The Achievements of the "Women’s Social and Political Union" (WSPU)

The Impact of WWI on the Suffragette Movement

Pre-University Paper, 2019

32 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Background
2.1 The conventional image of women
2.2 Formation of the Women’s Suffrage Movement

3 Beginnings of the WSPU
3.1 The Pankhurst family
3.2 Founding of the WSPU
3.3 Notable members
3.4 Aim

4 Tactics and campaigning
4.1 First strategies and attempts
4.2 Marches and by-elections
4.3 Partition of the Union
4.4 Radicalisation of tactics
4.4.1 The Women’s Suffrage Bill
4.4.2 Window-breaking and arson
4.4.3 The rush on Parliament
4.5 Radical protest
4.6 Hunger strikes and force feeding
4.7 The Conciliation Bill and “Black Friday”
4.8 Failure of conciliation
4.9 The window-breaking campaign
4.10 “Guerilla Warfare”
4.10.1 The Cat and Mouse Act
4.10.2 The Derby

5 The change during World War I

6 Conclusion


Print media

Internet sources

List of abbreviations


Citizens of developed nations often do not appreciate the right to vote and assume that it applies to all people regardless of their sex. However, at the end of the 19th century women in the UK were excluded from the voting registers because they were considered to be subordinate to men, and thus several women’s suffrage organisations, which demanded the right to vote for women on the same basis as men in order to participate in policy and decision making, were formed. This scholarly paper focuses on the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which was a militant and radical women’s suffrage organisation, and its political and social achievements between 1903 and 1914. It aims to analyse how the strategies and tactics of the WSPU changed and developed over the years and to what extent they contributed to the achievement of women’s suffrage.

In general, it can be said that the militant campaigns of the WSPU were only partly successful because they did not convince leading politicians that the introduction of women’s suffrage would be a positive political development. Instead, women in the UK gained the right to vote because they were able to prove their value to society during World War I. However, it cannot be denied that the implementation of militant tactics was important for the women themselves because they realised that they were able to advocate their opinions and wishes in a world which was dominated by men, which marked the first step to modern feminism.

1 Introduction

In our society the right to vote is taken for granted and many people even refuse to take part in elections because of indifference to political developments. Those people are not aware of the fact that they give up their right to be heard as well as their right to participate in policy and decision making, rights which were decades in the making for many underprivileged groups such as women.

At the end of the 19th century women in the UK, who had been excluded from the voting registers because they had been regarded as their husbands’ property, started to demand suffrage on the same basis as men in order to be able to participate in politics and to achieve female independence as well as legal equality. Several women’s suffrage groups, which organised campaigns in order to gain the attention of leading politicians, were formed.

This scholarly paper focuses on the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which was a militant and radical women’s suffrage organisation, and its political achievements between 1903 and 1914. First, this paper will analyse how the tactics and strategies of the WSPU changed and developed over the years, and how authorities reacted to these new developments. Furthermore, it will address to what extent the formation of the Suffragette Movement and the use of violent tactics contributed to the achievement of women’s suffrage and in which way WWI represented a turning point concerning the image of women.

Considering that these questions cannot be answered empirically, the methodological procedure is exclusively based on literary research, for which print and online sources are used.

This paper consists of four main chapters and a conclusion. In the first chapter the background and the formation of the Women’s Suffrage Movement will be explained. The description of the conventional image of women in the 19th century plays an important role because it illustrates the prevalent haughtiness toward women. The second part of the paper includes a short biography of Emmeline Pankhurst and explains why and how she founded the WSPU. In the third chapter the tactics, strategies and achievements of the WSPU as well as the reactions of the authorities will be listed and described chronologically. In the fourth chapter the impact of WWI on the Suffragette Movement and the changes in the image of women will be analysed. Additionally, the extent to which the legal framework was gradually adapted to the new circumstances until women finally gained the right to vote in 1928 will be discussed.

2 Background

At the beginning of the 19th century exclusively men with a defined amount of property or land were enfranchised, which meant that about 4,500 male citizens were allowed to vote, while the total population amounted to roughly 2.6 million people (cf. Housego/Storey 2013: 4). Consequently, some radical reformers pressed the government to expand this liberty, which led to three Reform Acts in 1832, 1867 and 1884. These acts widened the franchise to 6 million men, but women were still excluded from the voting registers (cf. Housego/Storey 2013: 5).

The reason why women were not granted participation in political issues can be explained by the conventional image of women as mothers and housekeepers which prevailed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

2.1 The conventional image of women

In Victorian England it was a common belief that women’s abilities and personalities were directly influenced by their anatomy, which led to several stereotypes due to which women were regarded as subservient to men. Aside from the fact that women were considered to have smaller brains than men, they were thought to be controlled by their instincts and emotions because their minds were influenced by their sexual functions including childbearing (cf. Phillips 2004: 63-64). It was believed that intellectual work would cause gynaecological disorders because of the increased energy expenditure of the brain. This energy was thought to be drawn off the reproductive system, and therefore women were not supposed to become doctors or lawyers (cf. Phillips 2004: 65).

Additionally, women were not treated equally regarding legal issues. When a married man committed adultery, there were no legal consequences, but when adultery was committed by a married woman, it was treated as a crime worse than theft. In 1857 the Matrimonial Cause Act, which aggravated the legal framework, was passed. (cf. Phillips 2004: 69). The reinforced inequality is illustrated in the following quotation:

“The 1857 Matrimonial Cause Act, which held that a man could divorce his wife for adultery alone but a wife needed additional grounds such as cruelty or desertion, was an open sore, implicitly holding that adultery was a natural act when committed by men, but unnatural when committed by women.” (Phillips 2004: 69)

In summary, women were legally oppressed because they were considered to be less intelligent than men and were additionally seen as their husbands’ property (cf. Phillips 2004: 70). In the late 19th century the situation slowly began to change, when women started to demand equal treatment and rights. The right to vote became an important issue to women because it was the key to political participation and social freedom.

2.2 Formation of the Women’s Suffrage Movement

Although women’s suffrage became a common topic of conversation, it was not discussed in Parliament until John Stuart Mill in 1865 announced that he was planning the introduction of a women’s suffrage amendment to the Second Reform Bill of 1867. This plan was received enthusiastically among women all over the country. Despite the fact that roughly 1,500 women had signed a petition demanding the right to vote for all householders without consideration of the sex in 1866, the Second Reform Bill only extended suffrage to men with low income. Parliament had rejected John Stuart Mill’s proposal to enfranchise women (cf. Housego/Storey 2013: 6).

However, the above-mentioned petition had shown that there were many supporters of women’s suffrage, and so multiple women’s suffrage groups were founded. In 1867 Lydia Becker created the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, which became the first national organisation with the aim to gain women’s suffrage. Moreover, some spin-off groups, which supported other relevant issues concerning women’s rights, were formed. Two examples were the Women’s Liberal Association and the Conservative Primrose League, which tried to prove that women were able to make political decisions to the same extent as men (cf. Housego/Storey 2013: 6-7).

Another notable spin-off group was the Women’s Franchise League, which was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, who later became the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, in 1889. This organisation was in favour of equal rights for women regarding divorce and inheritance, but it lost many members because of its radical strategies and was liquidated after only one year. (cf. Housego/Storey 2013: 9)

Due to the fact that there were many different opinions concerning tactics and political affiliation within the spin-off groups, they gradually alienated themselves from each other. Militancy was a disputed issue, which most of the groups did not agree with. As an attempt to unite some of the groups, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed in 1897, and it encompassed seventeen former spin-off organisations. Millicent Fawcett, who was in favour of peaceful tactics, became the first president, and the NUWSS became a moderate and non-militant organisation (cf. Housego/Storey 2013: 9).

However, Emmeline Pankhurst was convinced that voting rights for women could not be gained with non-violent strategies, and so she later founded another women’s suffrage group which she intended to be the exact opposite of the NUWSS.

3 Beginnings of the WSPU

Since the previous women’s suffrage groups had failed in making any progress with their moderate tactics, it was time for a new organisation with more effective strategies, which would finally raise the politicians’ attention on women’s suffrage (cf. Housego/Storey 2013: 13). Consequently, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 alongside a group of socialist women, with the intention to win the right to vote through violence and militancy. It became one of the most famous and at the same time most controversial groups within the Suffragette Movement (cf. Phillips 2004: 165).

Emmeline Pankhurst emerged as the WSPU ’s leader and her radical ideas influenced the character of the union directly.

3.1 The Pankhurst family

Emmeline Pankhurst, born in Manchester as Emmeline Goulden, became acquainted with feminist ideas during her youth because of her parents, who were both supporters of women’s suffrage. Manchester used to be the centre of the women’s emancipation movement, and so women’s suffrage was a common topic of conversation (cf. Phillips 2004: 145).

In 1878 she first met her future husband Dr Richard Marsden Pankhurst, who was a successful barrister, at a political meeting. Although his political career was rather unsuccessful because of his inability to attract ordinary voters with his inclination to radical policies, Emmeline Pankhurst was charmed with him because she saw the key to an influential and successful political career for herself in him, which is reflected in the following quotation (cf. Phillips 2004: 146-147):

“She wanted to marry an important man. She thought Richard was a fast-rising public figure and she wanted to be his partner in the inevitable triumph. An early marriage to him was a ticket not to domesticity but to a public and political role for herself. As her daughter Christabel was later to observe: ‘Mother’s career began with her marriage.’” (Phillips 2004: 147)

They married in 1879 and owned residences in Manchester and London (cf. Housego/Storey 2013: 12). Emmeline Pankhurst gave birth to five children during the following years, one of which died at the age of four (cf. Phillips 2004: 148).

The four remaining children were raised with considerable emphasis on contributing to society, so they were forced to prove the worth of their own existence by working for others. The Pankhursts demanded implicit obedience and discipline from their children and treated each of them differently, which was the reason why they became individual thinkers with various opinions and personalities. Particularly notable are the three daughters of the Pankhursts, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, who were all engaged in the Suffragette Movement and pursued successful political careers (cf. Phillips 2004: 148-149).

When Richard Pankhurst suffered from financial pressures, the family moved back to Manchester, and they joined the Independent Labour Party. While working for the ILP, Emmeline Pankhurst began to recognise the problems women were facing, and consequently her interest in women’s suffrage increased. Her experiences are shown in the following passage:

“In 1894 Mrs Pankhurst was elected to the Chorlton Board of Poor Law Guardians. Her experiences here opened her eyes to the desperate poverty of women. Most who came her way were paid starvation wages, and when they could no longer work they often ended in the workhouse. Pregnant women or mothers with babies were treated abominably when they applied for out-relief, and she began to see the vote not as a right but as a ‘desperate necessity’.” (Phillips 2004: 160)

When Dr Richard Pankhurst died of a gastric ulcer in 1898, Emmeline Pankhurst appeared strong and determined in public, but her daughter Christabel pointed out that she was fiercely trying to hide her sadness (cf. Housego/Storey 2013: 12).

During the following years Emmeline Pankhurst focused on her political career and women’s suffrage, and so she later emerged as the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, one of the most influential groups within the Suffragette Movement.

3.2 Founding of the WSPU

On February 27th, 1900, representatives of Britain’s socialist groups, including the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Socialists, established a Labour Representation Committee in Parliament in order to facilitate cooperation between parties which might be involved in promoting legislation concerning labour. Emmeline Pankhurst hoped that this new Labour Party would support women’s suffrage to the same extent as men’s, but there were several different opinions about this topic within the party. She dared to criticise the party and was consequently accused of seeking self-importance rather than democratic freedom, which was the reason why she left the Labour Party (cf. Simkin 1997: #Women’s Social & Political Union (Suffragettes)).

On October 10th,1903, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in Manchester together with a group of female socialists. This organisation aimed to separate itself from the other women’s suffrage groups, which wanted to achieve women’s suffrage through peaceful and legal means, and so the members intended to use direct action, militancy and violence in order to gain the right to vote (cf. Housego/Storey 2013: 13).

Emmeline Pankhurst decided to limit the membership exclusively to women because she wanted the organisation to be free from any party affiliation and to be able to focus on action, and so “Deeds, not words” became the WSPU ’s slogan (cf. Simkin 1997: #Women’s Social & Political Union (Suffragettes)).

While the adherents of former suffrage campaigns were commonly known as “suffragists”, the members of the WSPU were called “suffragettes”, a difference which illustrated the group’s uniqueness in comparison to its predecessors (cf. Phillips 2004: 165). The WSPU became one of the most famous groups within the Suffragette Movement in Great Britain because of its militancy and its resolute members, who were ready to make sacrifices for their goal.

3.3 Notable members

Aside from Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter Christabel, who intended to support her mother’s ideas, there were a lot of other women who decided to become suffragettes because they had encountered social injustice and wanted to make a change. The most notable members of the WSPU were the women mentioned in the following five paragraphs:

One of the most famous suffragettes was Christabel Pankhurst, who was the eldest daughter of Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst. She was a co-founder of the WSPU and was among the first suffragettes to be imprisoned in 1905 because of having interrupted a Liberal Party meeting (cf. Homewood 2008: #About Sylvia Pankhurst). Christabel was in favour of violent tactics for which she got arrested regularly, and in 1912 she had to flee to Paris in order to avoid further imprisonments (cf. Simkin 1997: #Christabel Pankhurst). In 1921 she moved to the USA where she became a member of the Second Adventist Movement (cf. Homewood 2008: #About Sylvia Pankhurst).

Additionally, it is worth mentioning that Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst also joined the WSPU for several years but were both dissatisfied with the militant strategies of the union, which was the reason why they alienated themselves from their mother’s ideas and started to pursue their own political careers (cf. Homewood 2008: #About Sylvia Pankhurst).

Another important member of the WSPU was Annie Kenney, who spent most of her childhood working in a local cotton mill. She decided to join the WSPU in 1905, after she had heard a speech on women’s rights by Christabel Pankhurst. She was the only working-class woman who held a leading position as an organiser within the WSPU and helped to persuade other working-class women to join the organisation (cf. Simkin 1997: #Annie Kenney).

One example of a very determined suffragette is Emily Wilding Davison, who joined the WSPU in 1906 and dedicated her whole life to the cause. She was involved in numerous demonstrations and militant operations for which she was imprisoned several times. During her time in prison she went on hunger strikes regularly, and consequently had to be force-fed. Believing that the Suffragette Movement needed a martyr to gain more recognition, Emily committed suicide by throwing herself in front of a running horse at the Derby in 1913 (cf. Simkin 1997: #Emily Davison).

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence is another example of an exceptionally notable suffragette. She encountered extreme poverty during her time as a voluntary social worker at the West London Methodist Mission and as a result she became a convinced socialist (cf. Simkin 1997: #Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence). In 1905 she joined the WSPU, and together with her husband Frederick Lawrence, who was a successful businessman, she worked as a business manager for the union. Due to their marketing skills and good contacts they were able to promote the WSPU ’s campaigns effectively (cf. Housego/Storey 2013: 17).

In general, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst were able to attract dissatisfied women, who wanted to find a deeper sense in life, and the WSPU gave them the chance to become strong individuals working together for a common goal. The new female self-confidence led to a change of women’s self-perception because they did not feel dependent on their husbands and did not adapt their behaviour to conventional standards (cf. Phillips 2004: 172).

The aforementioned women are examples of emancipated and involved suffragettes, who dedicated their lives to achieving the union’s aim.

3.4 Aim

In line with all the other groups within the Suffragette Movement, the WSPU aimed to achieve the right to vote for women. However, the WSPU was not in favour of universal suffrage, which meant “[…] the vote for all women and men over a certain age […]” (Simkin 1997: #Women’s Social & Political Union (Suffragettes)). They intended to achieve the right to vote “[…] ‘on the same basis as men’ […]” (Simkin 1997: #Women’s Social & Political Union (Suffragettes)), which meant “[…] winning the vote not for all women but for only the small stratum of women who could meet the property qualification” (Simkin 1997: #Women’s Social & Political Union (Suffragettes)).

The WSPU had to face criticism for this definition of suffrage, since working-class women would not benefit from the union’s success, although they were actively engaged in the Suffragette Movement (cf. Simkin 1997: #Women’s Social & Political Union (Suffragettes)).

Despite these accusations, the WSPU would pursue its goals fiercely (cf. Simkin 1997: #Women’s Social & Political Union (Suffragettes)). The union used direct action, including violent tactics, in order to gain the vote, which was its most striking characteristic (cf. Phillips 2004: 165).

4 Tactics and campaigning

The WSPU became especially famous for its militant and violent tactics, which became increasingly radical throughout the years. The suffragettes started their campaign by disturbing political meetings, organising marches and campaigning at by-elections, but after having been neglected by the government, they turned to smashing windows, committing arson, going on hunger strikes in prison and many other violent strategies. In the following paragraphs the development of the WSPU ’s tactics and strategies as well as the reactions of the authorities are going to be explained.

4.1 First strategies and attempts

According to Emmeline Pankhurst, the WSPU ’s militancy started on May 12th, 1905, when she organised a spontaneous protest as a reaction to the denial of another Women’s Suffrage Bill in Parliament (cf. Meeres 2014: 29).

However, the WSPU caused a stir on October 13th, 1905, when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney disturbed a political meeting held by Cabinet minister Sir Edward Grey in Manchester Free Trade Hall by holding up a banner with the inscription “Votes for Women”. After a conflict with the police, they were ejected from the meeting. They were arrested and finally imprisoned because they did not pay the demanded fine. This event was striking because not only was it the first time that suffragettes were sent to prison for their actions, but also the first attempt to implement the tactic of targeting a certain politician for disturbance, which became a common strategy of the WSPU (cf. Meeres 2014: 29).

The new development of the Suffragette Movement led to much publicity, which was positive for the campaign because of the increased public attention. After some time however, the organisation’s tactics had to become more extreme in order to remain in the public eye. Although women were actively vying for the attention of leading politicians, the general elections, which took place in January 1906, did not bring any progress concerning women’s suffrage, and so women had to go on taking direct action (cf. Meeres 2014: 30).


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The Achievements of the "Women’s Social and Political Union" (WSPU)
The Impact of WWI on the Suffragette Movement
Bundesrealgymnasium Innsbruck  (BRG/BORG St. Pölten)
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ISBN (eBook)
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suffragette movement
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Sophie Jeitler (Author), 2019, The Achievements of the "Women’s Social and Political Union" (WSPU), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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