The Problem With The Suffragettes

Artwork by Natasha Slee.
25th April 1906: Tess Billington carries a banner inscribed with the suffragette slogan 'Votes For Women' during a demonstration in the Ladies Gallery in the House of Commons, London.
This month, we mark the long-awaited centenary of women’s partial suffrage: 100 years since some, but not all, British women were first granted the right to vote under the Representation of the People Act 1918. The anniversary (as well as scoring us the first statue of a woman in Parliament Square, of Millicent Fawcett, designed by Gillian Wearing) will provide a moment of retrospection, to look at just how far we’ve come in terms of women’s rights in Britain and to stop and offer gratitude to our feminist ancestors. But it’s also a time to look back at groups like the suffragettes more critically, and ask ourselves: Were they really as great as they’re cracked up to be?
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Contact any historian about the suffragettes and they’ll first point out that these women were not the only people who fought for women’s right to vote, although they might be the most notorious. “Suffrage movement” or “suffragists” describe the broader, nationwide campaign for a women’s vote, which included men and encouraged peaceful campaigning. The “suffragettes” were a specific women-only group which engaged in militant and sometimes violent forms of protest. Millicent Fawcett was best described as a suffragist, while the women of the Pankhurst family – mother Emmeline, and daughters Christabel and Sylvia – were among the suffragettes’ leaders.
The suffragettes were and remain controversial: they went on hunger strikes, smashed up public property, and one woman – Emily Davison – even died for the vote, running onto the racetrack at Epsom Derby in 1913 (although her exact intentions are unclear). According to historian Katherine Connelly, these extreme tactics should be viewed in context: “I think the British state had never granted a reform without feeling very afraid; what the militant suffragettes realised was that they were going to have to force the government to give women the vote.” Connelly believes that one of the biggest problems with the suffragettes, however, was letting this governmental pressure compromise their politics and tactics over time, to “accept the idea of something more conservative, like a vote for a smaller group of women.”
In the early days, she explains, when the women of the Pankhurst family formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, their politics were socialist-leaning: “Emmeline and her husband Richard Pankhurst were involved in the Labour Party and identified with the socialist movement,” says the historian. “Yet, over time, Emmeline and Christabel moved away from wanting to include working class women towards a more elitist ethos. They dismissed working class women as the weakest in society and the least educated, while realising that enlisting middle class women [to perform militant acts] got them more press coverage, made a bigger splash.” In other words, they gave in to the inequalities of Edwardian society.
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Artwork by Anna Jay.
Procession banners for the Woman Suffrage Party and Votes For Women.
Sylvia Pankhurst, meanwhile, disagreed with her mother and sister, resulting in her being expelled from the WSPU in 1914. Connelly’s biography of Sylvia explains how she wanted working class women like the famous suffragette Annie Kenney to be at the forefront of the movement. “Sylvia placed a great importance on self-emancipation and wanted working class women to have influence over their own lives,” Connelly explains. “She wanted women getting the vote to be a moment when far-reaching social change would be realised and thought that would not happen if the vote was given to just a small portion of the population.”
Sylvia Pankhurst’s methods differed from those of her mother and sister, too: she wanted to achieve the vote by linking women’s suffrage up to the other causes of the time, like the labour movement, trade unions and those in the factories fighting for better conditions and pay. “Emmeline and Christabel, however, wanted women’s suffrage to be a single-issue campaign,” says Connelly, who believes that Emmeline and Christabel’s compromises produced a “crisis in the suffragette movement”, whereby they were “relying on smaller groups of women for greater acts of sacrifice” while persecution from the state was getting worse.
From Sylvia’s viewpoint, and her campaign tactics, you could argue that she was a more intersectional feminist by today’s standards; she didn’t see feminism in isolation from class. The historian Dr. Sumita Mukherjee, an expert on the British Empire and the Indian subcontinent, working at Bristol University, raises concerns about the suffragettes' general approach to women of colour, however. When the film Suffragette was released in 2015, members of the activist group Sisters Uncut publicly denounced its lack of inclusion of women of colour, and Sumita says the original movement was not particularly inclusive either.
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“It was not a very diverse movement at all,” Sumita explains over the phone. “It’s unclear whether there is just not much documentation, but more likely that there weren’t many women of colour involved.” We have to place this in context, she adds: “There were fewer women of colour in the UK than, say, America at that time, and the British public was not having the same dialogue we have today around ideas of citizenship; a lot of suffragettes wouldn't have thought of the population of women of colour as British citizens.” So who were the women of colour in the movement?
Artwork by Anna Jay.
Votes for Women admission ticket to Hyde Park demonstration organised by the Women's Social and Political Union on Sunday 21st June 1908, in the purple, white and green horizontal stripes of the WSPU. The event attracted more than 250,000 people.
“Specifically not really any women of African descent, although some Indian women living in the UK were involved.” Sumita points to a famous photo of a suffragette-organised procession featuring Indian women in saris on 17th June 1911. “It was almost like they were parading these women, to demonstrate the influence they [the suffragettes] wanted to have over empire,” says the historian, before pointing to another Indian woman involved in the movement, princess Sophia Duleep Singh, a close ally of Emmeline whose “race was never really mentioned, probably because she was wealthy and from an aristocratic background,” according to Sumita.
In terms of attitudes to race and colonialism, on the whole, says Sumita, there was not much discussion at that time of wanting to dissolve empire. Some suffragists and suffragettes stated that they wanted the vote so that they could have influence over what happened across the British Empire, or expressed outrage that women of colour in other countries were granted the vote before white women in Britain (Maori women in New Zealand, for example, had the right to vote from 1893). Sumita concludes that the biggest issue is that white British suffrage campaigners were just not really thinking about women of colour and including them as equals within the movement. "It just didn’t occur to many of them," she says.
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Julie Gottlieb, who teaches the history of women’s suffrage and feminism at the University of Sheffield and has written several books on women and 20th century British politics, came to study the suffragettes in an unusual way, one which highlights the lesser known political trajectory of some of the women involved in the suffragette movement. When she was writing her book on women and British fascism, she uncovered that three of the women involved in Oswald Mosley's fascist movement had been active militant suffragettes. “It was not the norm – that needs to be stressed – but somehow these women took a route from feminist militancy to fascism by the 1930s,” says Julie.
Artwork by Meg O'Donnell
British suffragette Annie Kenney (1879–1953).
One of these women was Mary Richardson or “Slasher Mary”, the suffragette who committed one of the group’s most sensational acts when she went into the National Gallery in 1914 and slashed Velázquez's "Rokeby Venus" in protest at Emmeline Pankhurst’s recent arrest. The second was Norah Elam, who lasted much longer in the fascist movement than Richardson; “because of this she was interned under the Defence Regulations in the Second World War and sent back to Holloway Prison, where she’d been sent for her militant acts during the suffragette movement,” says Julie. The last was Mary Allen, who as a suffragette had thrown stones at the Home Office. She joined Mosley's movement in 1940.
“What they said that they saw in the fascist movement was the same spirit, militancy and revolutionary spirit that they had experienced in the suffragette movement under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst, who was a charismatic authoritarian leader,” Julie explains, emphasising that “people assume being a radical feminist means you’re on the left but we need to look at women on the right too because they were not completely absent.” While Sylvia went on to become more left-wing after 1918, Julie says the war provided a catalyst for Emmeline and Christabel’s move to the right: “They became nationalists in supporting the war effort, which was not the majority position among suffragettes, many of whom took a pacifistic position.” At the end of her life, Emmeline stood as a Conservative candidate, but she died before the election in 1929.
All in all then, it seems the suffragettes were a broad church of people uniting under one common goal, and at times struggling to agree on how it ought to be achieved. Julie admits that 100 years after the movement, historians and feminists remain just as divided about the suffragettes’ legacy as the suffragettes themselves were: “They are heroic figures but like with any group, look closely and you realise that flaws exist; no heroine is a perfect heroine.”
Sumita meanwhile reminds us that their failure to include working class women and women of colour in the movement has parallels to more contemporary feminist movements, and serves as a reminder of how, “when thinking about gender, we also need to think about the challenges of race, class, and sexuality too.”
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