Women's Social and Political Union
The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was the leading militant organization campaigning for Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom. It was the first group whose members were known as "suffragettes".
The WSPU was founded at the Pankhurst family home in Manchester on 10 October 1903 by six women, including Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, who soon emerged as the group's leaders. The WSPU had split from the non-militant National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, disappointed at the lack of success its tactics of persuading politicians through meetings had found.
The founders decided to form a women-only organisation, which would campaign for social reforms, largely in conjunction with the Independent Labour Party. They would also campaign for an extension of women's suffrage, believing that this was central to sexual equality. To illustrate their more militant stance, they adopted the slogan "Deeds, not words". By 1913 the WSPU appointed the fiercely militant feminist Norah Dacre Fox (later known as Norah Elam) as General Secretary. Dacre Fox operated as a highly effective propagandist delivering rousing speeches at the WSPU weekly meetings and writing many of Christabel Pankhurst's speeches.
In 1905, the group convinced the Member of Parliament Bamford Slack to introduce a women's suffrage bill, which was ultimately talked out, but the publicity spurred rapid expansion of the group. The WSPU changed tactics following the failure of the bill; they focused on attacking whichever political party was in government and refused to support any legislation which did not include enfranchisement for women. This translated into abandoning their initial commitment to also supporting immediate social reforms.
In 1906 the group began a series of demonstrations and lobbies of Parliament, leading to the arrest and imprisonment of growing numbers of their members. An attempt to achieve equal franchise gained national attention when an envoy of three hundred women, representing over 125,000 suffragettes argued for women's suffrage with the Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. The Prime Minister agreed with their argument but "was obliged to do nothing at all about it" and so urged the women to "go on pestering" and to exercise "the virtue of patience". Some of the women Campbell-Bannerman advised to be patient had been working for women's rights for as many as fifty years: his advice to "go on pestering" would prove quite unwise. His thoughtless words infuriated the protesters and "by those foolish words the militant movement became irrevocably established, and the stage of revolt began". Commenting on the phenomenon, Charles Hands, writing in the Daily Mail, for the first time described the WSPU's members as suffragettes. In 1907 the organisation held the first of several of their "Women's Parliaments".
The Labour Party then voted to support universal suffrage. This split them from the WSPU, which had always accepted the property qualifications which already applied to women's participation in local elections. Under Christabel's direction, the group began to more explicitly organise exclusively among middle class women, and stated their opposition to all political parties. This led a small group of prominent members to leave and form the Women's Freedom League.
Immediately following the WSPU/WFL split, in autumn 1907, Frederick and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence founded the WSPU's own newspaper, Votes for Women. The Pethick Lawrences, who were part of the leadership of the WSPU until 1912, edited the newspaper and supported it financially in the early years.
In 1908 the WSPU adopted purple, white, and green as its official colours. These colours were chosen by Emmeline Pethick Lawrence because "Purple...stands for the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette...white stands for purity in private and public life...green is the colour of hope and the emblem of spring". June 1908 saw the first major public use of these colours when the WSPU held a 300,000-strong "Women's Sunday" rally in Hyde Park.
In February 1907 the WSPU founded the Woman's Press, which oversaw publishing and propaganda for the organisation, and marketed a range of products from 1908 featuring the WSPU's name or colours. The woman's Press in London and WSPU chains throughout the UK operated stores selling WSPU products. Until January 1911, the WSPU's official anthem was "The Women's Marseillaise", a setting of words by Florence Macaulay to the tune of the Marseillaise. In that month the anthem was changed to "The March of the Women", newly composed by Ethel Smyth with words by Cicely Hamilton.
Campaigning becomes more militant
In opposition to the continuing and repeated imprisonment of many of their members, the WSPU introduced the prison hunger strike to Britain, and the authorities' policy of force feeding won the suffragettes great sympathy from the public. The government later passed the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913 (more commonly known as the "Cat and Mouse Act"), which allowed the release of suffragettes who were close to death due to malnourishment. Officers, however, could re-imprison them again once they were healthy. This was an attempt to avoid force-feeding.
A new suffrage bill was introduced in 1910, but growing impatient, the WSPU launched a heightened campaign of protest in 1912 on the basis of targeting property and avoiding violence against any person. Initially this involved smashing shop windows, but ultimately escalated to burning stately homes and bombing public buildings including Westminster Abbey. It also famously led to the death of Emily Davison as she was trampled by the King's horse, Anmer, (over which she was attempting to drape a suffragette banner) at the Epsom Derby in 1913.
Included in the many militant acts performed were the burning of churches, restaurants, and railway carriages, smashing government windows weekly, cutting telephone lines, spitting at police and politicians, partial destruction of the home of then-Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, cutting and burning pro-suffrage slogans into stadium turf, sending letter bombs, destroying greenhouses at Kew gardens, chaining themselves to railings and blowing up houses. A doctor was attacked with a rhino whip and in one case suffragettes rushed the House of Commons. On 18 July 1912, Mary Leigh threw a hatchet at Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith. On 10 March 1914 suffragette Mary Richardson (known as one of the most militant activists, also called "Slasher" Richardson) walked into the National Gallery and attacked Diego Velázquez's Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver. In 1913 suffragette militancy caused £54,000 worth of damage, £36,000 of which occurred in April alone.
The organisation also suffered divisions. The editors of Votes for Women, Frederick and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, were expelled in 1912, causing the WSPU to launch a new journal, The Suffragette, edited by Christabel Pankhurst. The East London Federation of mostly working class women and led by Sylvia Pankhurst was expelled in 1914.
WSPU during World War I
On the outbreak of war, Christabel Pankhurst was living in Paris, in order to run the organisation without fear of arrest. Her autocratic control enabled her, over the objections of Kitty Marion and others, to declare on the outbreak of World War I that the WSPU should abandon its campaigns in favour of a nationalistic stance supporting the British government in the war. The WSPU stopped publishing The Suffragette, and in April 1915 it launched a new journal, Britannia. While the majority of WSPU members supported the war, a small number formed the Suffragettes of the Women's Social Political Union (SWSPU) and the Independent Women's Social and Political Union (IWSPU). The WSPU faded from public attention, and was dissolved in 1917, with Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst founding the Women's Party.
Notable members of WSPU
- List of suffragists and suffragettes
- List of women's rights activists
- List of women's rights organizations
- Timeline of women's suffrage
- Women's suffrage organizations
- Mary Davis, Sylvia Pankhurst (Pluto Press, 1999) ISBN 0-7453-1518-6
- McPherson, Angela; McPherson, Susan (2011). Mosley's Old Suffragette - A Biography of Norah Elam. ISBN 978-1-4466-9967-6.
- Ray Strachey, The Cause: A Short History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain p.301
- Quotation from the journal Votes for Women in 1908 cited by David Fairhall, Common Ground, Tauris, 2006 p 31.
- John Mercer, "Shopping for Suffrage: The Campaign Shops of the Women's Social and Political Union", Women's History Review, 2009, doi:10.1080/09612020902771053
- Purvis, June (2002). Emmeline Pankhurst: a Biography. London: Routledge. p. 157. ISBN 0-415-23978-8.
- Crawford, Elizabeth (2001). The Women's Suffrage Movement: a Reference Guide, 1866–1928. London: Routledge. p. 645. ISBN 0-415-23926-5.
- Bennett, Jory (1987). Crichton, Ronald, ed. The Memoirs of Ethel Smyth: Abridged and Introduced by Ronald Crichton, with a list of works by Jory Bennett. Harmondsworth: Viking. p. 378. ISBN 0-670-80655-2.
- Spartacus: Kitty Marion