Richard’s death a memorial fund was set up by the ILP in his name. Emmeline had asked for it to be used to build a hall in Salford for ILP meetings. The hall was decorated by Sylvia, already a trained and talented artist. But the opening was a disaster. Emmeline discovered that the local ILP branch, which was using the hall as a social club, did not admit female members! Sylvia reports her mother as declaring “We must have an independent women’s movement!” and immediately calling the meeting which founded the WSPU.
The founding of the WSPU was, however, not merely Emmeline’s angry response to this example of gross sexism in the ILP, but the result of differences between the Pankhursts and the ILP/Labour leadership on equal electoral rights for women.
The WSPU was founded on the basis of fighting for an “equal terms” bill, whilst opposing the passive tactics of the NUWSS – which were clearly not working. On the other hand, the new Labour Party, (an alliance of trade unionists, the ILP, the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and Fabian Society, founded as the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900 and renamed in 1906), opposed the “equal terms” position for both good and bad reasons.
It counterposed to it the demand for “full adult suffrage” for both men and women. While this was a correct position in itself, the problem was that Labour – many of whose MPs were elected thanks to a deal with the Liberals, did little to campaign or fight for it. They had few differences with Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George’s reforming Liberal administration and certainly did not wish to destabilise it in any way. As a result it increasingly appeared to the Pankhursts, and to other women, that Labour was saying women would just have to wait.
As Christabel put it in a polemic in the ILP News in 1903, ‘One gathers that someday, when socialists are in power, and have nothing better to do, they will give women votes as a finishing touch to the arrangements. Why are we expected to have such confidence in the men of the LP? Working men are as unjust to women as are those of other classes’.
Despite their differences, the WSPU developed alongside the growing Labour Party/ILP, supported by prominent leaders like Keir Hardie and George Lansbury. They spoke at the parties’ meetings to get their ideas across. Indeed in its early years the WSPU acted as a women’s section of the ILP, which unlike the trade union dominated Labour Party, was eventually won over to the WSPU’s “equal terms” position. But it was the turn to militant direct action from 1905 onwards which transformed the WSPU from a small pressure group of a few dozen into a mass movement.
On 13 October, during a speech by leading Liberal Sir Edward Grey, at Manchester Free Trade Hall, Christabel and a new recruit, Annie Kenney, a Lancashire millworker, jumped up on their chairs, unfurling a banner demanding “Votes for Women”. They had to be forcibly removed from the meeting. For good measure Christabel slapped a police inspector in the mouth outside in order to get arrested. In court Christabel declared “We cannot make an orderly protest because we do not have the means whereby citizens may do such things”. Both were sentenced to seven days in jail after refusing to pay a fine.
The first militant steps had been taken. Two thousand protestors greeted the women when they were released from prison. Keir Hardie told a packed Free Trade Hall meeting, “20 years of peaceful propaganda have not produced such an effect.”
In 1906 the Liberals won a resounding victory with a massive majority in parliament, thanks to their alliance with Labour and John Redmond’s Irish Home Rule Party. Although votes for women enjoyed increasing support within the party thanks in part to the pressure of the WSPU, it was trenchantly opposed by the government, in particular by Asquith, who did not want to give the Lords an excuse to vote down radical welfare reforms developed as part of the ‘People’s Budget’. After Prime Minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman told a WSPU delegation to “go on pestering” and exercise “the virtue of patience”, the suffragettes resolved to embark on a more aggressive campaign of direct action, under the slogan “Deeds not words”.
Christabel Pankhurst increasingly moved into the driving seat of the WSPU’s campaign, with her mother willing to defer to her in tactics and politics. Her actions shocked ‘polite society’ where middle class women were expected to be passive and act with decorum as ‘wives and mothers’. Christabel broke all the rules and was denounced from all sides, by the leaders of the NUWSS and by the upcoming Labour leader and ILP member, Ramsey McDonald. But her tactics struck a chord with tens of thousands of women who saw the refusal to grant the vote as a symbol of their oppression and who were determined to fight.
The WSPU had drawn its first recruits from amongst the women workers of Lancashire, many of whom, like Teresa Billington, Louisa Entwhistle, and the Kenney sisters Annie, Jessie, and Nell, would go on to become prominent activists and leaders of working class struggles.
But the radical working class roots of the WSPU shifted following its first major rally at Caxton Hall in Westminster. There were many well off women from Chelsea and Kensington in attendance as well as a contingent of working class women from the East End who arrived singing the Red Flag.
For all her militancy when it came to tactics, Christabel had no doubt who should be regarded as central to the struggle. Politicians she said would be “more impressed by the demonstrations of the feminine bourgeoisie than of the feminine proletariat”. The WSPU set about under her direction to recruit the rich and influential as well as large numbers of middle class women. Fred and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, well off ILP members, were important recruits to the central leadership. They added adept fundraising skills to the Pankhurst’s flair for publicity and daring. They quickly took charge of bringing out a women’s paper for the WSPU, Votes for Women, which by 1909 had a circulation of 22,000.
Militant action was extended from disrupting Liberal meetings to street protests at Downing Street and parliament. The tactic of “rushing parliament” was developed, turning apparently peaceful lobbies by hundreds of women into attempts to rush the chamber and disrupt proceedings. The activists of the WSPU developed an enormous variety of methods of protest. Pavement chalking was used to advertise meetings and actions. The banner drop was invented with one group of women occupying the top of the Monument in the City and dropping a ‘Votes for Women’ banner. Barges were floated by parliament festooned with political slogans, while door-stepping ministers’ offices was raised to an art form.
Because of these actions, 1906 and 1907 saw increasing numbers of arrests and imprisonments – Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia were all locked up for shorter or longer periods. In February 1907 the first ‘Women’s Parliament’ was held at Caxton House to coincide with the opening of parliament. Hundreds of women poured out to march to Parliament and were charged by mounted police. The Liberal government was accused of using “Tsarist methods” by the popular press. The Daily Mirror, then a new “picture paper for ladies”, was particularly supportive in part because the WSPU actions always provided newsworthy pictures and copy. It was the Mirror that popularised the term ‘suffragette’, originally a derogatory term, to distinguish the militant WSPU from the moderate ‘suffragists’ of the NUWSS.
The WSPU now had a national profile. Branches were being set up throughout London and the south. Full-time organisers were sent to Scotland and towns in the north to set up new branches. With the wealthy patrons money poured in. By 1909 the WSPU had an income of £21,000 a year, while the Labour Party had to make do on under £10,000.
The WSPU’s turn away from working women led to growing tensions with the ILP and Labour Party. Labour had returned 40 MPs in 1906, often only successful because the Liberals stood aside. In the Commons they appeared largely as a tail to the Liberals. This aided Christabel’s desire for a split. She increasingly looked to the Tories as a weapon against the Liberals.
At the Cockermouth by-election in 1906, where the Labour Party was standing, Christabel arrived and announced that the WSPU would not be supporting the Labour candidate. In 1907 Emmeline and Christabel resigned from the ILP. This change of policy, accompanied by the ‘exclusion’ from the WSPU of ILP women who continued to support Labour candidates, led to the first split. Teresa Billington, the Scottish organiser, and Charlotte Despard, both ILP members, decided to challenge the decision at a planned WSPU national conference, which was due to discuss and adopt a constitution that Emmeline had asked Billington to draft. But the conference was cancelled and a London meeting convened by Emmeline and Christabel appointed a new national committee excluding the rebels.
Emmeline explained her attitude to democracy within the movement: “The WSPU is simply a suffrage army in the field. It is purely a volunteer army, and no one is obliged to remain in it”. And of course Emmeline and Christabel were the self-appointed general staff!
Although the new cross-class Women’s Freedom League (WFL) grew rapidly to about 4,000 members, it failed to dent the rise of the WSPU, which was half the size. June 1908 saw the first great suffragette demonstration in Hyde Park; 30 trains were laid on to bring in demonstrators and 20 platforms of women speakers were set up. The march set off from 7 separate locations in London with over 700 women’s banners. The official colours of the movement, “purple for dignity, white for purity and green for hope”, received their first outing.
The papers estimated that between 250,000 and 500,000 gathered in Hyde Park. The march was the first of a series of mass demonstrations, pageants and exhibitions organised by the WSPU to propagandise for women’s rights.
For all its militancy and influence amongst wealthy circles of women, the WSPU found that it could not shift the Liberal government on votes for women. Christabel had turned away from the only force that could have brought about radical change, the millions of working class women and men who had the power to bring the country to a standstill. This was no pipe dream. In Belgium full manhood suffrage had been won in 1893 only as a result of a series of general strikes, and Britain in the pre-war period was moving into an unprecedented upsurge of trade union and syndicalist led struggles that would become known as the Great Unrest.
Having turned their backs on the working class, in 1912 the WSPU resorted to acts aimed at intimidating the government and the Liberal Party into granting the vote for women. Individual politicians were targeted and had to be given police protection. Windows in government buildings and Oxford Street stores were smashed. Pillar boxes were set ablaze with burning rags. MPs homes were set on fire. Old Master paintings were slashed with knives in the National Gallery. Emily Davison, originator of many of the more militant tactics, threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby and was killed. A huge martyr’s funeral was organised by the WSPU.
Police repression increased massively. Their press and papers were seized, their offices regularly raided. More and more women were jailed . The suffragettes went on hunger strike and the government resorted to forced feeding. Later ‘the Cat and Mouse Act’ was introduced allowing the prison authorities to release ill prisoners only to arrest them at will when they had recovered enough to be locked up again. Between 1905 and the start of WW1, over 1,000 women were imprisoned for their part in the women’s suffrage campaign.
At the same time bourgeois women were engaging in heroic but futile acts of individual self-sacrifice, women confectionary workers in Bristol, garment and department store workers in London and textile workers in Clydebank were taking collective action as part of a wave of industrial militancy. Individual WSPU members made great sacrifices, but their tactics and isolation from the mass of working class women meant that between 1910 and 1913 the WSPU went from being a mass movement to a tightly knit guerrilla organisation, working largely underground. Christabel fled to Paris in 1912 to avoid arrest and continued to direct the movement from abroad.
Further splits and purges ensued, even extending into the direct family. Adela Pankhurst was regarded as ‘too socialist’ and was despatched to Australia where Emmeline thought she would be out of the way. In fact she became a founder member of the Australian Communist Party.
Sylvia Pankhurst developed a very different view from her mother and older sister of how the vote for women could be achieved. Although she did not speak out against it, she was opposed to the ‘terrorist’ turn which she believed “retarded a wonderful movement which was rising to a great climax”. For Sylvia a successful fight to win women the right to vote had to be based in the mass forces of the increasingly organised and politicised working class – both men and women.
In 1912 Sylvia chose to return to work in the East End of London where, in 1906, the WSPU had organised the first working class women’s’ demonstration of 500 women to march from the East End to parliament. The new campaign took off when George Lansbury, Labour MP for Poplar resigned his seat in 1912 and ran again on the single issue of ‘votes for women’.
However the opportunity to seize this chance and build a mass campaign was thwarted by Christabel’s increasing resistance to working with men and, in particular, working class organisations. After an initial flurry of activity, the WSPU did little to support Lansbury who was defeated by a Conservative. After the defeat, the WSPU wanted to close down their operation in the East End, but Sylvia and other WSPU activists were determined to carry on the work they had started. After speaking in support of the Dublin Lockout in 1913, Sylvia was summoned to Paris in 1913 and told that the East London Federation was no longer to be part of the WSPU. In 1914 the group was renamed the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) and founded a newspaper, the Women’s Dreadnought.
The outbreak of war in August 1914 was to change the situation of the WSPU dramatically. The Home Secretary’s amnesty for all suffragette prisoners was enough to allow Christabel a return to England. Whilst the moderate NUWSS continued campaigning and eventually split over its refusal to support the International Women’s Peace Congress, Emmeline quickly ordered the suspension of all militant activity and the publication of the WSPU’s paper The Suffragette ceased. When it reappeared in 1915 it was as a pro war paper called Britannia. For the rest of the war Emmeline and Christabel became ultra-patriots urging men to join up, handing out “white feathers” to shame men into volunteering for the slaughter, and ferociously condemning shirkers and pacifists.
In 1917 after the February Revolution Emmeline travelled to Russia at Lloyd George’s suggestion to combat the Bolsheviks’ call for Russia to leave the war. She lionised Alexander Kerensky and the Women’s Battalion of Death, set up to shame war weary Russian soldiers into continuing the war at all costs – ie at the cost not only of wounded and dead soldiers but the hungry women in Russia’s bread queues whose demonstrations had triggered the overthrow of the Tsar. After the October Revolution she lobbied the government for a British military intervention to crush the world’s first workers’ state.
By contrast, the WFL, and many of the women members of the ILP, the British Socialist Party and the Labour Party joined the antiwar and pacifist movement, as did Sylvia and the ELFS (which became the Women’s Suffrage Federation in 1916, the Workers Socialist Federation in 1918 and a founding component of the Communist Party). Minnie Lansbury – George’s daughter in law, future imprisoned Poplar councillor and founder member of the Communist Party – became active in the antiwar movement in 1915. They suffered repression and imprisonment for their antiwar activities as they had so recently done in their struggle for women’s suffrage.
As we have seen, the last year of the war finally saw the House of Commons and the Lords offer votes for all men and for women over the age of 30. An important factor throughout 1917 when Westminster was debating the measure was the unfolding Russian Revolution. Even the repulsive Lord Curzon came round to the view that the franchise had to be extended to women and working class men if a revolution was to be avoided, and so the Tories too became sudden converts.
The first woman to be elected to the Commons at the December 1918 election was a militant patriot of a very different sort. Constance Markievicz was a revolutionary Irish nationalist who had been sentenced to death for taking part in the 1916 Easter Rising as a member of James Connolly’s Irish Citizen’s Army. Her sentence was commuted to life and she was released in an amnesty in 1917. In 1918 her anti conscription activities landed her in a Holloway prison cell, from where she was elected as a Sinn Féin MP. In line with the Republican strategy she refused to take her seat at Westminster, instead sitting in the First Dáil, the revolutionary Assembly which declared Ireland an independent Republic.
The first women take her seat, Nancy Viscountess Astor, was a different character altogether. Never involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage, she was elected as a Tory in 1919.
Two days after women gained the right to vote, Emmeline Pankhurst sat down to breakfast with Lloyd George, now Prime Minister, and declared, “Now we must work harder than ever to keep women out of the clutches of Macdonald and Co, ” i.e. the Labour Party.
But in the post-First War world the WSPU leaders no longer had any hold over militant women. Despite standing for parliament – Christabel as the head of a short lived Women’s Party, Emmeline as a Tory – neither was elected.
Nevertheless the Suffragette movement they helped lead had changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of women. A woman’s role in society was never seen in the same way again. The movement had broken the shackles of decorum and passivity in the most startling way possible.
In the first years after the war and the enfranchisement of women a number of progressive laws were passed, including the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, which made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their sex. This mainly benefitted educated, middle class women who had previously been barred from many of the professions. The 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act forced most working class women to leave their wartime jobs as men came home and factories switched to peacetime production.
Nevertheless, during the war many women developed new labour skills; war employment boosted self-confidence and social solidarity. Some were able to retain these gains after the war in terms of greater freedoms both at work and in personal relationships.
The Liberal feminist Millicent Fawcett, president of the NUWSS, said in 1918: “The war revolutionised the industrial position of women – it found them serfs and left them free.” Here she reveals her class standpoint. It is true that for example, the number of women in the civil service increased from 33,000 in 1911 to 102,000 by 1921. But for working class women things were very different.
During the war women’s earnings had risen relative to men’s thanks in part to wartime equal pay regulations. But by 1931, a working woman’s weekly wage had returned to the pre-war situation of being half the male rate in most industries. In 1918, women workers on the London buses and trams struck for equal pay, demanding the same war bonuses as men. They spread the strike to the London Underground and towns across the South East. This was the first strike for equal pay in British history, and led to a government report that accepted the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’ for the first time. But equal pay for equal work had to wait till 1970, and almost half a century on there remains a 9.1 per cent gap.
The 1920s, 30s and 40s saw further incremental gains in the economic and social rights of women, with the foundation NHS in 1948 being one of the most important. But there was a gap of almost four decades between the mass movement of suffragists and suffragettes in the decades before and during the First World War, and what is usually called the Second Wave of the women’s movement. Shelia Rowbotham in her classic 1973 work Hidden from History, helped to uncover these earlier struggles. In 1974 they were brought to a wider audience by a groundbreaking six part BBC TV television serial, Shoulder to Shoulder, and more recently in the film Suffragette.
Whilst the vote gave women a voice in politics and a key part in pressing for major social reforms what it could not do – as Marxist women were clear from the beginning – was actually liberate women. It could a means to this end but not the means.
For that a social revolution and the construction of a socialist society, where the material foundations of oppression were overcome, would be necessary.
The right to vote was a historic advance in the struggle for the emancipation of women, but the capitalist system, with its family and age-old patriarchal ideology continues to condemn one half of humanity to systematic exploitation and oppression based on their sex.
Today, as Theresa May celebrates the centenary of women’s suffrage wearing the purple, white and green of the WSPU, a new generation of fighters for women’s liberation should instead take their cue from those women, like Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst, who fought under the red banner of socialism.
The great Russian revolutionary Inessa Armand put it most succinctly when she said,
In Britain, women eventually won the vote – but we still have a world to win.