Tactics and Strategies of the English Militant Suffragettes

Ideas and Issues Voting Rights
Women's Social and Political Union in 1908

Dauphine Island         My friend and comrade, Mary Rowles, the organizing director of the British Columbia Government Employees Union (BCGEU) had recommended that I read Antonia Raeburn’s The Militant Suffragettes.  Thanks to the miracles of Amazon and the “long tail,” I was able to find a copy published in 1974 exclusively for the members of the United Kingdom’s Readers Union and available to them for four pounds.  Though 40 years ago doesn’t seem such a long time in some ways, the mannerly and reserved way the book is written seems to have arrived more than simply one other century away.   Written in the British vernacular for English readers familiar with the locations of London and the general United Kingdom geography, the book took some getting used to before I could really embrace its full merits, which turned out to be many when it comes to understanding the tactical toughness brought by these women to their struggle for the right for women to vote in the same way as men.   What is in some ways even more amazing is that the Suffragette Campaign and this very fundamental struggle was waged hardly a hundred years ago from 1904 to 1914 with the vote only finally being achieved as a war concession in January 1918.  Women finally got the universal vote in the United States, once again despite campaigns for many decades, as a war dividend, on August 20, 1920.

The militant wing was organized as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded and led by Emmeline Pankhurst along with her daughters after the death of Dr. Pankhurst who had been an advocate of women’s suffrage for years and author of several pieces of legislation dating to the mid-19th century, which had failed to pass despite wide support and petitions.  Mrs. Pankhurst’s WSPU was borne of the frustration that comes at the end of the chain, not the hope that comes with the fresh ideal and its moral rightness.  Furthermore, she and many of the leaders of the movement were “to the manor borne” in the sense that if not titled, they were well connected and came from solid professional and upper middle class circumstances in the main with all of the expectations of entitlements that come from such status.

The strategy though was expansive.  Their organizing focused on bringing in working class women, especially the numerous mill workers, and made huge efforts to expand throughout the country with a chapter structure and constant visitation by organizing “speakers.”  It was fascinating to read how smart and sensitive they were in organizing their base around what we now call “branding.”  Their marches, mass rallies, and demonstrations were filled with pageantry, their banners were everywhere, and their colors (violet, green, and white) became part of their uniform, their buttons, and their signposts.

But, their tactics were hard as nails and became more so as the campaign drew on.  In the early years it was fascinating how direct they were and how accessible government and elected leaders were even to protestors 100 years ago.  They would organize “doorknocking” actions, where “deputations” would literally seek to knock on the door of 10 Downing Street and engage the Prime Minister directly.  They would rise up to call for “Votes for Women” during the King’s Speech annually and massively disrupt the opening days of Parliament with crowds to women buttonholing office bearers as they ran the gauntlet through their numbers.  They would mobilize their members to chase down government officials at their summer homes, town houses, and on retreats and meetings routinely.  They specialized in disguises and sneak attacks that were clever, creative, and sometimes humorous.  There’s no way to read about these exchanges and not come away with firm views that Gladstone and Churchill, despite their vaunted reputations, were as caddish and ham-handed in handling suffragette movement and its protests as Indian Prime Minister Singh and Sonia Gandhi are in handling the protests today in Delhi.

To save printing costs rather than leaflet, they would have their members do “chalking” which meant to chalk the meeting notice on public sidewalks and other venues where the notices would be seen.  One tactic I loved took advantage of new technology offered then by the British postal service, they paid the price to send a “human message” directly to the Prime Minister, which meant that it had to be delivered by two of their members, who not surprisingly were denied a meeting once they gained entry to Downing Street.

Their reward for their disruptions was predictably arrests, and their members volunteered for what they called “danger duty,” where there was the understanding they would go to jail.  The hunger strike which was their most famous tactic was then triggered, since none of them would eat once they were jailed forcing the government to either insert a feeding tube or force feed them which was wildly controversial and polarizing, or let them go.  In 1913 and 1914, Mrs. Pankhurst was herself arrested 19 times and over the period of the campaign logged 9 hunger strikes.  One of their later deputations counted over 600 women in one section who represented by name and number the individual members of the WSPU who had been arrested.  As I said these were some tough sisters!   Their strategy was described by George Bernard Shaw as “eastern,” based on the principle that a man convinced of his rightness on a dispute would go to his enemy’s doorstep and refuse to eat until death, and if his enemy believed he was wrong, then he would allow him to die, but if his enemy agreed he was right, he would feed him.  For the women the principle was more plainly spoken.  Without the right to vote, they argued that no laws applied to them, since they were not a part of the passage of any of the laws.

Given that argument, every tactic became permissible and justifiable.   As various bills failed to make the floor or pass muster through conciliation committees or other attempts at resolving the constant conflict, the tactics became more militant and evolved to rock throwing, window breaking (including at #10 Downing Street!), and even arson.  Increased militancy guaranteed leadership conflict at the top of the WSPU, but the Pankhursts stayed their course at each turn.

They paid the bills through speaking tours and passing the hat through the crowd.  At one such event in London where Mrs. Pankhurst was speaking she raised 15,000 pounds from the crowd.  In 2012 US dollars that 1910 15000 pounds would be the equivalent to raising $696267 in one event!  Dues were important, but their real support came from subscriptions and sales of the organizational newspaper in its various forms over the years to their members and the public.

With the advent of WWI, the organization suspended militancy around women’s right to vote, and as the war ebbed the match of their earlier militancy, consistent leadership and support, continual lobbying, and strategic patriotism, finally secured them the vote.

George McGovern during his run-up to his race for President of the United States said at the time that “to be most radical, you had to appear most conservative.”  The militant English suffragettes seemed to have invented that concept by appearing to be the essence of English upstanding and matronly womanhood, and then hurling a stone through the window of a government building.

Where are these women when the world needs them now!

Mrs. Pankhurst Speaking to the Crowd
Mrs. Pankhurst getting arrested, one of many times.