Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 22nd November 2017 | Manchester, UK

The Suffragette Split

The Pankhurst family were crucial to the Suffragette movement in the early 20th Century. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded in Manchester, Pankhurst’s hometown, prior to World War 1. There were six founders of the WSPU, including both Sylvia and Emmeline Pankhurst.

The WSPU displayed a more militant strand of the suffrage movement than its predecessor, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The WSPU used tactics such as heckling, or lobbying politicians, breaking windows, chaining to railings, hunger strikes, attacking politicians and attacking properties in order to be heard.

However as the First World War broke out in Britain in 1914 the Pankhurst’s were divided in opinion regarding their support of the war effort. As the British nation became unified in an attempt to assist the state under wartime measures, the suffragettes, as well as other social movements such as the trade unions, were under pressure to halt their campaigns for the time being and contribute to the war effort.

The trade unions came to an agreement with the government to postpone any strikes until after the war. However the decision of the suffrage movement, in terms of postponing any suffrage campaigns during the war, was a far more complex situation to deal with.

Emmeline Pankhurst was of the opinion that support should be given to middle and upper class women during the war, as they were, in her opinion, the most able and likely to gain suffrage once the war was over. This was an elitist perspective on suffrage and was a view which was not shared by her daughter, Sylvia Pankhurst.
Sylvia Pankhurst expressed the urgent need to support the working classes at this time as she believed that more left wing Labour policies were necessary to gain a universal suffrage for all males and females (working class males disenfranchised at this time also.)

Sylvia believed that the suffrage movement should be part of the wider struggle for working class rights, a view her mother, Emmeline, rejected. This difference in opinion during the war caused a divide in the WSPU and Sylvia founded her own suffrage campaign; the East London Federation of Suffragettes. This movement proved to be more effective than that of the WSPU, with non-military tactics and a focus on persuading women to help during the war and securing important meetings with politicians such as Asquith.

Ultimately, the reason for the family divide was a clash in ideologies. Both Emmeline and Sylvia were fighting for the same overarching course of female suffrage. However, Emmeline was only interested in aiding middle class women to gain suffrage whereas Sylvia was fighting for universal suffrage; a right that was eventually granted post World War One.

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