Suffragette History

Radical Up North…

Manchester was a natural place for a movement such as the Suffragettes to begin.  In the nineteenth century Manchester was a hot-bed of radical and liberal thinking in many areas, political, social, economic and religious.  Ordinary men an women were struggling to have a say in public affairs, to have a vote; witness the huge demonstration in St. Peter’s Fields in 1819, culminating in the so-called ‘Peterloo Massacre’ in which eleven men were killed and many injured.  Gradually over the century, starting with the Great Reform Act of 1832, the male vote was extended.  As for womens suffrage, the first public meeting on the subject was held in the Free Trade Hall (now the Radisson Hotel) in 1868; it was addressed by a woman, Lydia Becker, and supported by Dr. Richard Pankhurst among others.

The beginnings of the Suffragette movement

Since 1867 Manchester had an established women’s suffrage movement, namely the Women’s Suffrage Committee. The group worked with the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and strongly believed the ILP would support their campaign for equal women’s rights. Although in the North West the ILP were very supportive, nationally they were reluctant to make women’s suffrage a priority. They were more concerned with the working class men who were still excluded from voting. Emmeline Pankhurst had been working with the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee and had become increasingly impatient with the ILP. She decided to take action herself. On 10th October 1903 she held a meeting at her house at 62 Nelson Street and formed a new organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). It was the intention of the WSPU to move away from the conventional methods favoured by the The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).

“It was on October 10, 1903 that I invited a number of women to my house in Nelson Street, Manchester, for purposes of organisation. We voted to call our new society the Women’s Social and Political Union, partly to emphasise its democracy, and partly to define it object as political rather than propagandist. We resolved to limit our membership exclusively to women, to keep ourselves absolutely free from party affiliation, and to be satisfied with nothing but action on our question. “Deeds, not words” was to be our permanent motto”

Emmeline Pankhurst, In My Own Words


In 1905 the WSPU achieved widespread publicity when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney were imprisoned following a disturbance at a Liberal party meeting in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. They disrupted speeches being made by Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey.

“Christabel Pankhurst decided…[to] put the question to Mr Churchill: ‘If you are elected, will you do your best to make Woman Suffrage a Government measure?’ Instinctively she knew that the question would never be answered…had he said yes, the cabinet would have practically been committed to carry it out; had he said no, the Liberal women would have pricked up their ears”

Annie Kenney, Memories of a Militant

 

After being thrown out of the meeting they were arrested for assault when Christabel spat at a policeman. When they refused to pay the five shilling fine they were sent to prison. This gained the campaign widespread press coverage and heightened support for the movement.

 

Militancy

In 1906 the Liberal Party came to power. It was strongly believed that they would support the campaign for women’s right to vote. However when this proved not to be the case the WSPU began to turn to increasingly militant tactics in order to raise awareness. Acts of disobedience continued and more arrests followed. The Suffragettes, as they had now become known, were becoming increasingly bold, militant, and their campaigning more widespread. However, there was still little advancement in voting rights for women.

 

Forced Feeding and Prison

As the women became more desperate for reform, their tactics became more extreme. Amongst other things they burnt down churches and MPs’ homes, smashed all the windows in Oxford Street and even bombed Oxted Station. As a result many were sent to prison. In prison the women began to go on hunger strike as they wished to be given political prisoners status. The government did not want to draw attention to the starving women and gain sympathy for the cause by allowing the women to be seen as martyrs so ordered that they be force fed. This painful process was inflicted on a number of women and the public soon began to frown on this approach.

“The doctor seemed annoyed at my resistance and he broke into a temper as he pried my teeth with the steel implement. The pain was intense and at last I must have given away, for he got the gap between my teeth, when he proceeded to turn it until my jaws were fastened wide apart. Then he put down my throat a tube, which seemed to me much to wide and something like four feet in length. Then the food was poured in quickly; it made me sick a few seconds after it was down. Before long I heard the sounds of forced feeding in the cell next to mine… it was Elsie Howley. When the ghastly process was over and all quiet. I tapped on the wall and called out at the top of my voice, ‘No Surrender,’ and then came the answer in Elsie’s voice, ‘No Surrender.”

Constance Lytton, Prisons and Prisoners

In order to satisfy public opinion force feeding was stopped in 1913. The government introduced the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge of Ill health Act, nicknamed the Cat and Mouse Act. The prisoners were allowed to go on hunger strike and were released when they became very weak on licence to return within a set period. On release many of the women went into hiding thus becoming the ‘mice’ to the authorities ‘cats.’

War

When the war broke out in August 1914, the WSPU called a halt to its activities and called on its members to support the government in the War effort. The First World War saw women entering the labour market in unprecedented numbers and in sectors that were previously almost exclusively male.

Victory

A limited number of women were given the right to vote in 1918, but it was only in 1928 that women gained the right to vote on equal grounds to men.