Tag Archives: WSPU

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst was written as Europe approached war in 1913-1914 and published as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) ceased their campaigning. The WSPU were familiarly known as suffragettes, distinguishing them from the less militant suffragists. It is my choice in the Decades Project for 1910-1919 on this blog.

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst wrote her story before she knew the outcome of the struggle to gain votes for women. Raised in a radical family, married to a man who promoted women’s suffrage, like many others she was frustrated by the lack of progress, despite many years of suffragist campaigning. She writes about the reasons for establishing the WSPU in 1906.

This, then, was the situation: the government all-powerful and consistently hostile; the rank and file of legislators impotent; the country apathetic; the women divided in their interests. The Women’s Social and Political Union was established to meet this situation, and to overcome it. (53)

She launched the WSPU with her daughters Sylvia and Christabel. They determined to draw attention to the cause by any means necessary until victory was achieved. In her account she relates how it was necessary to increase the pressure as they were successively knocked back. They began with peaceful demonstrations and other activities to publicise their demand for Votes for Women, such as unfurling banners at election meetings and asking ‘when will there be votes for women?’ and making speeches in as many places as possible. The campaign was aimed at recruitment of activists and at discomforting cabinet members who were resisting their demands. They were frequently thrown out of meetings. Hostility, including violent reactions, was common.

As franchise reform was repeatedly postponed by Liberal governments the WSPU took to opposing Liberal candidates in by-elections and general elections. The government’s response became more determined. Women were arrested, charged and imprisoned. Police were instructed to manhandle the demonstrators as they marched towards Parliament on Black Friday 1910.

Ernestine Mills at the entrance to Parliament November 1910.

The suffragettes aimed to cause as much difficulty as possible for the authorities, so in prison they campaigned for political prisoner status, refused to follow prison regulations, including going on hunger strike. The official response was brutal: force feeding and later the Cat and Mouse Act.

From Mrs Pankhurst’s account one learns the meaning of this brutality for individual women. They continued, devising more and more ingenious ways to thwart the authorities, and adopted tactics of guerrilla groups to keep going as leaders were picked off. Following the failure of the Conciliation Act in 1910 they escalated the campaign to include damage to property. Golf courses were damaged, empty houses set alight, post boxes burned, windows broken.

Mrs Pankhurst is voluble about the sexist double standard in treatment of political activists. Women were harshly treated by the justice system for advocating the same actions as the Irish Nationalists, although the WSPU did not go as far as taking lives. The men were allowed to get away with these crimes. The women were repeatedly arrested and imprisoned, released if on hunger strike, rearrested after a few days of recovery, and the organisation of the WSPU, including its weekly newspaper, was disrupted.

Arrest of Mrs Pankhurst in 1910


One learns of the determination of members of the WSPU, and especially of Mrs Pankhurst’s single mindedness. I think she was an unpleasant woman. Those who were not with her were considered her enemies. Certain that her ends and methods were right, she allowed no democracy within the WSPU.

Her arch nemesis was the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith. She spares none of her vitriol as she charts his political chicanery. Lloyd George and Churchill are not far behind.

Many at the time felt that the WSPU had set back the cause of women’s suffrage. She did not agree. Reflecting on the achievements of their campaign in 1914 she has this to say.

… It must be plain to every disinterested reader that militancy never set the cause of suffrage back, but on the contrary, set it forward at least half a century. When I remember how that same House of Commons, a few years ago, treated the mention of women’s suffrage with scorn and contempt, how they permitted the most insulting things to be said of the women who were begging for their political freedom, and how, with indecent laughter and coarse jokes they allowed suffrage bills to be talked out, I cannot but marvel at the change our militancy so quickly brought about. (326)

And what did happen to Votes for Women?

In February 1918, even before the war had ended the coalition government passed the Representation of the People’s Act which enfranchised more men (on residency qualifications) and some women: those over 30 with property or married to men with property or graduates voting in a university town. 8.4 million women gained the vote, about 43% of the electorate.

War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise. (George Cave, Con, Home Secretary. From Hansard)

The government that introduced this legislation contained many ministers who had vigorously opposed women’s suffrage before the war. Women had to wait until 1928 to gain the vote on the same terms as men.

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914) Vintage 327pp

See also No Surrender by Constance Maud a novel by a suffragette published in 1911, republished by Persephone Books.

In March the Decades Project choice is A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, published in 1929.

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Photo Credit.  Ernestine Mills, artist and suffragist, is on the ground with gloved hands over her face. The man in top hat intervening in her behalf is Mills’s husband, Dr. Herbert Mills. Beyond the scrum of police, protesters, and spectators lies an entrance to Parliament. Daily Mirror 19 November 1910 via WikiCommons.

Photo credit: Arrest of Mrs P Nationaal Archief on VisualHunt.com / No known copyright restrictions


Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

No Surrender by Constance Maud

No Surrender is novel about Suffragettes, written by one and published before votes for women were won. It describes why they decided to become militant, and what they did to draw attention to them and their demands. Constance Maud knew what she was talking about. Alongside the activism there are love stories, adventure stories and some jolly humour, mostly at the expense of the ‘Antis’.

189 no_surrender_pic

The Story

Jenny Clegg is a Lancashire millworker. She gets good wages, but appalling working conditions and comes from a family where her brother Peter was wounded by a shuttle in the weaving shed, and her married sister has two of her children sent to Australia because her estranged husband doesn’t want to support them. Her mother is downtrodden and her father takes advantage of husbands’ rights to help himself to her earnings. Other downtrodden women appear within the novel, including Maggie who becomes pregnant by her employer, murders her baby and is sentenced to hang. She is Peter’s sweetheart.

Mary O’Brien is Irish and comes from a different class. She is well connected and interested in the welfare of women. A visit to her uncle’s mills results in her conversion to the women’s cause and from then on we follow Mary and Jenny as they join the WSPU and take on active roles. The movement becomes increasingly concerned to draw attention to the demands for the vote, which gives rise to some interesting demonstrations. Both are imprisoned.

189 Votes for wPublished before the vote was secured, and when it was still likely or possible that it was a vain cause, Constance Maud could not give the reader the happy ever after ending. It was not until 1918 that some women gained the vote and it was 1928 when we got the vote on the same terms as men.

The Writing

There is considerable humour in No Surrender, especially in the creative ideas for action that the Suffragettes make: posting themselves in parcels to Downing Street, ambushing cabinet ministers in the village church and at a society dinner party. Even the male staff were in on that one.

Along the way we hear all the argument of the Antis and the men who have not yet thought enough about it, and those who are resisting, including men in the Labour movement. The arguments are rehearsed by characters who ask questions, especially the French Count who is shocked by what he hears of the treatment and abusive descriptions of the women of the WSPU. We read about women from other countries (Australia, US, New Zealand, Scandinavia) and how they the vote has benefited their countries.

And we hear the idiotic arguments of officialdom, the church, the privileged, the politicos, and the organised groups called ‘The Antis’.

189 Force feedingWhile it is a campaigning novel No Surrender is not didactic. In its details it is commanding. One of the most difficult passages to read is the force feeding of Mary O’Neill. We should recall that this treatment was the official response to the women who went on hunger strike in prison.

What I liked

I enjoyed a familiar sense of rightness, exultation and action of involvement in political protest as I read this novel. Think Aldermaston Marches, Greenham Common Occupation, demos for Women’s Right to Choose, Stop the War … This last proved that a government does not have to take any account of opposition. Just like the continued refusal to hear the feminist voices today.

Does it matter any more?

We take the women’s vote for granted now. We are accustomed to seeing cabinet ministers who are women, and endured a prime minister who was a woman. Women are represented on the boards of companies, in local government, everywhere. Still in a minority however.

Every argument against Votes for Women is aired in this book. You would think that women had little to campaign about and that winning the vote would make everything ok. Of course it did not, although it was an important part of the struggle.

189 Do it coverThe book I picked up immediately after No Surrender was Do it like a Woman by Caroline Criado-Perez. No Surrender was the motto of the WSPU, and PUSH: Push Until Something Happens is the motto of a Liberian activist, – in her case the abolition of FGM. Caroline Criado-Perez reminds us that there is still so much to do. PUSH!

I am often daunted by women’s struggles, and the very slow progress made, but I recall an educator saying to me ‘Nothing like a good experience of daunt!’

Endpaper from No Surrender published by Persephone Books

Endpaper from No Surrender published by Persephone Books

No Surrender by Constance Maud originally published in 1911 and reissued by Persephone in 2011. 328 pp

Do it like a Woman … and change the world by Caroline Criado-Perez (2015) published by Portobello 292 pp


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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews