How working class women won the vote

Issue: 158

Judy Cox

Women won the right to vote by waging a campaign of extraordinary ­ingenuity, determination and militancy. The issue of female suffrage touched every town, city and village, and every family in the years before the First World War. Deeply entrenched ideas about women’s mental and physical inferiority were challenged as women risked their health, their freedom, their families and their lives to win the right to vote. Some 6 million women over the age of 30 won the right to vote 100 years ago. Government-backed commemorations of the centenary will be marked by the erection of a new statue of moderate suffragist Millicent Fawcett. Books, broadcasts, exhibitions and lectures will remember the enormous contribution made by the Pankhurst family, militant Emmeline and Christabel, and socialist Sylvia. But less visible in the commemorations will be the radical suffragists, the tens of thousands of working class women whose tireless and innovative campaigning was decisive in winning the vote.1

The women’s suffrage campaign is often portrayed as a pyramid. A small number of important women shape events from the top while the mass of unnamed activists carry the banners, raise funds and sign petitions. But to understand the real power of the movement the pyramid must be inverted, something Sylvia Pankhurst would certainly have approved of. It was not Fawcett and her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson or the Pankhurst family who overturned centuries of prejudice and won women the vote, important though their contribution was. It was the mass movement of working class women that created one of the most geographically penetrating and socially diverse political movements in history. The campaign encouraged women to fight for change in every area of their lives and formed a strand of opposition to the British Empire by inspiring Irish and Indian women to fight for political change.

Female suffrage was important across Europe and beyond, but nowhere else did it become so central to women’s demands as it did in Britain. Some historians have interpreted the struggle for universal suffrage as evidence of what economist Sidney Webb called “the inevitability of gradualness”. According to this approach, the British working class lacks the revolutionary tradition of, for example, the French proletariat, and is wedded to seeking gradual, constitutional change. In fact, the campaign for women’s suffrage became a key focus because it was part of a 100-year struggle to win parliamentary change through extra-parliamentary, militant forms of struggle. Christabel Pankhurst suggested that: “The history of women’s suffrage prior to 1906 forms a dreary record of disappointed hopes and trust betrayed”,2 but the women who fought for suffrage in the 19th century were anything but dreary.

Mrs Smith’s foolish petition: female suffrage before 1850

Writing in 1792, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, which inspired many demands for political rights, Mary Wollstonecraft raised the idea that women should have political representation: “I may excite laughter by dropping a hint, which I mean to pursue some future time, that I really think women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed”.3 In 1819 women began to form their own societies to campaign for parliamentary reform in northern towns such as Blackburn and Manchester. On 16 August some 60,000 women, men and children dressed in their Sunday best gathered in St Peters Fields, near Manchester. The crowds gathered to hear radical MP Henry Hunt demand reform. Standing next to him on the platform was another radical leader, Mary Fildes. The yeoman cavalry were unleashed on the crowd with their sabres and bayonets. Four women were among the 18 people they killed: Margaret Downes was sabred, Mary Hays trampled by a yeoman’s horse, Sarah Jones truncheoned over the head and Martha Partingdon was crushed. Fildes was one of the 168 women who were among the 654 injured during what became known as the Peterloo Massacre. She was slashed with a bayonet but survived to continue her fight for political rights.

Hunt presented the first petition for women’s suffrage to parliament in 1831. He acted on behalf of Mary Smith who argued that, as she paid taxes and had to obey the law, she should be able to vote. The Times declared the circulation of the petition “shocking” and “disgusting” and The Spectator referred to Mrs Smith’s “absurd” and “foolish petition”.4

The following year the Great Reform Act was passed confirming that women were officially excluded from voting—a “defining moment in the political history of Britain”.5 Despite excluding women, the Act increased the number of propertied men who could vote. When the Act was introduced there were huge demonstrations in support of reform with some 100,000 marching in both London and Birmingham. When the Lords blocked the Act there were serious riots in London, Bristol and Nottingham. Fearing that British workers might follow the example of the French Revolution of July 1830, Parliament passed the Act in 1832. From its first stirrings, the struggle for democracy was intimately bound up with revolution, both real and feared.

By 1838 the campaign for democracy developed into the Chartist campaign for universal male suffrage: “Chartism was the first instance of a political movement initiated and sustained by working people relying on their own resources alone”.6 Thousands of women were active in the Chartist movement. They organised over 100 separate female Chartist associations between 1838 and 1849, some of which had thousands of members.7 Women signed the “monster petitions” presented to parliament, they wrote articles, went to and spoke at public meetings and took part in strikes and riots. One witness described what happened during the Newport Uprising of 1838 when Chartist Henry Vincent was arrested:

Some of the women who had joined the crowd kept instigating the men to attack the hotel—one old virago vowing that she would fight till she was knee-deep in blood, sooner than the Cockneys should take their prisoners out of town. She, with others of her sex, gathered large heaps of stones which they subsequently used in defacing and injuring the building which contained the prisoners.8

Women were again prominent during the strike wave of 1842, which become known as the Plug Plot Riots.

Some influential feminist historians have argued that the Chartist movement had a detrimental effect on campaigns for women’s rights. The male leaders, “enforced female domesticity”, promoted “patriarchal power”, “disempowered women” and put them off joining any subsequent campaigns.9 Yet female Chartists challenged ideas about women’s domestic role by becoming activists, organisers and, occasionally, leaders. Susanna Inge and Mary Ann Walker established the Female Chartist Association in 1842 and both lectured to mixed audiences. Anne Knight criticised those who claimed that the class struggle took precedence over women’s rights. She demanded that the Chartist movement campaign for true universal suffrage and a minority of male Chartists such as William Lovatt and RJ Richardson agreed. Knight presented a petition demanding women’s suffrage to the Lords in 1852. The female Chartists established a tradition of female political activism in areas such as West Yorkshire and East London, which erupted into an intense campaign for female suffrage in the following decades.

The cause: female suffrage before 1900

In 1867 the Second Reform Act extended the male franchise and sparked renewed female suffrage activity. A petition of 1,500 signatures was presented to parliament by John Stuart Mill on behalf of the women’s Kensington Society. He also tried to amend the Second Reform Act to replace the word “man” with the word “person”. Opposing him, Earl Percy expressed a view commonly held by men in power: “The real fact is that man in the beginning was ordained to rule over woman and this is an eternal decree which we have no right or power to alter”.10 Mill was heavily defeated but the agitation continued and deepened.

The Kensington Society became the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1867. The Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee was established the same year and a society was formed in Birmingham in 1868. Local campaigns drew large numbers into suffrage agitation. For example, in November 1880 some 3,000 people attended a packed meeting organised by the Bristol Society for Women’s Suffrage. Many middle class women sought political equality with men and access to higher education and the professions as they rallied to “The Cause”. Some feminists saw female suffrage as a way of disseminating female virtues through political institutions.11 But others were influenced by socialism and saw the vote as part of a “broader political project to secure a humanitarian and egalitarian society”.12 The Women’s Franchise League was established in 1889 to campaign for votes for married women. Members included active socialists Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst who were friends of Eleanor Marx and William Morris. Most local organisations included all these different elements and in 1897 local campaigns joined together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Fawcett.

Some women linked the vote to winning better working conditions. Between 1881 and 1911 the employment of women workers grew by 24 percent, many in the “sweated” industries characterised by low pay, terrible conditions and excessive hours.13 There were very few women in trade unions outside of the cotton industry but women did play a leading role in some militant struggles, for example, the West Yorkshire Woollen Weavers’ strike of 1875 and the Match Women’s Strike in East London in 1888 when a group of young women from the East End showed that the most downtrodden of workforces could strike and win. Organising women workers meant challenging prejudices. As socialist and suffrage campaigner Isabella Ford wrote: “All the orthodox religious world, broadly speaking, is against Trade Unionism for women because Trade Unionism means rebellion, and the orthodox teaching for women is submission in this world in order to gain happiness in the next”.14

Activists like Isabella Ford sought to win improvements for working women through both trade unionism and female suffrage. The Women’s Protective and Provident League set up in 1874 by Emma Paterson became the Women’s Trade Union League. Paterson was also secretary of the Women’s Suffrage Association. Clementina Black, another friend of Eleanor Marx, was appointed secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League and helped to organise the Match Women’s Strike. In 1911 Clementina became the secretary of the NUWSS. Ada Nield Chew, a mill worker, a committed member of the Independent Labour Party and an organiser for the Women’s Trade Union League, also became an organiser for the NUWSS. Some suffrage campaigners were hostile to working class struggles, and some trade unionists were dismissive of female suffrage. However, throughout the late 19th century many women saw the two struggles as inextricably linked.

New tactics for a new century: 1900-1914

The first great women’s suffrage event of the 20th century was organised by socialist women campaigning in the mill towns of Lancashire. Two influential socialist suffrage activists, Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper, continued the tradition of fighting for women’s rights as both workers and voters. They launched a petition in Blackburn, where 16,000 women worked in the mills.15 Activists trudged down cobbled streets, stood in factory yards and persuaded some 29,000 Lancashire cotton workers to sign. In 1901 a deputation of women mill workers took the monster petition to Westminster. The first important 20th century organisation devoted to female suffrage was the Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile and Other Workers’ Representation Committee, set up by Roper and Gore-Booth in 1902. The Committee was the first organisation to fight for the vote explicitly for working class women. Eva Gore-Booth’s sister Constance is today best remembered under her married name, Markievicz. Constance Markievicz was a socialist and an Irish Republican.

Eva and Constance formed the Sligo Women’s Suffrage Association in 1896. They were both active socialist Suffragists in Manchester before Constance, who married Casimir Markeivicz, returned to Ireland and joined Sinn Féin in 1908. In 1911 she was arrested protesting against the visit of George V to Ireland and she joined with James Connolly, James Larkin and Maud Gonne to campaign for free school meals. Constance was appointed Second in Command during the Easter Rising of 1916 and was sentenced to death for her involvement. Eva campaigned to have her sister’s sentence commuted and she was released in the amnesty of 1917. Constance would stand for Sinn Féin in 1918, becoming the only successful female candidate, but like the other 72 Sinn Féin MPs, she refused to take her seat in Westminster.

A few weeks after the women textile workers’ committee was formed, Emmeline Pankhurst called a meeting in her Manchester house. She and her daughter Christabel were members of the Independent Labour Party which had voted to support votes for women and men in 1895. Emmeline Pankhurst had argued at the Labour Representation Committee (forerunner of the Labour Party) for support for immediate women’s suffrage on the same basis as men. Around 40 percent of men, those without property, were also excluded from voting and Emmeline’s resolution was rejected in favour of supporting votes for men and women with no property limitation. Labour activists opposed giving the vote to middle class women on the basis that they would probably vote against Labour-backed candidates. Emmeline, Christabel and two other daughters Sylvia and Adela were frustrated by both the intransigence of successive governments and the lack of progress made by existing female suffrage societies. They founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) as a women-only organisation. Initially they assumed the Union would be part of the socialist movement, but in the years ahead it took a radically different direction.

Most historians identify a 1905 meeting when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney heckled Liberal politicians Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey as the opening act of suffrage militancy. The two young women shouted over the eminent politicians, then unfurled a Votes for Women banner. They were dragged out of the hall and arrested when Christabel spat at a policeman. Christabel and Annie refused to pay the resulting fine and were imprisoned. Headline writers were shocked by the idea that a young lady like Christabel Pankhurst should be so defiant and vociferous.

However, working class women carrying out similar protests went unnoticed by the media. Minnie Baldock, a socialist from Canning Town, described a meeting at Poplar Town Hall with the Liberal candidate:

My friend stood up and asked if he was returned would he give votes to women, but received no answer. She stood up on her seat and held up a flag she had made. White with red letters reading “Votes for Women”. She made me laugh, for she turned around like a spinning top so that everybody could see, and would not get down until the stewards came to her and asked her to go on the platform; they could not turn her out as the place was so packed.16

She was not given time to speak, so she sat with her banner over her knees so that everyone could see it.

The 1906 General Election saw a Liberal government elected but hopes for reform were dashed. The WSPU moved to London and began a campaign of demonstrations and protests focusing on parliament, and the Daily Mail coined the term “Suffragette”. Many working class and left wing women helped to build the WSPU in these early years. On Thursday 5 July 1906 three women were in court for trying to force their way in to see prime minister Henry Asquith. The three women were Annie Kenney, mill worker and full time WSPU activist, Adelaide Knight, socialist and trade unionist, and Jane Sparborough. The Evening Standard reported the following exchange between Magistrate Muskett and Sparborough:

The witness said it was only after the main body of the procession had moved off that she was arrested. A policeman told her that she ought to be ashamed of herself to mix up with those women. She denied that she waved her arms and shouted.

Mr Muskett: What did you go there for—you a woman of 60?

“Because we see the misery and the wrong you men have done for years and we want to alter it”.

You feel very strongly on the subject?

“Yes and so would you if you lived at Bow and saw the misery there”.

I doubt it could be altered in this way.

“I think women can undo tangles better than men, and men have made a mess of it”.

The women were given prison sentences.17 Early WSPU marches were heavily dependent on working class women from the East End, a dependence which made Christabel Pankhurst increasingly uneasy.18

During the general election of 1906 Labour candidate Thorley Smith contested the Wigan seat. He was not supported by the trades council or the miners’ union, who still placed their political faith in the Liberal Party. However, he supported female suffrage and received great support from radical suffragists such as Esther Roper. Smith came second to the Tory candidate, but beat the Liberal and received a creditable 2,000 votes. Radical suffragists in the north west were given a great boost by the campaign and they were increasingly critical of the direction taken by the Suffragettes.

In 1907 the Pankhurst family resigned from the Independent Labour Party. Growing political tensions inside the WSPU led to a split when a group of left wing women rejected Emmeline and Christabel’s dictatorial methods and wealthy women’s dominance over the organisation. Some 70 members, including socialists Dora Montefiore and Charlotte Despard, split away to form the militant, democratic Women’s Freedom League which developed tactics of non-violent direct action. Despite the internal tensions, the WSPU continued to attract huge support. On Women’s Sunday 1908 between 250,000 and 300,000 rallied for votes for women in Hyde Park. The Suffragette colours were first displayed and Sylvia Pankhurst described her great excitement at the sight of the bright banners and costumes. Speakers included socialists such as Keir Hardie and George Lansbury. In the middle of the march Sylvia received a message from Christabel: “Would I burn down Nottingham Castle?” Sylvia was shocked and declined the request.19 But when Asquith ignored the mass march Christabel’s tactics gained more support. The WSPU developed a campaign of civil disobedience such as stone throwing in Downing Street.

Many arrests followed and in 1909 imprisoned Suffragettes began to stage hunger strikes and were force fed. Some historians have dismissed the process of force feeding as “no more than extremely unpleasant”, and “not dangerous” while Brian Harrison suggested that the worst thing about the process was the risk a clumsy prison doctor could destroy a “woman’s greatest asset, her looks”.20 In fact, force feeding was torture, infused with a sense of degradation and sexual humiliation. The women were held down, tied to a chair and had sharp instruments rammed between their teeth and a plastic tube forced down their throats. Some women endured this hundreds of times.

Women prisoners were treated differently depending on their social status. Constance Lytton realised that she was getting preferential treatment because she was a “lady” so the next time she got arrested she hid her identity and was force fed three times before the mistake was discovered. After one session Constance heard a neighbouring prisoner being subjected to the same “ghastly process”. “I tapped on the wall” she recalled, “and called out at the top of my voice, ‘No Surrender’. And then came the answer in Elsie’s voice, ‘No Surrender’”.21 Frances Parker, niece of Field Marshall Lord Kitchener, served repeated prison sentences for window breaking and attempted arson. Going under the alias Janet Arthur, Parker was subjected to a brutal form of rectal and vaginal force feeding, which left her severely bruised. She was released to a nursing home but managed to escape.

The different suffrage organisations found contrasting ways to protest. In the same year as the hunger strikes began, the Tax Resistance League—slogan “No Vote, No Tax”—was set up by Dora Montefiore who was influenced by the passive resistance of Mahatma Gandhi. She pioneered the non-payment tactic during the Boer War as an anti-war protest and in 1906 during the “Siege of Montefiore” when she barricaded herself into her house for six weeks to resist the bailiffs. Some 220 women participated in tax resistance, and members of the League included George Bernard Shaw, Charlotte Despard and Jewish suffragist Edith Zangwill.

In 1910 a Conciliation Bill was due to be brought before the House of Commons which argued for extension of the franchise to women. The Ninth Women’s Parliament assembled in Caxton Hall, East London, and around 300 women formed a deputation to parliament. When they tried to break through police lines, the women were beaten, kicked, batoned and sexually abused for six hours all in full view of the houses of parliament and 119 people were arrested. Home secretary Winston Churchill ordered copies of the Daily Mirror to be seized when its front page carried a photograph of a Suffragette lying on the floor with a policeman looming over her. Mary Clarke, Emmeline Pankhurst’s sister, was beaten by police, arrested and force fed and died a few weeks later. Celia Haig died in December from injuries she received on Black Friday. Henria Williams described what happened to her: “One policeman after knocking me about for a considerable time, finally took hold of me with his great strong hand like iron just over my heart. He hurt me so much that at first I had not the voice power to tell him what he was doing. But I knew that unless I made a strong effort to do so he would kill me”.22 She died of a heart attack two months later.

In 1911 a truce was called by the WSPU to aid the passage of a new Conciliation Bill which would have enfranchised a small number of rich women. The Bill stalled and the Suffragettes renewed their campaign. Their “official window smash” targeted the offices of the Daily Mail and the Daily News, the residences of Asquith, Churchill, David Lloyd George and Edward Grey; some 160 suffragettes were arrested. In 1912 a Parliament Franchise Bill which included women was voted down. WSPU members Mary Leigh and Gladys Evans threw an axe at Asquith, grazing Irish Nationalist leader John Redmond’s face. The WSPU organised the smashing of shop windows and arson, increasingly carried out by an elite corps of activists. Fawcett’s niece, Louisa Garrett Anderson, was one of the Suffragettes arrested. Christabel Pankhurst, however, escaped to France from where she was able to deliver her orders to the movement from relative comfort and safety.

The Suffrage campaigners continued to employ a range of tactics. On Sunday 2 April 1911 the Liberal government demanded every household comply with its census demands and campaigners organised a boycott. Some defaced their census forms. Jane Brailsford was so furious when she found out that her husband had identified himself as head of the family, “she scratched it out and wrote ‘Nonsense’”, a friend recalled. Others took part in collective census evasions by renting empty houses and putting on lectures and concerts to entertain those gathered overnight. The largest evasion was held in London where campaigners spent the night ice skating. Leading Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison famously spent the night hiding in a broom cupboard in the House of Commons and declared it as her address.23

In 1913 a ruling by the speaker of the house wrecked hope of an amendment to a new Reform Bill and provoked a new stage in the suffrage campaign. Now the WSPU targeted the things Emmeline believed society valued: “money, property and pleasure”. They tried to bomb chancellor of the exchequer Lloyd George’s holiday cottage. Emmeline took responsibility and was arrested. In response, Mary Richardson slashed the Rokeby Venus painting in the National Gallery while other women blew up the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey and left acid in postboxes to destroy the mail. Davison fell under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby and died four days later. Her funeral became a mass protest. The government responded with the hated Cat and Mouse Act which allowed for hunger strikers to be released until they were well enough to be rearrested to continue their sentences.

The Suffragette campaign of arson and bombing necessitated secrecy and so the numbers involved shrank. Meanwhile, working class women continued to campaign through trade unions and labour organisations. Selina Cooper and Eva Gore-Booth argued in favour of female suffrage at the conference of what had now become the Labour Party. They were eventually successful in 1912. They also developed new tactics, such as the “Suffrage Caravans” which carried the suffrage message to isolated communities, such as Goathland and Whitby in north Yorkshire. They often held street meetings and faced down abuse and physical assault. In 1913 Cooper was campaigning in the Keighley by-election. She started speaking in Haworth, birthplace of the Brontë sisters, but was pelted with rotten tomatoes and eggs. “I’m stopping here whatever you throw,” she declared, “so go and fetch all the things you want to throw because I’m going to speak to you. And this blooming village would never have been known if it wasn’t for three women—the Brontës”.24

Many radical suffragists were part of the NUWSS. In 1913 they organised the Great Pilgrimage. For over six weeks thousands of women from across Britain marched and held meetings in every town they passed through. They were mocked, abused and physically attacked on the road. In East Grinstead, marchers had to shelter from a baying mob in the Dorset Arms Hotel. Eventually some 50,000 marchers entered Hyde Park. The Great Pilgrimage was hailed as a respectable alternative to the Suffragette violence. Nevertheless, the huge march revealed both deep roots in Northern towns and cities and a strategy of taking the argument for women’s suffrage to ordinary people.

In 1914 the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) demanded that Asquith meet them. The prime minister had repeatedly refused to meet any female suffrage campaigners (two Suffragettes tried to engineer a meeting by having themselves delivered to him in a parcel). The ELFS organised a procession of thousands from Bow in east London to Westminster and Sylvia Pankhurst threatened to starve herself to death outside the Commons if Asquith refused a meeting. This time he caved in and met a delegation elected by large meetings in the East End. Six factory workers led by Julia Scurr went to Downing Street. Scurr was a long-standing activist. In 1905 she organised a march of 1,000 East End women to demand welfare for the unemployed, alongside Dora Montefiore, Keir Hardie and George Lansbury. In 1912 she organised food for the children of striking dockworkers. Herbert Henry Asquith, later 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith, had no choice but to listen respectfully while the women explained how the vote would help them challenge the poverty and deprivation they endured. Sylvia and the East London suffragettes had achieved what the WSPU had failed to do—they forced the prime minister to listen to their arguments.

More than one story: women’s suffrage organisations

The Pankhurst family have polarised historians as they polarised their contemporaries. Some criticism of the Pankhursts is deeply sexist, focusing on their appearance and drawing on ideas of hysteria and attention-seeking. George Dangerfield, in his hugely influential The Strange Death of Liberal England, wrote how Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel “dictated every move, and swayed every heart, of a growing army of intoxicated women… They had only to say the word and castles and churches went up in flames, pictures were slashed, windows shattered, the majesty of parliaments and kings affronted”.25 However, some criticism of Emmeline and Christabel is justified. They became increasingly military in their approach. Each action had to be more violent than the last to catch the public’s attention but they did not seek to win wide support. Christabel in particular led the WSPU in an increasingly right-wing direction, breaking links with the labour movement and consciously aiming to involve only influential and wealthy women. This political trajectory reached its final stage in 1914 when the WSPU abandoned women’s suffrage in favour of fervent support for the war effort. This support included handing white feathers to men not in military uniform. Emmeline Pankhurst visited Petrograd in 1917 to campaign against Russia withdrawing from the war.

Teresa Billingham had joined the ILP with Emmeline Pankhurst in 1904, becoming a full time organiser for the WSPU. She left in the split of 1907 and wrote this description of the organisation:

Daring to advertise in an unconventional way the movement has dared nothing more. It has cut down its demand from one of sex equality to one of votes on a limited basis. It has suppressed free speech on fundamental issues. It has gradually edged the working class element out of its ranks. It has become socially exclusive, punctiliously correct, gracefully fashionable, ultra-respectable, and narrowly religious.26

The Pankhursts were remarkable political leaders but their dominance over the legacy of women’s suffrage has distorted our understanding of that campaign. As one historian has written: “The Suffragettes weren’t just white, middle class women throwing stones”.27

National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies

The largest female suffrage organisation was Fawcett’s NUWSS. They campaigned for women to vote on the same basis as men which meant accepting the property qualification, and they focused on influencing the Liberal Party. This faith in the Liberal Party was shared by many trade unions at the time. Fawcett gave some support to the Suffragettes. She organised a banquet when Suffragette prisoners were released and wrote to The Times declaring that “they have done more during the last 12 months to bring [female suffrage] within the realm of practical politics than we have been able to accomplish in the same number of years”.28

NUWSS membership grew from 13,500 in 1909 to 21,500 in 1910 and 26,000 by 1911, making it a genuinely mass organisation which included many radical suffragists. Selina Cooper entered the mills at the age of ten. She championed women’s trade unions in West Yorkshire and was a founder member of the Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society. She became a friend of Fawcett and helped to establish the NUWSS in 1897. Cooper told an open air meeting in 1906:

Women do not want their political power to enable them to boast that they are on equal terms with their men. They want to use it for the same purpose as men—to get better conditions… Every woman in England is longing for her political freedom in order to make the lot of the worker pleasanter and to bring about reforms, which are wanted. We do not want it as a mere plaything.29

After the Liberal government reneged on the promise of suffrage reform in 1912, Selina was instrumental in persuading the NUWSS to support Labour Party candidates. At this point the Pankhursts’ WSPU was giving tactical support to the Conservative Party with their “Liberals Out” slogan.

Women’s Freedom League

The League was formed in 1907 by a split from the WSPU. It started with 70 members and soon had 4,000 with over 60 branches. One leading figure was Australian Dora Montefiore who had established the Women’s Suffrage League in New South Wales in 1891. When she arrived in Britain in 1892 she joined both the NUWSS and the Social Democratic Federation. In protest at the Boer War, Montefiore refused to pay any tax and had her possessions sold at auction. She joined the WSPU in 1905 and worked with Annie Kenney and Sylvia Pankhurst in their London campaign and was imprisoned in 1906. Dora was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In January 1921 Alexandra Kollontai, a leading Bolshevik, wrote to her: “Dearest comrade and friend, it was quite a treat to hear at last from you dear comrade Montefiore. How happy I should be if I could show you all the revolutionary and really constructive work that has been going on these last few years!”.30

Another key figure was Charlotte Despard, a friend of Lansbury and a member of the Social Democratic Federation then the ILP. Despard began in the NUWSS, and then joined the WSPU. She was arrested with Mary Gawthorpe in 1907, and imprisoned twice before she helped to launch the Women’s Freedom League. In 1910 she wrote: “Fundamentally all social and political questions are economic. With equal wages, the male worker would no longer fear that his female colleague might put him out of a job…men and women will unite to effect a complete transformation to the industrial environment. A woman needs economic independence to live as an equal with her husband”. In 1908 Charlotte spent time in Ireland and helped set up the Irish Women’s Franchise League. She supported workers during the Dublin Lockout and was an active Irish Republican.

East London Federation of Suffragettes

Sylvia Pankhurst broke from her family to establish the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1913. She organised street meetings and staged regular marches to Westminster, walking in the footsteps of the Match Girls. She had to work hard to overcome local women’s perception that the Suffragettes were only interested in “Votes for Ladies”. She achieved this by linking the issue of the vote to social issues such as poverty and housing. Sylvia brought all the dynamism and creativity of the suffrage campaign to the East End. She staged parties and parades for the children and established a Citizens’ Army to protect east London activists after police attacked a march, fracturing skulls and breaking bones. She also organised factories to provide jobs for women and clinics and social activities. The Federation was a “ceaseless font of radical politics”.31 Sylvia spoke alongside James Connolly at a huge solidarity rally in the Albert Hall during the Dublin Lockout. This proved to be too much for her sister Christabel, who was by then a supporter of the Ulster loyalists. She demanded that Sylvia’s East London Federation sever all ties with the WPSU. Sylvia wrote: “we have more faith in what could be done by stirring up working women where they had most faith in what could be done for the vote by people of means and influence. In other words that they were working from the top down and we from the bottom up”.32

Suffrage and class: “votes for ladies”?

Class divided the women’s suffrage campaign in many ways. Firstly, the WSPU and the NUWSS both campaigned for votes for women on the same basis as men, which meant accepting the property qualification. As radical suffragist Ada Nield Chew wrote to The Clarion in 1904: “the entire class of wealthy women would be enfranchised, that the great body of working women, married or single would be voteless still”.33 The argument between female and adult suffrage raged throughout the suffrage and labour movements, with many people changing their minds. Labour organisations could demand the more radical universal suffrage as an excuse for not supporting female enfranchisement. While suffrage organisations could support the vote with the property qualification as an end in itself, not as a step on the road to universal suffrage, “Votes for Women” did not mean votes for all women.

Many accounts give the impression that the leadership of the Suffrage Movement was firmly in the hands of well to do women. However, the picture was more complicated. In the early years some local WSPU branches consciously set out to recruit working women. The Birmingham WSPU reached out to women chain makers and nail makers of Cradley and by 1908 they had become the second biggest Suffrage society in England.34 However, the WSPU certainly became increasingly middle class in orientation, especially after breaking from the Labour Party in 1907. They appealed to women of “distinction and influence” to lead the way.35 One historian has suggested that the Pankhursts were incapable of leading working class mill women, so, “they set out to pursue the drawing rooms of London, thus depriving themselves of a mass movement”.36

However, even in the WSPU working class women were prominent. Annie Kenney started to work in a mill aged ten and became a trade unionist and a socialist before becoming a leading figure in the WSPU. Mary Gawthorpe was the daughter of a leather worker and a mill worker. She became a teacher and trade union activist and joined the WSPU. She spoke on huge demonstrations and was knocked unconscious while giving a speech. Imprisoned several times, Mary suffered serious injuries after being badly beaten for heckling Winston Churchill. In the Cockermouth by-election Mary supported Labour, writing that “there is no salvation for women but in socialism”, and at the same time she supported Christabel’s leadership of the WSPU. “She resisted being forced to choose between her two political objectives”.37 Adelaide Knight led working class women in the WSPU.38 In 1884 she married a black seaman, Donald Adolphus Brown. He shared Adelaide’s political beliefs and they both joined the ILP. He took Adelaide’s surname and was widely known as Donald Knight. Adelaide was the secretary of the WSPU branch in Canning Town and when she was imprisoned in 1906 Donald looked after the couple’s children.

Many young working women joined whichever organisation was active in their area and divisions were less significant than the drive to militant action. For example, the “Baby Suffragette”, Dora Thewlis, was a 17 year old factory worker from Huddersfield when she was arrested with 70 others marching on parliament in 1907. When she appeared in the magistrate’s court, her shawled head hardly appeared over the ledge. The magistrate wrote to Dora’s mother and offered to send her home with her fare paid out of the poor box. Mrs Thewlis replied: “We have brought her up in socialistic and progressive beliefs. She and I were the first people to help Mrs Pankhurst in the recent by-election.” Mr Thewlis added: “She has written to me asking me to ask the magistrate to give her the same sentence as the others”.39

Class and politics shaped the divided response of suffrage campaigners to the Great Unrest, which was the most significant class confrontation in Britain since the Chartists. In 1911 nearly 1 million workers were involved in strike action, including miners, dockers and rail workers and thousands of women workers, creating a crisis for the Liberal government. In April 1911, 15,000 women workers from over 20 factories spontaneously went on strike, including hundreds of sweet makers from Bermondsey, south east London.

Some Suffragettes were hostile to the strike wave and wanted the government to repress it. In May 1912 Christabel, who was in charge of the WSPU, wrote in Votes for Women: “We would ask the government if they propose to make the organisation of strikes punishable by law?”.40 Rebecca West noted how in the early days the WSPU had dealt “boldly with the wrongs done women by the industrial system. Now it is concerned chiefly with the dreary tactical struggle for the vote”.41 However, this was not true of all the Suffragettes, Charlotte Despard was actively involved in the Bermondsey Strike, Emily Wilding Davison collected money for striking dockers and Sylvia visited strikers. They believed the vote was not an end in itself but was part of the struggle to improve lives for the exploited. A victory for the working class movement would help bring female suffrage a step nearer.

Suffrage and Empire

The campaign for suffrage could be fed by, and feed back into, other radical movements. The fight against British colonialism was such a movement. The Edwardian era saw the birth of the Indian National Congress, a national movement opposed to British rule over India. There were a number of Indian women in Britain. Many had been employed as ayahs, or nannies, to care for British children during the voyage home to Britain and then abandoned. By 1905, “Asian women were emerging to show public support of various political activities, and the exploitation of women and their traditional role were challenged”.42

Sophia Duleep Singh was the granddaughter of a powerful Indian Maharajah whose fortune included the Koh-I-Noor diamond. On the Maharajah’s death all his riches and the diamond were stolen by the British. Princess Sophia’s father was brought to England as a boy. Queen Victoria showered him with expensive gifts and called him “her beautiful boy”—but she never returned the diamond. The queen was godmother to his daughter, Princess Sophia, who was a wealthy debutant before becoming a leading Suffragette. Princess Sophia joined both the WPSU and Women’s Tax Resistance League, and she made many appearances in court for non-payment of fines which she transformed into theatres of protest. On one occasion her diamond ring had been seized by bailiffs and put up for auction. A Mrs Toping bought the ring and returned it to Sophia. On Black Friday Princess Sophia was trapped behind police lines and was a ­horrified witness to the violence. She wrote to Churchill demanding an investigation into police brutality. On the day of the king’s speech to parliament, 6 February 1911, an occasion of great pomp and circumstance, Sophia hurled herself in front of the prime minister’s car, managing to unfurl her “Votes for Women” banner before she was dragged away.

Bhikaiji Cama was another Indian woman, who “became a powerful and influential suffragette, fighting for Asian women and Indian independence”.43 Cama, also a prominent anti-racist, actively campaigning for gender equality and Indian independence. In 1902 she was recovering from bubonic plague when she visited London and became involved with the Suffragettes. Her nationalist activity got her banned from returning to India and extradited to Paris. She invited revolutionaries to her Paris home and exchanged ideas with Lenin. Cama helped to found the Indian Home Rule Society and attended the International Socialist Conference in Stuttgart (Kollontai and Rosa Luxemburg were also delegates). She made a memorable intervention, unfurling a first version of the Indian national flag.

Ireland was another British colony where the injustice of colonial subjugation combined with women’s suffrage agitation. Irish suffrage societies were constitutional until 1908 when the Irish Women’s Franchise League was established. The League was impatient with moderate tactics and mirrored the WPSU. They wanted women’s suffrage included in the third Home Rule Bill but the Irish Parliamentary Party wanted to keep the Liberals sweet to get the Bill passed so refused to support women’s suffrage. Irish Suffragettes maintained close links with the Labour Movement. In 1911, for example, Francis Sheehy Skeffington and Countess Markievicz shared a platform with Delia and James Larkin at the launch of a female trade union, the Irish Women Workers Union, which aimed to win both better wages and the vote. Many Suffragettes set up soup kitchens during the Dublin Lockout of 1913 and supported James Connolly and joined the Citizen Army. By 1914 the largest women’s organisation in Ireland was nationalist, Cumann na mBan, and many Suffragettes joined it.

Suffrage and revolution

Richard Evans has contrasted middle class British suffrage with the working class campaigns of European countries:

In a number of countries, the fight for women’s suffrage was led not by the middle class but by the working class women, and the largest and most determined women’s suffrage organisations were not the liberal feminist societies of the bourgeoisie, but the mass socialist movements of the proletariat.44

However, suffrage campaigners were part of the working movement in Britain too. The Suffragettes emerged out of the Independent Labour Party which gave support for women’s suffrage. Influential ILP members such as Keir Hardie and George Lansbury had a deep personal and political commitment to women’s suffrage. A minority of socialists did oppose female suffrage. One such was Ernest Belfort Bax who published The Fraud of Feminism (1913) in which he described the WSPU’s “tyrannical weakness”: “Weakness as such assuredly deserves all consideration, but aggressive weakness deserves none save to be crushed beneath the iron heel of strength”.

Bax was unusual in being so opposed to female suffrage, but many socialists hid their ambivalence behind formal conference commitments to female suffrage. “Socialist parties in Europe before the First World War were virtually alone in the political world in including an explicit demand for female suffrage in their programme”.45 However, this support for female suffrage often proved to be pragmatic and socialist parties tended to drop their commitment when it was expedient. Left socialists were dubious about the value of the vote and suspicious of focusing on parliamentary change. Moderate leaders often regarded female suffrage as inconvenient and so far-fetched it held up achievement of more practical reforms.

The German Social Democratic Party included a woman’s section which was one of the most innovative and important socialist women’s organisations and was led by Clara Zetkin. The Party’s Erfurt Programme (1871) incorporated support for the right to vote for everyone over 20, regardless of sex. The key campaigning strategy for female suffrage was International Women’s Day.46 On 19 March 1911, for example, tens of thousands of working class women were involved in actions, meetings, rallies and marches. The International Women’s Day protests were “a public demonstration of the fact that despite all the obstacles, women of the working classes were capable of organising their own political movement and of adding their own distinctive voice to the chorus of cries for the democratisation of European political systems”.47 This was at a time when street demonstrations were almost unheard of in Germany—the middle class German Union for Women’s Suffrage held only one demonstration and the participants took part in carriages, not on foot.

By 1914 nearly 175,000 women had joined the SPD even though women had been forbidden from joining opposition parties until 1908. The German Revolution of 1918 achieved suffrage. But the SPD leadership had been prepared to dump women’s suffrage in order to secure a parliamentary alliance with the Liberals. They only granted the vote and other political rights to pacify the militant crowds that gathered outside the Reichstag. The party’s leaders hoped that the vote would legitimate the parliamentary system and thus undermine the workers’ councils that were springing up.

In Russia too, female suffrage was inextricably bound to both socialist organisation and to revolution. In October 1905 Tsar Nicholas had been forced to concede a Duma, a parliament with very limited power, and with women excluded. Before the Duma was set up, men and women had a form of political equality—neither had any democratic rights. Now, with limited male suffrage, campaigns for women’s suffrage familiar in the West began to develop in Russia. A vigorous and effective feminist movement sought to bring together women of all classes to win the vote. The Russian Women’s League explicitly sought to unite ladies and their maids to campaign for the right to vote in Duma elections.

The Social Democrats argued that working class women had more in common with working class men than with the ladies who employed them. They wanted men and women to fight for expanded suffrage and for increased democracy. Some were suspicious that agitation aimed at women would lead to separatism. Kollontai sought to challenge the bourgeois feminists by proposing socialist solutions to women’s problems, based on increased wages, maternity leave and protective legislation. At the All-Russian Women’s Congress in December 1908 Kollontai organised a group of working women, all wearing red carnations on their cheap dresses, to put their case for social reforms. The well to do women seated on the platform hissed and stamped their feet as Kollontai’s Labour Group put forward their demands. Provoked, one shouted out: “What do you know of our lives, bowling along in your carriages while we get splashed with mud?” It was a pithy description of the gulf opening up between the socialists and the bourgeois feminists. Agitation for female suffrage continued after the February Revolution, with increasing numbers of working class women mobilising to fight for their rights. In July 1917 women were given the right to vote. Following the October Revolution, this political right was reinforced by a huge legislative programme aimed at breaking male control over women’s lives, their property, their sexuality and their families. Revolution delivered the vote for women and socialist revolution opened up the possibility of transforming every aspect of their lives.

Was female suffrage inevitable?

Some historians have argued that the Suffrage campaign was premature and its militancy was actually counterproductive. According to this view, British women over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote in 1918 because of their role in the First World War, when suffrage campaigning was suspended and many women replaced conscripted men in the factories. Young working class men had died in their hundreds of thousands during the war and there was enormous support for extending the right to vote to those who survived. However, that did not mean that women could simply have waited. Extending the vote to men but not women would have been difficult precisely because of the pre-war suffrage protests.

Another version of this argument focuses on the establishment’s fears that the Bolshevik Revolution might spread across Europe. Sylvia Pankhurst acknowledged the huge impact of the Russian Revolution: “The shock to the foundations of existing social institutions reverberating from Russia across Europe made many old opponents desire to enlist the new enthusiasm of women voters to stabilise the parliamentary machine”.48 However, that does not mean that women only won the vote because of events outside of their influence. Sylvia Pankhurst acknowledged both that the war work performed by women was a powerful argument for their enfranchisement and that the Russian Revolution was an important factor, yet she insisted: “The memory of the old militancy and the certainty of its reoccurrence if the claims of women were set aside was a much stronger factor”.49

There was a massive campaign against female suffrage and the terrible dangers of a “Petticoat Parliament”. In 1908 Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, launched the Anti-Suffrage League. The League collected thousands of signatures on petitions, published its own magazine and produced anti-suffrage propaganda. The Times articulated an important strand of anti-suffrage, pro-colonial thought:

Women’s suffrage is a more dangerous leap in the dark than it was in the 1860s because of the vast growth of the Empire, the immense increase of England’s imperial responsibilities, and therewith the increased complexity and risk of the problems which lie before our statesmen—constitutional, legal, financial, military, international problems—problems of men, only to be solved by the labour and special knowledge of men, and where the men who bear the burden ought to be left unhampered by the political inexperience of women.50

Predictably, “objective” scientific arguments also justified denying women the vote. In 1913 Almroth Wright, an eminent immunologist, wrote The Unexpurgated Case Against Woman Suffrage in which he argued that the distinct features of women’s brains rendered them incapable of understanding politics, particularly unmarried women because “unsatisfied sexuality is an intellectual disability”—presumably men were not similarly afflicted. These misogynistic views framed the national debate and they could only have been challenged by women fighting for change and overturning deeply entrenched prejudices.

Beyond Britain, the female franchise was granted at different times. Finland became the first European country to grant women the vote in 1906 and Denmark followed two years later. However, women did not get complete suffrage in Spain until 1931, in France until 1944, in Italy until 1945, in Greece until 1952 and in Switzerland until 1971. Some countries outside Europe introduced female suffrage decades before Britain did. The first American state to give women the vote was Wyoming Territory in 1869. Other US territories followed suit under pressure from a powerful suffrage campaign. A suffrage campaign achieved victory in New Zealand in 1893, the first country to grant women the vote. And suffrage campaigners won the vote in the Australian territories between 1894 and 1902. But in all these countries women and men from indigenous populations were excluded from political rights for many more years. The conditions under which women won the franchise varied enormously. It is, however, possible to discern a relationship between the strength of the female suffrage campaigns and the speed with which they won the vote. French women replaced men in the factories during the First World War but the women’s suffrage movement was weak. The number of women in the French Socialist Party never rose above 1,000 and they opposed any activities targeted at women. The women’s suffrage organisations, such as the National Council of Women and the French Union for Women’s Suffrage, were moderate and resolutely opposed uniting with working class women.51 The contrast between France and Britain suggests that it was the militant, sustained and widespread campaign waged by women that won the vote. British women over 30 could vote after 1918 and women over 21 were enfranchised in 1929. French women had to wait until their country was liberated from the Nazis in 1944.

Conclusion: schism

The deepening divisions with the suffrage movement were exacerbated by the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. Emmeline and Christabel suspended suffrage campaigning and became militant campaigners for the war. Annie Kenney described how they organised gigantic meetings with munitions and rail workers to explain the dangers of striking: “We called it the Anti-Bolshevist Campaign”.52 The NUWSS supported the war but did not join in any of these activities. Women like Ada Nield Chew and Selina Cooper opposed the war and joined the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The Women’s Freedom League campaigned for the Women’s Peace Crusade, involving women like Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth. Sylvia Pankhurst campaigned against the war, launching a socialist newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought (later renamed The Workers’ Dreadnought).

After the war Emmeline joined the Conservative Party and Christabel moved to the US, joining the evangelical Second Adventist movement. Mary Richardson, the woman who slashed the Rokeby Venus, went on to support Oswald Mosley’s fascists. For these women, the vote had become isolated from all the political and social issues that made achieving it meaningful. However, thousands of radical suffragists continued to fight for a better world. In 1920 Sylvia Pankhurst, Dora Montefiore and Adelaide Knight were among the founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. They were not the only Suffrage campaigners to embrace Communism. Nellie and Rose Cohen had been members of the East London Federation and joined the Communist Party. George Lansbury’s daughter Daisy, Irish activist May O’Callaghan and Scottish suffrage campaigner Helen Crawfurd also joined the CP.

Sylvia Pankhurst and Selina Cooper were very active in the movement against fascism in Britain and Europe and many thousands of suffrage campaigners went on to be part of the labour movement. Mary Gawthorpe emigrated to the US where she became a full-time organiser for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. Julia Scurr was elected to Poplar Council in November 1919 and was sent to prison together with four other women and 25 men for refusing to set a budget.

Ellen Wilkinson, who joined the NUWSS as a student socialist in 1912, became an NUWSS organiser, a trade union activist and a Labour councillor. She was active in supporting the General Strike of 1926 and wrote a book about her experiences. Wilkinson became Labour MP for Jarrow and organised the 1935 Jarrow hunger march. She argued for support for Republican Spain and in 1936 travelled to Republican cities with Clement Attlee. She became minister for education in the Labour government of 1945. We know of Wilkinson’s activism because she was a prominent MP but thousands of other suffragists who went on to support these socialist causes must have been forgotten by history.

The actions of working class women were key to winning all women the right to vote. They launched the movement across large areas of the country. They presented petitions to parliament, marched, were arrested and went on hunger strike. When the Suffragettes turned away from them and relied instead on decreasing numbers of committed middle class women, the radical suffragists continued to take the argument for women’s suffrage out to ordinary men and women, through trade union branches and guilds and in communities. These radicals created pro-suffrage labour organisations and won existing organisations to supporting female suffrage. They ensured that female suffrage did not narrow down to the Suffragettes’ war on Westminster, but broadened out into a mass movement with roots in communities across the whole country. Working class women created a tradition of struggle which led from Mary Wollstonecraft, through female suffrage and trade unionism, to the radical movements of the 1960s and beyond. They changed how women were seen and how they were valued. As Paul Foot wrote, the “militant women from 1906 to 1914 liberated themselves and hundreds and thousands of their sex from the condescension of past ages”.53

Judy Cox is a long-standing socialist who works as a teacher in Tower Hamlets. She is researching the role of women in the Chartist movement.


1 Liddington and Norris, 1978. The term Suffragettes usually refers to the women involved in the Women’s Social and Political Union which was militant, while the term Suffragist refers to the women around the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies which was moderate. This distinction can create the misleading impression that those who rejected the WSPU’s tactics in favour of winning mass support from the working class were less willing to break the law and challenge authority than the Suffragettes.

2 Liddington and Norris, 1978, p12.

3 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, quoted in Jackson and Taylor, 2014.

5 Gleadle, 2001, p12.

6 Schwarzkopf, 1991, p1.

7 Thompson, 2015, p44.

8 Edward Hamer, The Chartist Outbreak in Llanidloes, 1867, go to

9 See Schwarzkopf, 1991, p287, and Clark, 1995, p247.

10 Quoted in Foot, 2005, p174

11 Gleadle, 2001, p167.

12 Gleadle, 2001, p168.

13 Hunt, 2014, p17.

14 Hunt, 2014, p24.

15 Liddington, 2006, p414.

16 Jackson and Taylor, 2014, p24.

17 “Women Suffragists’ Case”, The Standard, 5 July 1906. Thanks to Martin Empson for sending me this report.

18 Jackson and Taylor, 2014, p42.

19 Pankhurst, 1977, pp395-396.

20 Purvis, 1996.

21 Constance Lytton, Prisons and Prisoners, quoted at

22 “Treatment of the Women’s Deputations by the Police”, published 1911, quoted in Anderson, 2015.

23 For more on this fascinating campaign see Liddington, 2014.

24 Liddington and Norris, 1978, p248.

25 Dangerfield, 1935, p156.

26 Liddington and Norris, 1978, p210.

27 Jackson, 2015.

28 Liddington, 2006, p72.

29 Brown, 2008.

30 Kollontai, 1921.

31 Casey, 2018.

32 Jackson and Taylor, 2014, p57.

33 Liddington and Norris, 1978, p124.

34 Crawford, 2013.

35 Connolly, 2013, p35.

36 Romero, 1990, p40.

37 Liddington, 2006, p134.

38 Jackson and Taylor, 2014, p39.

39 Various authors, 2016 [1907].

40 Foot, 2005, p218.

41 Foot, 2005, p217.

42 Rahman, 2014.

43 Rahman, 2014.

44 Evans, 1987, p66.

45 Evans, 1987, p76.

46 Evans, 1987, p68.

47 Evans, 1987, p75.

48 Pankhurst, 1977, p607.

49 Pankhurst, 1977, p607.

50 The Times, 27 February, 1909.

51 Evans, 1987, pp38-39.

52 Liddington and Norris, 1978, p252.

53 Foot, 2005, p236.


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