“Deeds Not Words”

This was the slogan of the WSPU which, led by Emmeline Pankhurst was a militant suffrage group willing to resort to violence to promote her agenda. Born in Moss Side, Manchester on 15th July 1858, Emmeline Pankhurst is arguably one of the most recognisable figures of first wave feminism or indeed of women’s history as a whole. She established the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. In her autobiography, Pankhurst describes how she expressed an interest in politics from a young age; the book opens with a description of her participating in a fundraiser for emancipated slaves in the United States, at the age of 5. But it was at 14, after attending a meeting about women’s voting rights, that Pankhurst describes herself as a ‘conscious and confirmed suffragist’. She was also involved in other political ventures in her life, including the Women’s Franchise League which was established 1888 and the Independent Labour Party which Pankhurst joined. Finally, in 1903 with the aid of her two daughters, the WSPU was created.

Today, the word ‘suffragette’ creates the image of radical young women chaining themselves to railings and hunger strikes. While a valid aspect of the history of the WSPU, in 1903 their actions were quite different. Initially a peaceful movement, the WSPU’s first campaigns were demonstrations at trade union meetings, street demonstrations and petitions to parliament. Their campaigning began to take a direct political approach after 1905, as the WSPU began to approach whichever party was in power and demand votes for women. It is at this point that the militant nature of the Suffragettes, as we now know them to be, began to emerge. Under Emmeline Pankhurst the WSPU started to get traction and a reputation for heckling politicians and a negative, scandalous reputation emerged.

In her autobiography, Pankhurst titled the years 1907-11 “Four Years of Peaceful Militancy”, which was a period of arrests and loud political demonstrations. Arson was a common tactic which put the organisation, and Pankhurst herself, in bad favour with the popular press and even Politicians such as Lloyd George for breaking windows and goading police officers into arresting them. The concept for the infamous hunger strikes was conceived off the back of this increased militancy. Although technically correct in calling the protests ‘peaceful’, the WSPU were gaining notoriety for their actions becoming progressively militant and violent. 1912-13 was when the violence came to ahead: the Cat and Mouse Act was passed in 1913 due to outcries over the violent force-feeding of suffragettes, and Emily Davison stepped in front of King George’s horse on 4th June 1913 drawing nationwide attention. It is worth noting, however that all militancy halted after the outbreak of war in 1914, all imprisoned suffragettes were released, and Emmeline Pankhurst called for support of the war effort.

It was only in 1907, that the word ‘suffragette’ was first used to describe the WSPU, published in the Daily Mail to differentiate them from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), an alternative peaceful suffrage group who retained the original name of ‘suffragists’. The NUWSS and WSPU are interesting to compare; official figures vary, but it is generally assumed that by 1914 the NUWSS had around 50,000 members across the country, the WSPU 5000. Today, the popularity of the Suffragettes outshines the reputation of the NUWSS (see the film Suffragettes 2015 for example) but it is worth noting that there is considerable scholarship assessing whether the WSPU were more of a hindrance than a help to the suffrage movement.

The Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918, enfranchising landed women over 30; all women over 21 were enfranchised by 1928. Emmeline Pankhurst died only weeks before this final bill passed. In popular culture she is remembered as an icon of power and strength. She was nominated in 1999 as one of Time Magazine’s top 100 most important people of the 20th Century. Her negative reputation as a violent trouble maker has adapted throughout history; initially it was used to negate her cause and reputation, and now it is used to elevate her as an exceptional woman who was willing to push for women’s rights.