On 10th October 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst and her three daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela set up the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester.
Two years later the headquarters were moved to London and the Daily Mail branded them the “Suffragettes”. The WSPU’s objective was for “immediate enfranchisement by political action”. Although they agreed with the Suffragists’ campaign for votes for women, their tactics were very different. These included producing propaganda which promoted votes for women, making speeches to various audiences across the country, distributing pamphlets and producing weekly newspapers such as Votes for Women and The Suffragette. However they strongly believed that argument and persuasion was not enough and adopted the motto “Deeds not Words”. Christabel Pankhurst in particular favoured a more militant approach.
1905 at the General Election
The militancy began in 1905 at the General Election when Christabel challenged a Liberal MP on his party’s view on votes for women. When he refused to answer trouble broke out, and eventually Christabel was arrested and imprisoned. She was the first of hundreds of Suffragettes to be imprisoned for the Cause. The Suffragette militancy campaign can be divided into three sections: 1905 civil disobedience, 1908 destruction of public property and 1913 arson and bombings.
In 1909, Marion Wallace Dunlop became the first Suffragette hunger striker when she refused to eat prison food. When she became ill after 91 hours of fasting she was released from prison. To combat this, force feeding was introduced; the prisoner was held down and liquid food would be pumped into their stomach through a rubber tube fixed in the mouth or nostrils. This was a horrific, painful and potentially fatal experience. Due to the large public outcry at force feeding, the Government introduced the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge Bill in 1913. Hunger strikers were released when they became ill, and re-arrested when they had recovered enough to finish serving their sentences. The Bill became known as ‘The Cat and Mouse Act’ as the Suffragettes claimed it was reminiscent of the way a cat plays with a mouse.
Emily Wilding Davison
The most famous Suffragette was Emily Wilding Davison, who died in 1913 after being hit by the King’s horse at the Derby when she ran onto the racetrack to pin a Suffragette rosette on its bridle. She was the only woman to die for the vote and quickly became a martyr of the Suffragette cause.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Emmeline Pankhurst encouraged the Suffragettes to put aside the campaign for the vote in order to support the war effort. In 1918, women who owned property and were aged over 30 were allowed to vote. Many believed the vote was given largely as recognition of women’s war work, while others thought the Government granted the franchise as they feared the return to militancy after the carnage of the First World War. In 1928 all women aged over 21 could vote on equal terms to men.