History explorer: The fight for women’s suffrage

Professor June Purvis and Charlotte Hodgman visit the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester to discover more about the remarkable women who risked life and limb for the right to vote...

The parlour at 62 Nelson Street. (Charlotte Hodgman)

On 10 October 1903, a group of women gathered in the parlour of 62 Nelson Street, one of a pair of Victorian villas located in Chorlton-on-Medlock, a suburb of Manchester. Their host was Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, a widow who had moved to the house – with her four children – in 1898 following the death of her husband.

But this was no social gathering. The women were meeting to discuss the creation of a new, militant women-only organisation that would join the 40-year fight to win the parliamentary vote for women. Its name, they decided, would be the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU); its motto, ‘Deeds, not words’. A new chapter in the campaign for women’s suffrage had begun.

Tucked away amid the concrete and glass buildings of Manchester Royal Infirmary, 62 Nelson Street – which opened as the Pankhurst Centre in 1987 and now extends into the adjoining villa – isn’t a site one might automatically stumble on during a trip to Manchester. Only a blue plaque on the wall by the front door of the Grade II listed building marks it as the birthplace of the suffragette movement.


Sylvia Pankhurst wrote her 1911 book about the suffragettes on this typewriter – now on show at the Pankhurst Centre. (Charlotte Hodgman)

Inside, three downstairs rooms are dedicated to the story of women’s suffrage, with artefacts and information panels relating to the cause, and to the Pankhurst family itself. The rest of the centre houses various women’s organisations, and is a women-only space, offering advice, support and educational services.

But, for many visitors, the highlight of a visit is the small parlour where the WSPU was born, now recreated with Edwardian-style furniture and fittings to give visitors a sense of what it may have looked like when the Pankhursts lived there. The room is a memorial to the suffragette movement, with WSPU sashes from various decades draped over chairs, and quotes from Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1914 autobiography, My Own Story. The upright piano, now silent, was once played by Emmeline’s eldest daughter and co-founder of the WSPU, Christabel.


Christabel Pankhurst’s piano still sits in  the parlour at 62 Nelson Street. (Charlotte Hodgman)

 

Radical roots

Emmeline Pankhurst (née Goulden) was born in 1858, into a family known for its radical views. Her mother, Sophia, was an ardent feminist and Emmeline accompanied her to women’s suffrage meetings from an early age. In 1879 she married barrister and committed socialist Richard Pankhurst – himself an advocate for women’s suffrage – and the pair had five children (one of whom died in infancy). Their three daughters – Christabel, Sylvia and Adela – would all become involved in the battle to gain the vote for women.


The “fiery, passionate and determined” Emmeline Pankhurst was utterly dedicated to women’s suffrage. (Bridgeman)

“Although we might automatically think of the Pankhursts when discussing the fight for women’s suffrage, women were campaigning for the right to vote for some 40 years before the WSPU was formed,” says Professor June Purvis of Portsmouth University. “The campaign is generally seen as beginning in 1865, when MP John Stuart Mill presented a petition to parliament to bring in a bill for women’s suffrage. Although unsuccessful, his actions encouraged groups of women to form suffrage societies, the largest being the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS) led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett.”

Known as ‘suffragists’, such groups employed peaceful means to advance their cause. But by 1903, four decades of constitutional, legal methods of campaigning, such as writing to MPs, had failed to achieve the longed-for vote. It was in this climate of disillusionment and frustration that a new breed of suffragist was born – under the leadership of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Women, declared Christabel, needed to put off  their “slave spirit” and start demanding the vote.

“The violence so often associated with the suffragettes – a derogatory label first coined by the Daily Mail in 1906 to describe the more radical and militant elements of the suffrage movement – didn’t actually begin until around 1912,” says Purvis. “Initially, the WSPU, too, employed peaceful means of protest, but took care to deploy tactics that would gain them the most public attention.”

Such activities included standing on street corners or outside factory gates in an attempt to attract a crowd, persuading people to support the campaign, and delivering petitions to parliament. Huge rallies took place across England and Wales, including in Hyde Park, London, in 1908, an event that attracted crowds of up to 300,000 people. Rallies were carefully orchestrated to achieve maximum impact. Suffragettes carrying huge banners, clad in white dresses, and wearing purple, white and green WSPU sashes – symbolising dignity, purity and hope – would walk through the streets as a single body, to the beat of marching bands.

Rachel Lappin, Pankhurst Centre manager, comments: “One act that gained the attention of press and public – and can perhaps be seen as one of the first acts of suffragette militancy – took place in Manchester in 1905. During a talk by Liberal party MP Sir Edward Grey at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall – now a luxury hotel – Christabel Pankhurst and a friend, Annie Kenney, were forcibly removed from the building after Grey ignored repeated questions about whether votes for women would be granted under a Liberal government. The pair were arrested and, in court the next day, chose a prison sentence (seven days for Christabel; three for Annie) over a fine.” In doing so, they earned the fight for women’s votes more attention than it had ever enjoyed before, and encouraged women across the country to join the WSPU.

 

Change of tactics

“By 1912, nine years of relatively peaceful campaigning had failed to yield success,” says Purvis, “and Emmeline – by now living in London – decided the movement needed to be more assertive in its demands.” As a result, more violent tactics began to be employed alongside constitutional methods.

The suffragettes employed a range of militant activities to draw attention to their cause, including window smashing, setting fire to postboxes and empty buildings, cutting telephone wires and even burning “votes for women” into golf greens.


A meeting of the WSPU in c1907. Christabel (second from left) and Emmeline Pankhurst (second from right) advocated the use of violence to further their cause. (Bridgeman)

“It is important to remember that at no point did the suffragettes seek to threaten human life,” argues Purvis. “Their attacks were designed to demonstrate that the government valued property more than it valued women, especially hunger-strikers in prison who were being forcibly fed.”

But the move towards violence caused rifts within the WSPU, and even within the Pankhurst family itself. Where Emmeline and Christabel were pro-vandalism in the name of women’s suffrage, Sylvia – a socialist and pacifist – and her younger sister Adela disagreed vehemently with the decision. But one belief all four women shared was a complete commitment to the cause.

Says Purvis: “Too much emphasis has been placed on the violence carried out by suffragettes and not enough on the disgraceful, and harmful, way these women were treated by the state. Many were punched and kicked by policemen even when protesting peacefully for their democratic rights. And those who were imprisoned were denied the status of political offenders and treated very badly.

“By the end of September 1909, force feeding was being deployed in prisons to prevent women from using hunger strikes as a way of protesting against their treatment. The harrowing accounts of these women are truly horrifying. For many, the process was experienced as a form of rape.”

Force feeding involved forcing a tube down the throat, or up the nose – although there are accounts of women being ‘fed’ through the vagina or rectum – into which a greasy mixture was poured. The tubes were often too wide or had not been cleaned properly, and women were physically restrained by prison wardresses. The painful, intrusive procedure was repeated a number of times a day, with little or no nutritional benefit.

The mental and physical damage caused by force feeding was particularly prolonged after the so-called ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, which allowed ill women to leave prison until they were well enough to return and complete their sentence.

“Force feeding was a disaster for the government,” says Purvis. “At first, there was little sympathy for suffragette prisoners, but by the beginning of 1913, the sight of these visibly frail women who were prepared to undergo such a horrific process over and over again shocked many.”

The death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison in June 1913 was another turning point for the movement. Her death – a result of injuries sustained after she was struck by George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby – shocked the nation, and her funeral procession drew crowds of over 250,000.

“Many believe it was the First World War that finally won the vote for women”, says Purvis. “After all, the 1918 Representation of the People Act granted the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification. But the vast majority of women were still excluded, including many young women war workers, and the campaign for votes for all women continued during and after the conflict. Emmeline encouraged women to engage in war work, believing they would gain enfranchisement as a result, but many felt betrayed by her patriotism, and further rifts appeared in the WSPU and within the Pankhurst family.”

A new wave of feminists carried the campaign forward after the war and women were finally granted equal suffrage with men in 1928, just weeks after Emmeline’s death at the age of 69.

“Emmeline Pankhurst shaped an idea of assertive womanhood that is quite modern in many ways,” concludes Purvis. “Fiery, passionate and determined, she valued women’s suffrage above anything – including family unity. But whether the vote could have been won through peaceful means alone is doubtful. A combination of tactics was needed to achieve what, in 1903, must have seemed impossible.” 

 

Suffragettes: Five more places to explore

1)  Hyde Park, London
Where thousands of women gathered

The suffragette rally on 21 June 1908 was the first grand-scale meeting organised by the WSPU and saw the largest number of people gathered in Hyde Park for a political purpose. Specially chartered trains brought women to the venue from all over Britain for marches, banner parades and to listen to 80 speakers.

 

2) Epsom Downs racecourse, Surrey
Where a suffragette became a martyr

On 4 June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison suffered a fractured skull after running in front of the king’s horse as it rounded the Tattenham Corner during the Derby, and never regained consciousness. Archive footage of the incident, as well as the return train ticket and writing materials found on her person, indicate that Emily did not intend to commit suicide.

 

3) Llanystumdwy, Gwynedd
Where Lloyd George was heckled

When prime minister Lloyd George arrived in his native village of Llanystumdwy to open their village hall in 1912, he found his speech constantly interrupted by cries of “votes for women” from many in the crowd. The protest turned violent with one woman nearly thrown over the bridge into the river Dwyfor and others physically assaulted.

 

4) National Gallery, London
Where a symbolic act was carried out

On 10 March 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery and attacked the Rokeby Venus, by Velázquez, with a meat cleaver. Her desire to “destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history”, she explained, was in protest against the government’s treatment of Emmeline Pankhurst, “the most beautiful character in modern history”.

 

5) Princes Street, Edinburgh
Where Scots took up the gauntlet

In a 1909 edition of the suffragette paper, Votes for Women, Scottish women were urged to take up the cause. In October that year some 1,000 women marched down Princes Street to campaign for women’s suffrage.

The historical advisor was June Purvis, professor of women’s and gender history at Portsmouth University. Words by Charlotte Hodgman.

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