Why did the Suffragettes turn to Violence?


Actually, this is a harder question than you might think, and I think it is hard to find reasons why women turned to violence.

When you read the accounts of the suffragettes, they often describe what they did in a very matter-of-fact way, without explaining WHY - Why they did it was so self-evident for them.

At other times, they say why they did it, but confusingly for us they use the same arguments that were being used by the Suffragists, who campaigned peacefully for the vote.   This quote by Emmeline Pankhurst is typical:

'I was a Poor Law guardian, and I shall never forget seeing a little girl of 13 lying in a bed playing with a doll - I was told she was on the eve of becoming a mother, and she was infected with a loathsome disease.   Was not that enough to make me a Militant Suffragette?   We women Suffragists have a mission - to free half the human race, and I incite this meeting to rebellion'.

For them, at the time, it was so obvious that situations like that were SO outrageous, that something HAD to be done, and violence was a natural, even normal, reaction.
So I think we need to start off by considering the underlying reasons why these women were seeking the vote, stressing how vital and basic a civil right it was, before you move to the specific reasons why certain women turned to violence.   If the underlying cause had not been there, or had not been so massively important, there would have been no need for violence.

However, we need to address the problem that only SOME women used violence - some Suffragists actively opposed the Suffragettes.   So why did some women turn to violence? 


Here are some suggestions.   They are not necessarily true, but they are for your consideration:

Pent-up Anger
They had become fed up with being fobbed off by the men.   The Suffragettes had existed since 1903, but the first 'official' violent Suffragette incident occurred in 1909, when Mrs Bouvier and a number of others threw stones at the Home Office windows.   She wrote in the Suffragettes magazine Votes for Women:

'We had decided that the time for political arguments was thoroughly exhausted, and we made up our minds that the time for militant action had arrived.   We decided to wait till
9 o'clock , when we could be sure that the peaceful deputation headed by Mrs Pankhurst had been arrested, then we determined to show by our action what we thought of the Prime Minister in refusing these ladies admission to the House of Commons.   That was our motive for throwing stones at the windows.'

Hannah Mitchell, a Suffragette who wrote an autobiography called The Hard Way Up summed it up: 'The smouldering resentment in women's hearts burst into the flame of revolt'.   In this interpretation, violence is presented as a reaction to the repression of the past.
To force men to give way
They consciously adopted violence as a way to influence the men.   Emmeline Pankhurst said: 'The argument of the broken pane is the most valuable argument in modern politics'.   In this interpretation, violence was a cold, conscious tactic. 
There is a lovely letter to the Daily Telegraph, dated
26 Feb 1913 , which reads:

'Everyone seems to agree upon the necessity of putting a stop to Suffragist outrages, but no one seems certain how to do so. There are two, only two ways in which this can be done.
1. Kill every woman in the
United Kingdom .
2. Give women the vote.
Yours truly, Bertha Brewster'.

They were after the associated publicity - to get into the newspapers.    Sometimes they waited until the police and press had arrived before they began their actions.
Martyrdom moves mountains
They were after the power of martyrdom.   There is a description by Emily Wilding Davison of her suicide attempt in jail.   She describes it quite calmly - 'Something had to be done' - describing how she made three attempts to throw herself to her death.
Many suffragette stories openly admit that it was exhilarating.   It was a bit of a lark!   There is a lovely description of breaking windows by a Suffragette called Charlotte (Charlie) Marsh in which she describes it 'as though I was playing hockey'.


6. Revolution

For some women, the campaign for the vote was part of a wider bid for a radical social revolution.   A Suffragette called Teresa Billington-Greig was at the same time a Trade Unionist and an organiser of the infant Labour Party.   She said: 'I shall be a militant rebel to the end of my days'.   She left the WSPU in 1907 because she felt that 'militancy has been degraded from revolution into political chicanery... it apes rebellion'.

Similarly, Sylvia Pankhurst broke with her mother and sister and moved into the East End of London to accomplish REAL social, as well as political, revolution in women's lives.


7. A Working Class response
In some ways, the move to more violent agitation may have marked the entrance of working class women into the franchise movement.   There was a great difference between the almost-picnic-like 'pilgrimages' of the middle-class Suffragists, wearing white dresses and hats, and the marches of the working class Suffragettes, in ordinary working clothes, along streets lined with police.