What did the Suffragettes Do?



Policy and Tactics


By-elections        Heckling        Militancy - early phase        Militancy - second phase     

Militancy - after 1912         In prison        Martyrdom        Eluding arrest     

Gimmicks and Propaganda        Marches



This passage is taken from the book by Constance Rover: Women's Suffrage and Party Politics  

(Routledge and Kegan Paul 1967)


An important aspect of WSPU tactics was to attack the government at by-elections, which came more frequently in those days than they do now…   The suffragettes could make a much greater impact at by-elections than at general elections, as their efforts could be concentrated on one constituency, whereas at a general election they were dispersed.   The WSPU would even oppose suffragist Liberal candidates at by-elections, arguing that the existing Liberal government would not grant votes for women and the only way to bring down the government was to oppose all its supporters.   They wished to break down the opposition of the Government to women's suffrage by making its members realize 'that by refusing facilities to a women's suffrage bill they are incurring the displeasure of the people of the country'…



Another feature of attacks upon the government was the heckling of Cabinet Ministers, practically all members of Campbell-Bannerman's and Asquith's ministries suffering at one time or another, whether favourable towards women's suffrage or not.   Some were particularly unlucky, Churchill, for instance, in the early days, as his candidature for North-West Manchester was conveniently situated for the Pankhursts.



Throughout the whole period of the WSPU's activities, constitutional methods were used as well as militant ones, but it is for militancy (i.e. defiance of the law) that the suffragettes are best remembered.   Militancy began on 10 October 1905 , when Sir Edward Grey's Manchester meeting was interrupted by Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, who were subsequently arrested on a charge of obstruction when trying to address the crowds outside, Christabel also being charged with assaulting the police.   This incident resulted in more publicity than a year's peaceful agitation was wont to receive and the obvious lesson was learnt: militancy `paid off'.   It thenceforth became the policy of the WSPU   In the early days, militancy was usually incidental to other constitutional activities, injuries being suffered rather than inflicted, but later, particularly after the ending of the `Conciliation' bill truce at the end of 1911, law-breaking was deliberate.

       Typical of the earlier phase of militancy was the clash with the police following processions to Westminster .   A regular feature of the WSPU's activities was the holding of a `Women's Parliament' at Caxton Hall at the beginning of each parliamentary session, with a subsequent procession to the Houses of Parliament and the attempt (always unsuccessful) to deliver a petition to the Prime Minister in person.   The women refused to be halted by the police in their attempts to reach the Houses of Parliament and the clashes which followed resulted in many arrests.   A resultant development was the use of the Courts of Law as a means of propaganda and publicity for the cause.   The trial at Bow Street in October 1908, of Mrs. Pankhurst, Miss Christabel Pankhurst and Mrs. Drummond became a celebrated occasion, two members of the government (Lloyd George and Herbert Gladstone) being called as witnesses.


Militancy - early phase

The second phase of militancy may be said to have developed with the commencement of stone-throwing in the summer of 1909.   Before August 1909, the amount of damage which the suffragettes had inflicted had been negligible, but the forcible feeding to which hunger-strikers in prison were subjected had changed the temper of the movement, so that more extreme measures became acceptable.   Even so, there was at first no deliberate attempt to destroy property on a large scale.      

Stone­throwing had two objectives: one was largely symbolic, the windows of government offices being broken as a protest; the other was to cut short the struggle with the police, which often resulted in considerable physical suffering before arrest, by committing an offence which could not be ignored.   At the start of this activity, the stones were usually wrapped in paper, to avoid injuring anyone accidentally.   Sometimes, in addition, they were attached to string, the end of which was held by the thrower.   It is difficult to imagine anyone but a middle-class Englishwoman resorting to such a procedure!   Eventually stone-throwing became one of several methods used for the deliberate destruction of property.

       When militancy was resumed after the `Conciliation' bill truce of 1910, so many of the suffragettes suffered violence during the six hours' struggle with the police on `Black Friday' (I8 November 1910) that there seems to have been a spontaneous decision amongst the rank and file of the WSPU to make their protest in future by attacking property, instead of suffering further personal harm through struggles in the streets. …


Militancy - second phase

From 1912 onwards, militancy entered into a much more dangerous phase.   Attacks on property became more and more extensive and violent.   Instead of courting arrest and imprisonment, the suffragettes eluded the police and avoided arrest.   Shop windows were smashed on a large scale.   Arson was resorted to as a regular weapon in 1913 and 1914.   Any sort of destruction, short of deliberate injury to persons, became acceptable.   All sorts of buildings were set fire to, including a church, a railway station, a pier, a timber yard and a voluntary hospital.   Works of art were damaged, including the `Rokeby Venus', by Velasquez.   The activities which enraged the public most were the setting fire to the contents of pillar boxes and damage to golf courses.   What the end of it all would have been if the outbreak of war had not broken the deadlock, one shudders to think; it would undoubtedly have meant martyrdom for some of the suffragettes who were hunger- and thirst-striking in prison.   The chances of a peaceful solution declined, as the opposition hardened on account of the outrages.


Militancy - after 1912

Suffragette tactics included certain attitudes towards imprisonment.   If the Courts offered the option of a fine or of being `bound over', this was refused.   In prison, the hunger-strike was started by Miss Wallace Dunlop on 2 July 1908 , and was first used as a protest against the women not being treated as political prisoners.   Subsequently it was used as a means of obtaining a speedy release from prison (at the cost of considerable suffering), thus setting the law at odds.   The government, not unnaturally, did not want any martyrs to be created by suffragettes dying in prison and when this danger arose, released the prisoners, although, after the passage of the `Cat and Mouse Act' (Prisoners' Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act 1913), the release was only temporary.   The hunger-strike was followed by the much more dangerous and unpleasant hunger - and thirst-strike, in which both Mrs. Pankhurst and her second daughter, Sylvia, participated.   As a result of these tactics Mrs. Pankhurst, who was sentenced to three years' penal servitude on 3 April 1913, served less than six weeks of this sentence between the time of her conviction and the outbreak of war in August 1914, after which the suffragettes' sentences were remitted.'   The imprisonment, hunger-striking and forcible feeding of the suffragettes kept the movement before the public and the WSPU organizers, who were adepts at publicity, made the most of it.   Whether it was worth all the suffering involved is another matter.   The health of some of the prisoners, of whom Lady Constance Lytton is probably the best known, was permanently damaged.


In prison

The height of martyrdom was attained by Miss Emily Wilding Davison, who threw herself in front of the King's horse at the Derby in 1913 and died from her injuries a few days later without regaining consciousness.   This should not be included under `suffragette tactics', as it was a solo effort and Mrs. Pankhurst would undoubtedly have forbidden it, had she known about it.   Yet the self-sacrifice shown by the prisoners may have encouraged Emily Davison to risk her life.   There is some evidence that she felt the movement needed a martyr but this is not conclusive, as she had a return ticket to London in her possession on Derby Day.   Her extreme temperament is shown by a previous incident in June 1912, when she was a prisoner in Holloway and threw herself off the landing, being caught by the wire cage below (which was there to prevent attempts at suicide).   In a statement made after her release she is reported as saying:


The Governor asked me why I had done my deed, and I told him I thought that one big tragedy would save others.



During the last two years before the war, the suffragettes developed considerable skill in eluding arrest.   Christabel Pankhurst's escape when the Pethick Lawrences were arrested in March 1912, her subsequent disappearance and the announcement six months later that she was in Paris and directing the movement from there, made spectacular reading.   After the passage of the `Cat and Mouse' Act, the `mice' became adepts at avoiding rearrest when temporarily released.


Eluding arrest

Turning from the heroic to the trivial, a particular feature of the tactics of the militant societies was the ingenuity shown in constitutional as well as militant activities.   They were pioneers in the use of what we should now call `gimmicks'.   In a display stand devoted to women's suffrage in the London Museum , Kensington Palace , there are various buttons, badges and other ornaments, postcards showing political cartoons and photographs of the suffragette leaders, specially designed playing cards, posters and mementos of Holloway gaol.   The descriptive card in the stand puts the matter well and reads as follows:


The women's suffrage movement was the first highly organized political movement to adapt itself successfully to the new publicity methods to which the national daily id. newspapers had given rise. The processions, demonstrations, bazaars and badges and regalia, parlour games and illustrated post cards, have all been copied by subsequent political agitations and exemplify the ingenuity with which public notice was directed to the demand for votes for women.


       The Fawcett Library has, amongst other interesting propaganda material, certain games developed as commercial propositions in the period of suffragette activity.   One is a card game called `Panko, or Votes for Women', and has some similarity to rummy; another is played with dice and is named `Suffragettes in and out of Prison' and resembles `Snakes and Ladders'.

       Another example of ingenuity was the defiance of the census of 1911.   This was instigated by the Women's Freedom League and subsequently taken up by the WSPU; if women were not to count as citizens for the purpose of the franchise, then they would not be counted!   Many spent the night in empty houses, some at what seems to have been a well-organized and enjoyable all-night party at the Aldwych Skating Rink. (`Taking leave of their census', as Mr. Punch said).

       One of the most enterprising propagandist activities, considering the conventions of the time, was undertaken by Miss Muriel Matters of the Women's Freedom League.   Miss Matters had already distinguished herself the previous year (1908) by being one of three women involved in a disturbance at the House of Commons, when two of them were found chained to the grille of the Ladies' Gallery.   On 18 February 1909 , she supported the attempt of Mrs. Despard and her associates to petition the Prime Minister by ballooning over London and showering leaflets upon those below.

       In January 1909, the Postmaster-General played into the hands of the suffragettes by making it possible to post `human letters!'   As may be imagined, steps were at once taken to post some suffragettes to Mr. Asquith, a Miss Solomon and Miss McClellan being despatched by Jessie Kenney (Annie Kenney's sister)- from Strand Post Office.   The ladies were escorted by a small messenger boy to 10 Downing Street , and arrived carrying a placard, `Votes for Women'.   They were then told by an official that they must be returned, but protested that they had been paid for.   The official insisted that they were `dead letters' and refused to take them in, so after some further argument the ladies returned to Clements' Inn ?


Gimmicks and Propaganda

Constitutional activities were a continuous accompaniment to militancy and the suffragettes brought the organization of pageants, public meetings and processions to a high pitch.   The most striking demonstration staged by the WSPU was held in Hyde Park on 21 June 1908   The day (Sunday) was fine and the crowd was variously estimated at anything up to half a million….   Even allowing for the probability that much of the crowd consisted of spectators rather than ardent supporters, this meeting was an outstanding demonstration, judged by any standard.

       While nothing else quite approached the Hyde Park meeting as a monster demonstration, the WSPU could point to other large gatherings in the provinces, such as that at Woodhouse Moor, Leeds , on 26 July 1908 .

       After the death of Miss Emily Davison following the 1913 Derby , the WSPU staged a spectacular escort of her coffin through London .   Mounted out-riders headed the procession; the group surrounding the cortege was dressed in purple or black, carrying laurel wreaths.   It may seem distasteful to have made political propaganda out of a funeral but in this instance it was surely justified, so that the sacrifice should not be in vain.