Women's Social and Political Union

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Women's Social and Political Union
Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst.jpg
Annie Kenney (left) and Christabel Pankhurst, c. 1908
Formation10 October 1903
FoundersEmmeline Pankhurst
Christabel Pankhurst
Founded at62 Nelson Street, Manchester, England
TypeWomen-only political movement
PurposeVotes for women
Motto"Deeds, not words"
MethodsDemonstrations, marches, direct action, hunger strikes

The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was a women-only political movement and leading militant organisation campaigning for women's suffrage in the United Kingdom from 1903 to 1918.[1] Known from 1906 as the suffragettes, its membership and policies were tightly controlled by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia (although Sylvia was eventually expelled).

The WSPU membership became known for civil disobedience and direct action. It heckled politicians, held demonstrations and marches, broke the law to force arrests, broke windows in prominent buildings, set fire to post boxes, committed night-time arson of unoccupied houses and churches, and—when imprisoned—went on hunger strike and endured force-feeding.

Early years[edit]

The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded as an independent women's movement on 10 October 1903 at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester, home of the Pankhurst family.[2] Emmeline Pankhurst, along with two of her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, and her husband, Richard, before his death in 1898, had been active in the Independent Labour Party (ILP), founded in 1893 by former Scottish miner Keir Hardie, a family friend.[3] (Hardie later founded the Labour Party.)

Emmeline Pankhurst had increasingly felt that the ILP was not there for women.[3] On 9 October 1903, she invited a group of ILP women to meet at her home the next day, telling them: "Women, we must do the work ourselves. We must have an independent women's movement. Come to my house tomorrow and we will arrange it!"[4] Membership of the WSPU was open to women only, and it had no party affiliation.[3]

62 Nelson Street, where the WSPU was formed

In 1905, the group convinced the Liberal MP Bamford Slack to introduce a women's suffrage bill; it 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.[5]

The term "suffragette" was first used in 1906 as a term of derision by the journalist Charles E. Hands in the London Daily Mail to describe activists in the movement for women's suffrage, in particular members of the WSPU.[6][7][8] But the women he intended to ridicule embraced the term, saying "suffraGETtes" (hardening the 'g'), implying not only that they wanted the vote, but that they intended to 'get' it.[9]

Also 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 300 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".[10]

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".[10] In 1907, the organisation held the first of several of their "Women's Parliaments".[5]

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.[5]

Campaigning develops[edit]

WSPU meeting, c. 1908. Emmeline Pankhurst stands (left) by the table on the platform.
Portrait badge of Emmeline Pankhurst, c. 1909, sold by the WSPU to raise funds

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".[11] 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.

Flag of the Women's Social and Political Union. Purple represents loyalty and dignity, white for purity, and green for hope.[12][13]

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.[14] A board game named Suffragetto was published circa 1908. Until January 1911, the WSPU's official anthem was "The Women's Marseillaise",[15] a setting of words by Florence Macaulay to the tune of "La Marseillaise".[16] In that month the anthem was changed to "The March of the Women",[15] newly composed by Ethel Smyth with words by Cicely Hamilton.[17]

Hunger strikes, direct action[edit]

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.[5] In response, the WSPU organised an all-women security team known as the Bodyguard, trained in ju-jitsu by Edith Margaret Garrud and led by Gertrude Harding, whose role was to protect fugitive suffragettes from re-imprisonment.[18] The WSPU also coordinated a campaign in which doctors such as Flora Murray and Elizabeth Gould Bell treated the imprisoned suffragettes.[19]

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. A special medal, the Hunger Strike Medal, like a military honour was designed by Sylvia Pankhurst and awarded 'for Valour' to women who had been on hunger strike/force-fed.[20]

Included in the many militant acts performed were the night-time arson of unoccupied houses (including that of Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George) and churches. Suffragettes smashed windows of upscale shops and government offices. They cut telephone lines, spat at police and politicians, cut or burned pro-suffrage slogans into stadium turf,[21] sent letter bombs, destroyed greenhouses at Kew gardens, chained themselves to railings and blew 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 H. H. Asquith.

On 19 February 1913, as part of a wider suffragette bombing and arson campaign, a bomb was set off in the country home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, which brought down ceilings and cracked walls. On the evening of the incident Emmeline Pankhurst claimed responsibility, announcing at a public meeting in Cardiff, we have “blown up the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s house”. Pankhurst was willing to be arrested for the incident saying “I have advised, I have incited, I have conspired”; and that if she was arrested for the incident she would prove that the “punishment unjustly imposed upon women who have no voice in making the laws cannot be carried out”.[22][23] On 3 April Pankhurst was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude for procuring and inciting women to commit "malicious injuries to property". The Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Bill was rushed through Parliament to ensure that Pankhurst, who had immediately gone on hunger strike, did not die in prison.[24]

In response to the bomb Lloyd George wrote an article in Nash's Magazine, entitled “Votes for Women and Organised Lunacy” where he argued that the “main obstacle to women getting the vote is militancy”. It had alienated those who would have supported them. The only way for women to get the vote is a new movement “absolutely divorced from stones and bombs and torches”.[22]

On the last day of April, the WSPU offices were raided by the police, and a number of women were arrested and taken to Bow Street. They were Flora Drummond, Harriett Roberta Kerr, Agnes Lake, Rachel Barrett, Laura Geraldine Lennox and Beatrice Sanders. All were charged under the Malicious Damages Act of 1861, found guilty and received various sentences.[25]

The WSPU in Kingsway, c. 1911

In the same month, Dorothy Evans, posted as an organiser to the north of Ireland, was arrested in Belfast on explosive charges. Together with local activist Midge Muir, she created uproar in court demanding to know why the gun-running Ulster Unionist James Craig was not appearing on the same charges.[26] Released following a hunger strike, she was arrested again in July 1914 with a sister Hunger Strike Medalist Lillian Metge following a series of arson attacks and the bombing of Lisburn Cathedral.[27][28]

The month before, June 1914, militants had placed a bomb beneath the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey.[29] In June 1913 Emily Davison was killed while attempting to drape a suffragette banner on the King's horse as it was racing in the Epsom Derby.

On the evening of 9 March 1914 in Glasgow, about 40 militant suffragettes, including members of the Bodyguard team, brawled with several squads of police constables who were attempting to re-arrest Emmeline Pankhurst during a pro-suffrage rally at St. Andrew's Hall. The following day, 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 painting, Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver.

The organisation also suffered divisions. The editors of Votes for Women, Frederick and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, were expelled in 1912, later founding the United Suffragists. This caused 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.[5]

The 'Young Hot Bloods'[edit]

The “Young Hot Bloods” or “YHB” were a group of younger unmarried women within the WSPU. Becoming a member was a commitment to radical action. The group flourished from 1907 until 1913.

Fern Riddell in her book “Death in Ten Minutes: The forgotten life of radical suffragette Kitty Marion” stated that they were ‘the most dangerous suffragettes of all’[30]

The group was formed in 1907 by Annie Kenney’s sister Jessie and Adele Pankhurst.[31]

The group’s name derived from a newspaper comment: ‘Mrs Pankhurst will of course be followed blindly by a number of the younger and more hot-blooded members of the Union”.[32]

Members of the group included Irene Dallas,[33] Grace Roe, Jessie Kenney, Elsie Howey, Vera Wentworth and Mary Home.[34]

The group came to public prominence in 1913 when documents about them were found during large-scale police raids. In court, Inspector Lawrence gave evidence that he had found a circular about the organisation, which noted that members had to be under thirty years of age.[35] The story was repeated in many papers, but thereafter the Young Hot Bloods received no further press coverage

During the First World War[edit]

On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, 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,[21] to declare soon after war broke out 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.[5]

Suffrage drama[edit]

Between 1905 and 1914 suffrage drama and theatre forums became increasingly utilised by the women's movement. Around this same time, however, the WSPU also became increasingly associated with militancy, moving from marches, demonstrations, and other public performances to more avant-garde and inflammatory “acts of violence.”[36] The organisation began using these shock tactics to demonstrate the seriousness and urgency of the cause. Their demonstrations included “window smashing, museum-painting slashing, arson, fuse box bombing, and telegraph line cutting,”—suffrage playwrights, in turn, began using their work to combat the negative press around the movement and attempted to demonstrate in performance how these acts of violence only occur as a last resort. They attempted to transform the negative, yet popular perspective of these militant acts as being the actions of irrational, hysterical, ‘overly-emotional’ women and instead demonstrate how these protests were merely the only logical response to being denied a basic fundamental right.[36]

Suffragettes not only used theatre to their advantage, but they also employed the use of comedy. The Women's Social and Political Union was one of the first organisations to capitalise on comedic satirical writing and use it to outwit their opposition. It not only helped them diffuse hostility towards their organisation, but also helped them gain an audience. This use of satire allowed them to express their ideas and frustrations as well as combat gender prejudices in a safer way. Suffrage speakers, who often held open-air meetings in order to reach a wider audience, had to face hostile audiences and learn how to deal with interruptions.[37] The most successful speakers, therefore, had to acquire a quick wit and learn to "always to get the best of a joke, and to join in the laughter with the audience even if the joke was against" them.[37] Suffragette Annie Kenney recalls an elderly man continuously jeering “if you were my wife I’d give you poison" throughout the course of her speech, to which she replied "yes, and if I were your wife I’d take it," diffusing threats and making her antagonist appear laughable.[37]

Notable members[edit]

See also[edit]




  1. ^ "Start of the suffragette movement". UK Parliament. Retrieved 1 June 2020.
  2. ^ Purvis, June (2002). Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography. London: Routledge. p. 67. ISBN 978-0-415-23978-3.
  3. ^ a b c Purvis, June (1996). "A 'pair of … infernal queens'? A reassessment of the dominant representations of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, first-wave feminists in Edwardian Britain". Women's History Review. 5 (2): 260. doi:10.1080/09612029600200112.
  4. ^ Pankhurst, Christabel (1959). Unshackled: The Story of How We Won the Vote. London: Hutchison, p. 43.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Mary Davis, Sylvia Pankhurst (Pluto Press, 1999) ISBN 0-7453-1518-6
  6. ^ Crawford, Elizabeth (1999). The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866–1928. pg. 452. London: UCL Press. ISBN 978-1-84142-031-8.
  7. ^ Walsh, Ben. GCSE Modern World History second edition (Hodder Murray, 2008) p. 60.
  8. ^ "Mr. Balfour and the 'Suffragettes.' Hecklers Disarmed by the Ex-Premier's Patience." Daily Mail, 10 January 1906, p. 5.

    Holton, Sandra Stanley (2002). Suffrage Days: Stories From the Women's Suffrage Movement. London and New York: Routledge. p. 253.

  9. ^ Colmore, Gertrude. Suffragette Sally. Broadview Press, 2007, p. 14
  10. ^ a b Strachey, Ray (1928). The Cause: A Short History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain. p. 301.
  11. ^ Quotation from the journal Votes for Women in 1908 cited by David Fairhall, Common Ground, Tauris, 2006 p 31.
  12. ^ Blackman, Cally (8 October 2015). "How the Suffragettes used fashion to further the cause". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 September 2021.
  13. ^ "WSPU Flag". Parliament of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 1 September 2021.
  14. ^ 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
  15. ^ a b Purvis 2002, p. 157.
  16. ^ Crawford, Elizabeth (2001). The Women's Suffrage Movement: a Reference Guide, 1866–1928. London: Routledge. p. 645. ISBN 978-0-415-23926-4.
  17. ^ 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 978-0-670-80655-3.
  18. ^ Rouse, Wendy Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women's Self-Defense Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2017. https://nyupress.org/9781479828531/her-own-hero/
  19. ^ "Elizabeth Gould Bell: Feminist trailblazer whose life was sadly blighted by family tragedies". www.newsletter.co.uk. Retrieved 17 April 2019.
  20. ^ "Collecting Suffrage: The Hunger Strike Medal". Woman and her Sphere. 11 August 2012. Retrieved 9 November 2019.
  21. ^ a b Spartacus: Kitty Marion Archived 2011-10-10 at the Wayback Machine
  22. ^ a b Douglas, Helen Alice. "Lloyd George and the Suffragette Bomb Outrage". exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/. Exploring Surrey's Past. Retrieved 1 October 2020.
  23. ^ Atherton, Kathy (2017). Suffragettes, Suffragists & Antis: The fight for the vote in Surrey Hills. The Cockerel Pres. ISBN 978-1-909871-11-3.
  24. ^ Crawford, Elizabeth. "We wanted to wake him up: Lloyd George and suffragette militancy". Gov.uk. The National Archives, Prime Minister's Office, 10 Downing Street. Retrieved 1 October 2020.
  25. ^ "Suffragettes June 18 1913". The Life and Times of Florence Nightingale. 23 February 2015. Retrieved 1 June 2021.
  26. ^ Kelly, Vivien (24 January 2013). "Irish Suffragettes at the time of the Home Rule Crisis". historyireland.com. History Ireland. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  27. ^ Toal, Ciaran (2014). "The brutes - Mrs Metge and the Lisburn Cathedral, bomb 1914". History Ireland. Retrieved 22 November 2019.
  28. ^ Courtney, Roger (2013). Dissenting Voices: Rediscovering the Irish Progressive Presbyterian Tradition. Ulster Historical Foundation. pp. 273–274, 276–278. ISBN 978-1-909556-06-5.
  29. ^ "Suffragettes bomb Westminster Abbey". RTE. Raidió Teilifís Éireann. Retrieved 1 October 2020.
  30. ^ Riddell, Fern (2018). Death in Ten Minutes: The forgotten life of radical suffragette Kitty Marion. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 978-1-63506-129-1.
  31. ^ Christensen, McKenzi (2019). ""Baby Suffragettes": Girls in the Women's Suffrage Movement across the Atlantic". The Thetean: A Student Journal for Scholarly Historical Writing. 48 (1): 20.
  32. ^ "Suffragist conspiracy charge". The Scotsman. 9 May 1913. p. 8.
  33. ^ "The women's exhibition". Votes for women. 5 March 1909. p. 401.
  34. ^ "Historic England Research Records Monument Number 1522337". Retrieved 18 June 2021.
  35. ^ "The conspiracy charges". The Pall Mall Gazette. 8 May 1913. p. 2.
  36. ^ a b Tilghman, Carolyn (2011). "Staging Suffrage: Women, Politics, and the Edwardian Theater". Comparative Drama. 45 (4): 339–360. doi:10.1353/cdr.2011.0031. ISSN 1936-1637.
  37. ^ a b c Cowman, Krista (21 November 2007). ""Doing Something Silly": The Uses of Humour by the Women's Social and Political Union, 1903–1914". International Review of Social History. 52 (S15): 259–274. doi:10.1017/s0020859007003239. ISSN 0020-8590.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bartley, Paula. Emmeline Pankhurst (2002)
  • Davis, Mary. Sylvia Pankhurst (Pluto Press, 1999)
  • Harrison, Shirley. Sylvia Pankhurst: A crusading life, 1882–1960 (Aurum Press, 2003)
  • Holton, Sandra Stanley. "In sorrowful wrath: suffrage militancy and the romantic feminism of Emmeline Pankhurst." in Harold Smith, ed. British feminism in the twentieth century (1990) pp: 7–24.
  • Loades, David, ed. Reader's guide to British history. (Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2003). 2:999–1000, historiography
  • Marcus, Jane. Suffrage and the Pankhursts (1987)
  • Pankhurst, Emmeline. "My own story" 1914. London: Virago Limited, 1979. ISBN 0-86068-057-6
  • Purvis, June. "Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928), Suffragette Leader and Single Parent in Edwardian Britain." Women's History Review (2011) 20#1 pp: 87–108.
  • Romero, Patricia W. E. Sylvia Pankhurst: Portrait of a radical (Yale U.P., 1987)
  • Smith, Harold L. The British women's suffrage campaign, 1866–1928 (2nd ed. 2007)
  • Winslow, Barbara. Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual politics and political activism (1996)

External links[edit]