‘Suffragettes were inspirational – not terrorists’

Those few people who claim that the suffragettes were terrorists are misguided and sensationalist, June Purvis, women’s history professor writes.

They are simply seeking to condemn these radical women who were campaigning for their democratic right to the parliamentary vote.

Although there is no one accepted definition of terrorism a key aspect is the intention to harm or take life, particularly of innocent civilians.

If Emmeline Pankhurst, the inspirational leader of the suffragettes were alive today, she would be horrified by the actions of the present-day suicide bombers who ruthlessly kill and injure at random, women, men and children going about their daily lives.

The suffragettes did not kill or harm anyone.

Throughout the suffrage campaign, Emmeline Pankhurst emphasised that human life should not be endangered.

As late as 1975, the former suffragette Mary Leigh, then in her nineties, recollected: “Mrs Pankhurst gave us strict orders… there was not a cat or a canary to be killed: no life.”

The suffragettes were members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, her eldest daughter Christabel and some local socialist women in 1903, in Manchester.

Men and women campaigning at a suffragette meeting in London's Hyde Park

Image: Men and women campaigning at a suffragette meeting in London’s Hyde Park

This new organisation, which was for women only, was to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women on the same terms as men.

It aimed to attract women of all social classes and political affiliations, and to unite them under the slogan, Deeds, not words.

In its early years, the WSPU engaged in peaceful protest that did not catch the attention of an all-male parliament, nor the press.

Christabel Pankhurst, the WSPU’s brilliant key strategist, decided that more confrontational tactics were necessary.

On 13 October 1905, she and Annie Kenney were arrested after they shouted out a question about votes for women at a Liberal Party meeting in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.

In court the next day the two women, as planned, chose imprisonment rather than pay a fine for their “unruly” conduct.

Although the newspapers of the day condemned their “unladylike” behaviour, the stunt worked in that many more women flocked to join the WSPU.

From now on, heckling of MPs and a willingness to go to prison became common suffragette tactics.

With their cry of “Rise Up Women!” the charismatic Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, both powerful orators, roused thousands of women to demand, rather than ask nicely, for their democratic right.

However, successive deputations to Parliament and imaginative stunts to support their cause – such as chaining themselves to the railings of No 10 – had no effect.

Herbert Asquith, the Liberal prime pinister for most of the campaign, was a fervent opponent of votes for women.

The suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst (front l), are usually thought of as peaceful protesters

Image: The suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst (front l), are usually thought of as peaceful protesters

By 1912, the suffragettes were banned from attending Liberal Party meetings and banned from holding their own.

Denied legitimate means of protest, a minority of the women engaged in damage to private and public property – mass window smashing, firing empty buildings or destroying mail in postboxes.

But such violent, unlawful acts of vandalism were not terrorism.

Nor did the Liberal Government denigrate the WSPU as a terrorist organisations or prosecute militant suffragettes as terrorists.

We must also remember why some of the suffragettes turned to these more violent tactics and discuss state violence against the women.

Even when campaigning peacefully before 1912 the suffragettes could be roughly handled by the police, or forcibly fed if they went on hunger strike.

Forcible feeding was a brutal, life-threatening and degrading procedure, performed by male doctors on struggling female bodies.

Many of the women spoke of it as a form of instrumental rape.

Some would be fed 242 times.

The violence inflicted on the suffragettes by the police on 10 November 1910, when another peaceful deputation tried to reach parliament, had been a turning point.

The women were treated with exceptional brutality, many of the assaults being sexual in nature.

Legs were kicked, arms twisted, breasts pinched, knees thrust between legs.

This state-inflicted violence on Black Friday, as the day became known, was frequently cited as the reason the more extreme forms of vandalism suffragettes engaged in from 1912.

What was the point of women’s bodies being battered and assaulted in their just demand for the vote if damage to property brought about a quicker arrest?

Far from being terrorists, the suffragettes played a critical part in the passing of the 1918 Representation of the People Act which granted the parliamentary vote to all women graduates and certain categories of women aged 30 and over.

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:: June Purvis is Emeritus Professor of Women’s & Gender History at the University of Portsmouth. She has written many articles and books on the women’s suffrage movement including Emmeline Pankhurst: a biography and Christabel Pankhurst a biography.