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.
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.
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
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.