Militancy and Disagreements among the Suffragettes: Building Resistance

“Suffragette militancy continues to inspire today, the tradition that Sylvia Pankhurst stood in. Militancy was a part of the movement, not in opposition to it. They used militancy to capture peoples’ imagination and to pull them into a wider struggle against oppression everywhere.  That is the tradition that can help us build the resistance today…”

On 18th November 1910, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the main militant suffragette organisation, had called a ‘Women’s Parliament’ to challenge the legitimacy of the Westminster Parliament which excluded all women.

They had recently discovered that the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, who was deeply hostile to women’s suffrage, had announced that no more time would be given to a Bill, which would give the vote to some women.

In response the ‘Women’s Parliament’ sent a deputation of 300 women to the House of Commons where they were met with ranks of police.  For six hours women were battened, beaten, punched, thrown to the ground, kicked on the floor and had their faces rubbed against railings in full view of the House of Commons.  There were also widespread reports of police sexually abusing the demonstrators.  They repeatedly pinched and twisted their breasts, lifted their skirts, groping and assaulting the women for hours.

The true cost of Black Friday would only be known some time after the event.  At least two women died as a result of their injuries that day.  Another woman who had been badly treated by the police and was arrested for stone throwing a few days later died after being released from prison on Christmas Day 1910 – she was Emmeline Pankhurst’s sister, Mary Clarke.

The cover-up followed swiftly after. When the Daily Mirror published a photograph of suffragette Ada Wright lying collapsed on the ground, her hands clutching her face, the government tried to stop the newspaper being sold and ordered the negatives to be destroyed.

To add further shame to the government’s record, the Home Secretary, one Winston Churchill, refused to permit a Government inquiry into the events of Black Friday.

From the introduction of the Bill that Asquith sabotaged until Black Friday the WSPU had called a ‘truce’ on militancy.  Now that truce was well and truly over as the WSPU launched a campaign of window smashing.

Black Friday – A Turning Point

The window smashing campaign and the suffragette attacks on property were in part a tactical response to police violence. Why let yourself be hurt and abused for hours before being arrested on a demonstration when you could shorten the whole process by smashing a window and obtaining instant arrest?

It was also a political statement. The suffragettes were exposing that the government cared more about a pane of glass than a woman’s life – force feeding for hunger striking suffragette prisoners had been introduced in 1909 – or a woman’s political rights.  If property was the government’s priority, then property was a target.

However, it was also part of a move away from the collective action and mass mobilisations that had characterised the early years of the militant suffragette movement.  Christabel Pankhurst, one of the leading figures in the WSPU, had become completely dismissive of the capacity of working-class women to fight for their rights.  She now looked to heroic individuals or influential – generally rich – women to win the struggle.

Her sister Sylvia Pankhurst, a socialist suffragette, later recalled that Christabel felt ‘a working women’s movement was of no value: working women were the weakest portion of the sex: how could it be otherwise?  Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the struggle’. [1]

Christabel Pankhurst ensured that suffragettes kept their distance from the new social movements that were emerging.  1910 also marked the beginning of the Great Unrest – a huge wave of strike action which included women workers and which terrified the government. If the WSPU had wanted to co-operate with this new movement it is very likely their combined strength would have forced the government to concede.

The East London suffragettes around Sylvia Pankhurst did attempt to link up with the new movements, working with socialists and attending the May Day rally as suffragettes alongside huge numbers of East End workers. In the end it would be Sylvia’s attempts to unite with other progressive movements that would see her forced out of the WSPU by Christabel who was unable to tolerate Sylvia’s appearance on a platform alongside Irish trade unionist Jim Larkin at a meeting protesting at the employers’ lockout of workers in Dublin.

Militancy from Below

Was direct action, then, inevitably incompatible with collective action?  In fact window breaking emerged as a response to the government’s failure to listen to mass action.
In 1908 the government challenged the suffragettes to prove that votes for women had popular support.  When the suffragettes organised one the biggest demonstrations ever seen at that time in Hyde Park the government refused to alter its position.  It was immediately after this, and an earlier bout of police violence, that the suffragettes threw their first stones – through the windows of 10 Downing Street.

Much of the direct action undertaken by suffragettes was pioneered by militants since described as ‘freelance’ [2]  – they acted without the permission or foreknowledge of the WSPU’s more conservative leaders.  These women were often closer to socialist ideas than their leadership.

Mary Leigh was one of the first two window smashing suffragettes.  She was a working-class woman with a deep commitment to militancy, and she was one of the first suffragettes to endure forcible feeding.  She was also a socialist who worked with Sylvia in the East End campaigns and publicly spoke out against the WSPU leadership’s support for the British state in the First World War.

Her closest friend was Emily Davison – who committed the most famous militant act of all – disrupting the Derby Day race by running in front of the King’s horse, an action that, in collision with the horse, cost her life.  She too was sympathetic to socialist ideas and was involved with the newly formed Workers Educational Association (WEA).

Sylvia Pankhurst herself was amongst the most militant of the suffragettes, suffering repeated imprisonments where she undertook hunger, thirst, sleep and rest strikes.

There were many other suffragettes with socialist sympathies who, like these examples, were at the forefront of the struggle, undertaking some of the most famous militant actions.  For them, however, the individual acts of vandalism or sacrifice were part of a wider struggle against a system that not only excluded women from its political institutions but also oppressed working-class people and indulged in unjustifiable wars.

Suffragette militancy continues to inspire today, the tradition that Sylvia Pankhurst stood in.  Militancy was a part of the movement, not in opposition to it. They used militancy to capture peoples’ imagination and to pull them into a wider struggle against oppression everywhere.  That is the tradition that can help us build the resistance today.


[1] E.S. Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals (London: Virago Press Limited, 1977 – first published 1931), p.517

[2] See L. Stanley and A. Morley, The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison (London: The Women’s Press, 1988)

Slightly revised with many thanks to Katherine Connelly

Counterfire, 18 November 2010.


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