Suffragettes: The Quest for Female Emanicipation

IF we are to assess the role of the Suffragettes within the broader context of what is commonly described as women’s emancipation, then it is first necessary to define the word ’emancipation’ itself. The Concise Oxford Dictionary describes the phrase as ‘freedom from intellectual or moral restraint’. As a means of ascertaining whether the Suffragettes achieved such freedom, I will begin with an examination of women in society prior to the rise of the movement itself. It will then chart its activities and examine whether or not women achieved emancipation as a direct result of their contribution to the overall struggle.

Prior to the twentieth century women in the British Isles were denied a say in the region’s social, political and economic life. Even though England had a long tradition of allowing women to sit on the royal throne, they were still not permitted to vote in local or general elections. Indeed, before 1832 very few men had the vote and, whenever women mentioned suffrage it meant they wanted to have the same voting rights as their male counterparts. Rights, therefore, which were still considered inadequate and unjust.

The first important breakthrough for women came in 1792 with the unprecedented publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s (1759-1797) Vindication of the Rights of Women, which, although it was greeted with great horror and indignation, contributed to the fact that, by 1797, the House of Commons actually began to speak of womens’ suffrage for the first time. In 1825, William Thompson (1775-1833) wrote a book demanding that women have the same voting rights as men, entitled An Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretenses of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery. With such an incredibly long and unwieldy title, it is hardly surprising that so few people actually read the book and Thompson was cruelly lampooned by his contemporaries.

The Reform Act of 1832 was designed to remove M.P.s from the so-called ‘rotten boroughs’ and provide new towns with parliamentary seats. The catchphrase of the period was ‘universal suffrage,’ but whilst the Act had extended the vote to more men than ever before, women were still excluded. The direct action tactics which were used to heap pressure on the Whig government in the build-up to the passing of the Act itself, proved highly successful and such activities were later utilised by the Suffragettes for a similar purpose less than a century later.

Before 1838, the law decreed that a child had only one parent: its father. The Infants’ Custody Act gave more power to women and stated that if a man had taken his children from their mother, he was bound to allow her a degree of access. This was hardly revolutionary, but things were beginning to change.

By the 1840s women had become actively involved in organisations like the Chartist movement, but achieved little in the way of success. In 1847, however, Miss Anne Knight (1786-1862) – a Quaker – wrote a pamphlet in which she demanded votes for women and, by 1851, helped to form the Sheffield Association for Female Franchise. Unfortunately, her efforts were to have little impact on the gentlemans’ club that was, and still is to a large extent, Parliament. In 1857 the Matrimonial Causes Act allowed a man or woman to obtain a divorce in a court of law, rather than through an act of Parliament. It also permitted a wife deserted by her husband to keep any money that she had earned. In 1865, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) passed the examination set by the Society of Apothecaries and, despite the fact that apothecaries were not as well qualified as doctors, it did entitle her to have her name on the Medical Register.

In such a male-dominated world, it is hardly surprising that a man eventually stepped forward to champion the cause of women. The famous liberal philosopher, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), wrote an 1861 pamphlet called Considerations of Representative Government which, once again, demanded the vote for women. This was followed, in 1869, by The Subjection of Women. Mill soon became known to his opponents as ‘the man who wants girls in Parliament,’ but by 1865 had got himself elected as a Liberal M.P. and was thus in a very strong position from which to campaign for womens’ rights. With the approach of the 1867 Bill, Mill attacked it not only on the basis of excluding women, but on account of the fact that by increasing the number of votes to 1,057,000 men it now proposed to include paupers and lunatics. Excluding the poor is one thing, but to champion the rights of the country’s insane over those of its women was an insult of the highest order. During a Common’s vote to decide upon womens’ inclusion in the parliamentary procedure, just 73 voted in favour with 194 against. To make things worse, Mill stood to lose his seat the following year.

1867 also saw the rise of Women’s Suffrage Societies in London, Manchester and Bristol. In 1868, a general election was due and the Suffrage Societies urged female householders in the Manchester area to put their names on the register of electors. Consequently, 3,924 women did so and a Miss Mary Abbott of 51 Edward Street was nominated to be their representative. The courts, however, decided that women should not vote ‘by way of decorum’. After 800 women sent letters to Parliament in a show of mass protest, offering to support male candidates at the general election if they were in favour of suffrage, thirteen went on to vote in the election itself. They were the first and last women to do so until 1918.

In 1869, women were permitted to vote in local elections and Lydia Becker (1827-1890) emerged as the main leader of the womens’ movement. From 1870 until her death in 1890, she edited the Woman’s Suffrage Journal and it was her efforts which laid the original foundations for what evolved into the Suffragettes. Becker was responsible for presenting a series of suffrage bills before Parliament and, on three occasions – in 1870, 1886 and 1897 – the bills went on to receive a second reading.

William Edward Forster’s (1818-1886) Elementary Education Act of 1870 forced all Victorian boys and girls to attend school, but in the field of higher education the universities of both Oxford and Cambridge still refused to admit female students. As a result, Miss Emily Davies (1830-1921) founded a separate ladies’ college at Hitchin. In 1872, the Girls’ Public Day School Trust was formed and the first girls’ grammar school was opened in Chelsea. In 1874 Anne Clough (1820-1892) opened Newnham College at Cambridge, which was especially designed for the admittance of female students. In 1875 women were permitted to attend university and could also become medical students at the Royal Free Hospital in London’s Hampstead. By 1878, two womens’ colleges had been opened in Oxford and Somerville. Four years later, in 1882, the Married Women’s Property Act gave wives the opportunity to own their property and leave it to whomsoever they wished.

On the other hand, the Reform Bill of 1884 was a humiliating setback for women in the sense that it extended the vote to men who were unable to read. In 1886, however, two more womens’ colleges were established in Oxford and the Guardianship of Infants Act entitled a woman to become the legal parent of her children in the event that the husband died. The same year, the Married Women Act forced an absent husband to pay his wife maintenance, whereas formerly a woman was forced to enter the workhouse.

In 1890, Miss Philippa Fawcett (1868-1948) – daughter of the prominent feminist intellectual, Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929) – achieved four hundred more marks in her mathematics examinations at Cambridge than any man. In 1891, men were told that it was illegal to force their wives to live with them and that women were free to live wherever they wished. By 1895 the Royal college of Surgeons allowed women to become members and work as medical practitioners.

From the 1880s onwards, thousands of women had joined political organisations allied to the main parties and many were active volunteers in social events, canvassing, making platform speeches and adopting leadership roles. Women were also very active in church and charity work, and having ascended to local government in 1869 were elected to parish councils, poor law boards, school boards and, after the Qualification of Women Act of 1907 – which allowed women to become councillors – county councils. The fact that women were so involved in local affairs made it impossible for the Government to ignore the huge contribution of women in general. Society also underwent a dramatic change and whereas the mid-Victorian era had frowned on female involvement in political affairs, due to the fact that it may have damaged a woman’s role as wife and mother, by the beginning of the Edwardian period their involvement started to be taken for granted.

By the early 1900s, therefore, it could be argued that women were already winning their case for inclusion in the governmental affairs of the nation, but there were still several important obstacles to be overcome. Firstly, Parliament was doubtful whether womens’ suffrage was really relevant to the vast majority of women and whether or not it was fully justifiable to devote parliamentary time to the issue itself. Another problem concerned the fact that, if female enfranchisement was actually granted then many things had to be taken into consideration in terms of the exact qualifications that would entitle a woman to cast her vote in the first place. After all, not all men had the vote at the turn of the century and those that did had to qualify in no less than eleven different ways.

When Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) formed the Women’s Social and Political Union in Manchester during 1903, it seemed apparent that for all their involvement in local politics women still needed to resort to some form of militant action in order to secure the emancipation they desired. By 1905, the WSPU transferred its headquarters to London and declared its commitment to ‘immediate enfranchisement’ through ‘political action’. Despite being primarily involved with the Independent Labour Party, by 1907 the group was unconnected to any political party. Between 1906 and 1910, the Union’s income rose from £3,000 a year to £36,000 and its leaders became household names. Apart from Pankhurst herself, who served as WSPU treasurer, other prominent figures included her two daughters, Christabel (1880-1958) and Estelle Sylvia (1882-1960); Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (1871-1961), editor of the organisation’s Votes for Women newspaper; Annie Kenney (1879-1953), a cotton factory worker; Theresa Billington-Greig (1877-1964), a Manchester schoolteacher; Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton (1869-1923), daughter of a former Viceroy of India; Mrs. Charlotte Despard (1844-1939), a Sinn Féin novelist; Flora Drummond (1878-1949), known as ‘The General’; and Mary Raleigh Richardson (1882-1961), a Canadian who later became one of the main female organisers in the British Union of Fascists.

During the 1905 General Election, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney disrupted a Liberal Party meeting and were arrested and imprisoned at Strangeways in Manchester. Once in prison, many Suffragettes were to cause even more problems for the authorities and on July 1st, 1909, Miss Marion Wallace Dunlop (1864-1942) began a hunger strike that eventually led to the prison governor releasing her on medical grounds after a period of ninety-one hours. When this tactic became a common ploy of the Suffragette movement, many ladies were forcibly fed with liquid food, a practice that was usually reserved for mental patients. One activist, Lady Bulwer-Lytton, became seriously ill as a result of this inhumane process and, by April 1913, the Government had abandoned force-feeding altogether.

Between 1906 and 1914, over an eight-year period, the Suffragettes stepped up their militant campaign and used a variety of tactics to attract sufficient attention to their cause. Some women chained themselves to railings in Westminster, whilst hundreds of others were arrested by police officers who had been ordered to quash the demonstrations. Other activities included arson attacks and smashing shop windows with toffee hammers. As a result of these actions, the WSPU’s offices at Clement’s Inn were raided and many of the group’s leaders were arrested.

The WSPU later published another magazine called The Suffragette, which was edited from France by the exiled Christabel Pankhurst, who had now become a fugitive. Meanwhile, Christabel was described by her sister as ‘having the admiration of the multitude,’ but some referred to her disparagingly as ‘Queen of the Mob’. During 1913 and 1914 the Suffragettes began to attack larger targets, damaging railway stations, houses and other buildings with a combination of fire and explosives. Mary Richardson even went to the National Gallery with a concealed meat-chopper and caused extensive damage to Diego Velázquez’s (1599-1660) seventeenth-century work, The Rokeby Venus.

Such actions began to alienate certain members of the WSPU and the organisation eventually split into two camps. Mrs. Charlotte Despard formed the more peaceful Women’s Freedom League (WFL), although she did later agree a truce with her former comrades in the WSPU. Another group that was active at the same time was the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which had formed in 1897, incorporating over five hundred branches within a federation of nineteen regional bodies. By 1907 membership of the NUWSS had risen to 6,000 and, by 1913, over 50,000. It also had its own newspaper, The Common Cause. Led by Millicent Fawcett, the NUWSS was opposed to the militancy of the Suffragettes and also believed that when the female vote had been won it would merely be a consequence of wider changes that affected women in general. This turned out to be accurate and explains why the Suffragettes were not solely responsible for the fact that women finally went on to obtain the vote in 1918.

As a result, it remains a fact that the Suffragettes ultimately failed in their efforts to achieve voting rights for women and whilst they certainly launched some very courageous battles that helped change society’s overall attitude towards their sex, throughout the group’s existence Parliament only passed the 1907 Qualification for Women Act and even that was due to a broad acceptance that female involvement in community affairs made them eligible to stand for local government.

The enormous impact of the First World War was far more responsible for the 1918 granting of parliamentary representation than the Suffragettes. When the conflict began, in 1914, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst ordered their followers to cease all militant action and show their full support for the Government. According to the Suffragettes, in order to carry on the struggle for emancipation after the war it was necessary to rally behind the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928), and seek to preserve the Constitution from the imperial advances of their mutual German enemies. According to the April 16th, 1915 issue of The Suffragist:

It is a thousand times more the duty of the militant Suffragettes to fight the Kaiser for the sake of liberty than it was to fight anti-Suffrage governments.

It was Emmeline Pankhurst who proposed that women be allowed to work in munitions factories and, for once, the Government did not disagree with her. The role of women during the war changed dramatically and in addition to making shells, bullets, fuses, detonators and explosives, they became bus conductors, plumbers, signalwomen, porters, van drivers, electricians, shepherds, Red Cross workers and nurses. Women also worked in record offices and various governmental departments. In 1915, the Women’s Legion supplied the Army with cooks and drivers at camps in both Britain and France. Special non-fighting women’s services were formed, too, such as the Women’s Royal Air Force and Women’s Royal Navy.

By the time the conflict had ended, the role of women was considerably different to that of 1914 and it was generally agreed that their contribution to the war effort had been tremendous. When the pro-suffrage David Lloyd George (1863-1945) took over as Prime Minister in 1916 and a coalition government was formed between the Liberal, Conservative and Labour parties, the chances of women achieving full voting rights increased substantially. Once again, although the actions of the Suffragettes had brought the matter of women’s emancipation to the attention of millions, it was female action during the First World War and the election of a Liberal first minister that really helped to pave the way for its success. When 8,470,150 women over the age of thirty were granted such rights in 1918, the Suffragettes themselves – despite their fierce militancy before the war – were mere spectators as Parliament made the decision on their behalf.

To conclude, despite the obvious futility of campaigning for the right to vote in futile elections the Suffragettes should be admired for the resistance they showed within the context of a male-dominated society and, as far as emancipation is concerned, it should be remembered that whilst authentic revolutionary action enables people of both sexes to rise up against an oppressive system most people today are still labouring under the control of the ruling class. In the case of the Suffragettes, therefore, it seems that the female role in society was always destined to undergo a drastic change and yet when it came about it was something instigated by the architects of the British State for its own warmongering objectives.


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