The Pankhursts: bravery, autocracy, folly

Submitted by Matthew on 28 February, 2018 - 11:41 Author: Jill Mountford

Part two of Jill Mountford’s series on the history of the struggle for women’s suffrage. Part one of this series was published in Solidarity 462. Part three of this article will look at the work of socialist feminists and working class women in the fight for Votes for Women.


Women’s suffrage history is dominated by the militant campaign of the WSPU, led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, set up in 1903.

It is, in part, an inspiring story of wild bravery and passion, but it is also, a very incomplete story of the battle for votes for women. The story of the WSPU itself is often told in a one-sided way. Many feminists celebrate the bravery of the suffragettes, while turning a blind eye on the warts of the organisation, its politics and tactics. Blanking out the autocratic leadership, its exclusivity and repugnant degeneration, means ideas are not challenged, lesson are not learnt, and tens of thousands of women who also played a crucial role in the battle of votes for women are hidden and forgotten.

The WSPU was a relatively small organisation. It had between 4,000 and 5,000 members at its peak, compared to 53,000 members of the NUWSS. It was founded by the Pankhurst women (including Sylvia and Adela), and a few other women in the Independent Labour Party (ILP). In the early years, various socialist feminists, such as Dora Montefiore and Charlotte Despard were involved in the organisation.

In 1906, Emmeline and Christabel moved their campaign from Manchester to London (Sylvia was already there studying art) and quite quickly the organisation fell under the autocratic rule of Christabel. In 1907, on Christabel’s instruction, the WSPU abandoned its constitution, denying its own members the right to vote! She issued a press statement saying the WSPU made no distinction between the Conservative, Liberal and Labour Parties. The Pankhursts left the ILP, breaking their ties to the labour movement.

The lack of democracy in the WSPU led to a split in 1907. Charlotte Despard, Teresa Billington Grieg and Edith How Martyn, along with 75 others, left to form the Women’s Freedom League. Dora Montefiore left and got involved in the Adult Suffrage Society. Increasingly the WSPU became rigidly concerned with votes for “some” women as the militant campaign gathered pace.

More and more the WSPU refused to work with men, particularly, labour movement men. The organisation’s newspaper, Votes for Women, was openly against strikes and workers fighting for their rights. Christabel wrote “We would ask the Government if they propose to make the organisation of strikes punishable by law”. They excluded women who were not prepared, as Christabel put it “... to march in time with the WSPU”. She complained, “it was as though in the midst of battle the army had begun to vote on who should command it and what the strategy should be”. In 1912, increasingly frenzied, Christabel Pankhurst wrote a pamphlet entitled the The Great Scourge, claiming that 80% of all English men had venereal disease and were consciously infecting English women. Their newspaper adopted the slogan “Votes for Women, and Chastity for Men”.

Later that year Emmeline and Christabel “removed” Adela Pankhurst from the WSPU, giving her £30 and one way ticket to Australia. The next year Christabel, in self-imposed exile in a palace in Paris, summonsed Sylvia and expelled her too. Sylvia’s expulsion followed a long list of misdemeanours dating back to 1907 when Sylvia spoke at a by-election rally where she announced to the crowd that she was a socialist, and ending where she shared a platform with James Connolly, among others, at a rally for the Dublin strikers and the imprisoned Irish Transport and General Workers Union leader, Jim Larkin, in 1913.

At the outbreak of World War 1 the WSPU abandoned its militant struggle and fell in line behind the British government in support of the imperialist war. They took a £2,000 grant from the government to organise a mass demonstration of women in support of the war. Clad in their white dresses, symbolising their “purity”, they wandered the streets of London handing out white feathers to young men not wearing uniform. In their new gung-ho role they changed their paper’s name from The Suffragette to Britannia (it had changed from Votes for Women in 1912 after two long-standing central members were expelled, Emmeline and Frederick Pethwick Lawrence, for raising a disagreement about the arson campaign). In June 1917, Emmeline was encouraged by Prime Minister Lloyd George to go to Russia to bolster Russian women’s support for the war and against the revolution. In 1927 she stood as a Tory candidate for Parliament. Christabel became a rabid Second Adventist (linked to the Plymouth Brethren) in California, and was rewarded for her work with a Damehood in 1936.

The militant campaign began when Christabel Pankhurst was arrested and detained overnight for spitting in the face of a policeman after she and Annie Kenney were ejected from a Liberal Party meeting for causing disruption.

For the next nine years, until the outbreak of the First World War, the militant campaign escalated and more than 2000 women were arrested. They marched in their thousands; vigorously lobbied the government; heckled and disrupted the political business of Parliament; were consistently betrayed on promises made by politicians; threw rocks and smashed windows; burnt Royal Mail post boxes; and damaged art in the public domain.

In 1909, Marion Wallace Dunlop, an artist, member of the Fabian Women’s Group and activist in the WSPU, was the first hunger striker. Imprisoned for a month after refusing to pay a fine for wilfully damaging the stone work in St Stephen’s Hall with a rubber stamp and indelible ink, she wrote to the governor of Holloway demanding to be considered a political prisoner “as a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but the sake of others who may come after me, I am now refusing food until this matter is settled to my satisfaction”. Marion was released after 91 hours on hunger strike because the authorities feared making a martyr of her.

After this act of bravery many women went on hunger strike when imprisoned for suffrage activity. In 1909 the Liberal government introduced forcible feeding, claiming it was “ordinary hospital treatment” to preserve the lives of women.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s account of forced feeding is one of the most graphic and disturbing. She refers to the feeling of going mad and expresses in detail what a horrendous violation the process is. Fanny Parker, an irrepressible suffragette in Scotland, went on hunger strike many times and was once brutally forcibly fed through her rectum, a violation akin to rape.

In 1913, as hunger striking peaked and the Liberal government, fearing a suffragette martyr, introduced the “Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act”, known widely as the “Cat and Mouse Act”. It meant imprisoned women on hunger strike would be released from prison on licence to get well and once recovered would be rearrested to serve the rest of their sentence. Many would go on hunger strike on their return to prison only to be released again under licence and so it went on.

Socialist feminists today, as at that time, rightly take issue with the politics and many of the tactics employed by the WSPU in their militant campaign. But to fail to see elements of their campaign as brave, even heroic, is to miss an important point about how direct action and militant protest have an essential role to play in our fight for equality, justice and liberation. The WSPU was overwhelmingly made up of middle-class women, of bourgeois feminists, like most suffrage campaigns and organisations at that time, but the WSPU did attract and involve many working-class women and, for a period, socialist feminists. Some left labour movement politics to commit their time entirely to the WSPU. Others were inspired by women, regardless of their class, who were making their voices heard, who were expressing their anger about inequality and were willing to fight for improvement.

Annie Kenney was the most prominent working class woman in the WSPU. She was one of twelve children born in Yorkshire. She had very little formal education and became a millworker at the age of ten. Annie joined the WSPU in 1905 after hearing Christabel speak. They became intimate friends and allies and worked closely together from 1905 to 1915.

Other working class women passed through the WSPU. Some went on to join other women’s suffrage organisations, leaving over disputes about tactics and lack of democracy. Some joined adult suffrage campaigns and got involved in broader labour movement battles around the minimum wage, equal pay and rights at work for women.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.