On the 13th of March 1918, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies held a victory celebration, at Queens Hall, Great Portland Street, in London’s West End, after women over 30 won the right to vote. The 1918 Representation of the People Act, passed in 1917, given royal assent in February 1918, extended the franchise to all men over 21 years old, but only women over 30 who held £5 of property, or had husbands who did. This meant an additional 5.6 million men and 8.4 million women, were now entitled to vote.
Over fifty years of campaigning, through many different organisations, a wide variety of tactics, had brought women to this point. For some of the women activists of the NUWSS, they had literally devoted their lives to the struggle.
At the time the 1918 Representation of the People Act seemed a major victory for the suffragist movements. Millicent Fawcett called the enactment of the act the greatest moment in her life. A victory party was held by suffragist societies at the Queen’s Hall in March 1918. Having witnessed in one act a jump from 0 to 8.4 million in terms of the number of women who could vote, many did see the act as a victory. However, there were women who still saw the act as a betrayal as it still classed them as second class citizens to men. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave all men over the age of 21 the right to vote (and aged 19 if the men had been on active service in the armed forces). Therefore, politically women were still not the equal to men in Britain even after the 1918 act.
While some continued to agitate for the extension of the vote to women on the same terms as men (which would take another ten years of campaigning), others were worn out and became disillusioned…
The Queens Hall celebration took the form of a concert; interestingly this featured a performance of the song ‘Jerusalem’, a William Blake poem set to music by composer Hubert Parry, who had happily accepted NUWSS guru Millicent Garret Fawcett’s request to use the song at the party – suffragists had been singing it for a year or so to Parry’s tune. Parry had been a supporter of suffrage and even assigned copyright of Jerusalem to the NUWSS. Jerusalem has come so far since Blake’s day, and is now considered almost an alternative national anthem – though this was clearly far from Blake’s intent (or even Parry’s, possibly).
The celebration also featured a large display of suffragist banners, speakers from the movement, most notably the NUWSS’s president and most illustrious activist Millicent Garret Fawcett…
“The Queens Hall celebration on March 13th, differed from all the thousands of Suffrage meetings that have gone before it not in degree, but in kind. We have. Most of us, very chequered recollections of the meetings of the past. We have all enjoyed some of them; it seems doubtful whether even the most cheerful member of the NUWSS can have enjoyed all. Even if some happy soul can look back with pleasure to all the gatherings in all the halls, and all the drawing rooms, and at al the street corners, which they have organized or at which they have spoke or listened in the past, they will admit that the enjoyment on the most delightful of those occasions was different and inferior in kind to what we felt on Wednesday night. Then we were striving for out freedom; now in great measure we have gained it. It was a wonderful meeting of numbers of those who have struggled side by side…”
Groups that took part included the Actresses Franchise League, the British Dominions Women’s Suffrage union, Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society, the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, Free church League for Women’s Suffrage, Hastings and St Leonards Women’s Suffrage Propaganda League, Irishwomens’ Suffrage Federation, Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage, Marchers Qui Vive Corps, Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, National Council for Adult Suffrage, National Industrial and Professional Women’s Suffrage Society, New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage, Scottish Churches League for Women’s Suffrage, Scottish University Women’s Suffrage Union, the United Suffragists, and the Women’s Freedom League…
And here’s some musings… on the vote, campaigns for the vote, movements for social change, and the passing of time.
… on the hundredth anniversary of some women, and most of the remaining men) in the UK being ‘given’ the vote, in 1918.
Past Tense publishes ‘historically’ oriented texts, not because we want to live in the past, or as some sort of academic archeology, but because we desire a different present and hope to be part of building a future free from class divisions, hierarchy, and social relations based on property, wealth, and wage labour. We’re not historians; our interest in history is partly for inspiration and a link to people like us in the past, partly for a search for the origins of the world we inhabit, and partly to keep the story of struggles for a better existence alive. Exploration of ideas, shared experiences, ways of working and living freely together, are vital parts of this struggle, and discussion of ideas and movements of the past are central to why we study history, as is the geography of the areas we live work and play in, and understanding how they evolve, and are altered by social change. While we have used the term ‘radical history’ in the past to describe projects we have been involved in, some of us at are dissatisfied with it, both because the word ‘radical’ is broad and open to many interpretations, and because focussing on ‘history’ blinkers us a bit when what we’re interested inhabits many other fields as well: urban geography, philosophy, economics and much more.
Remembering events, personalities, and battles of days gone by is hollow and meaningless if not linked to social change in our own lives, and just as our contributions to present theoretical and practical debate should be critical of ideas we disagree with, we extend this to our delves into the past. While some historians believe in objectivity, refusing to comment critically on the ideas of past times (and while its true that you can’t impose the ideas and values of today on people living through times when those ideas and values hadn’t developed), its also fair to say that movements of the past were not monolithic, and a wide variety of ideas emerged, changed, evolved and conflicted. We don’t hold with shying away from being critical of ideas we disagree with; but we also see that its important to remember that a broad array of social movements in past centuries, with widely diverse ideas and tactics, contributed to improvements in people’s lives, to freeing up of ways of living.
As a result we feel it’s worth both celebrating the achievements of Emmeline Pankhurst, for example, AND being critical of her slide into nationalist chauvinism.
The current flood of stories celebrating the extension of the voting franchise to women over 30 in 1918 has speaked much discussion, both around how far women’s liberation has come and how much is yet to achieve, and around the militant tactics of many of the women’s suffrage campaigners of a century ago.
There is little attention paid to the very real split in the movement campaigning for women’s suffrage – the ‘Militant’ versus ‘Constitutional’ suffragette division… Or why it arose; or even whether one was more effective than the other; or whether both contributed to the 1918 victory.
And amidst all the lauding of suffrage movements, it is never explicitly stated – but terror tactics that the militant suffragettes employed would get you jailed today, no question, and also spied on by the police, as the militant suffragettes were, and campaigners have been more recently by the Special Demonstration Squad, NPIOU, etc… Time, and the fact of having ‘won’, distances the ‘terrorist’ label… No tory today could get away with labelling Nelson Mandela or Emmeline Pankhurst a terrorist, though they did at the time and merrily do so to anyone carrying out similar direct action tactics now.
The other elephant in the room is the huge comeback of chauvinism and male sexism, and the equally huge undercurrent of feminism still necessary to combat it.
Some of the history of divisions, diversity of tactics, and contradictions of the women’s suffrage movement ought to be aired more widely, in the midst of the self-congratulations of politicians.
In 1888, a majority of members of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the first nationwide coalition of groups advocating women’s right to vote, voted to allow affiliation from organisations linked to political parties. This cause the NSWS to split into a number of factions. Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Franchise League, whose inaugural meeting was held at her Bloomsbury home in July 1889. The League was seen as a radical suffrage group, because it also advocated equality in inheritance and divorce law, and campaigned on wider social issues; more traditional suffrage activists denounced them as the “extreme left” of the women’s movement. The group was short-lived however, divisions arose when, in 1892, Emmeline disrupted a public meeting by pioneer suffragist Lydia Becker (who had come down on the other side in the NSWS split); in 1893 the League fell apart. In the same year the Pankhursts moved back up north. Emmeline and other suffragists later founded the militant Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903; they believed the existing pressure groups had failed, taking a too cautious approach, and a new militant organisation was needed… The WSPU went on to break new ground in direct action, with mass campaigns of criminal damage, window smashing and arson; many of its activists were jailed several times, (including Emmeline and her three daughters, Christabel, Adela and Sylvia), and force fed in prison repeatedly when they went on hunger strike. Both their ‘militant’ activity and the more ‘constitutional’ wing of the movement built up considerable pressure for reform up to the outbreak of World War 1; women’s suffrage became the dominant issue in British society, dividing opinion and provoking violent repression, attacks from hostile crowds of men, as well as increasing support. When the first World War broke out, though, both the ‘militant’ and ‘constitutional’ suffrage organisations ended their campaign (now’s not the time, stand by our country, blah blah) and threw their considerable organising ability into mass support for the war effort: or whipping up nationalistic hysteria to help push thousands of men to march off to slaughter and be slaughtered, as it’s known in the trade. Emmeline and other leading suffragists pushed for compulsory conscription, denounced pacifists, strikers and other war resisters as betraying the national interest; on at least one occasion Emmeline grassed up leaders of a strike and got them drafted and sent to the trenches. A small minority in the WSPU (including Emmeline’s daughter Sylvia, who had already been expelled from the WSPU for her left-leaning ideas), and a large minority in the NUWSS, plus some of the Women’s Freedom League, whose members had left the WSPU protesting the autocratic control of the Pankhursts) opposed the War and continued to fight for reform. Some, like Sylvia Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard, for instance, moved further left during the war, coming to communist and in some cases anti-parliamentary positions; an interesting trajectory from campaigning for the vote, though not without its logic at the time.
But the large-scale involvement of women doing the jobs of men off dying in the trenches was quoted as an influential factor in the introduction of suffrage reform in 1918, when women over 30 won the vote.
It wouldn’t be to denigrate their sincerity or militancy, or the viciousness of the repression they faced, to say their class backgrounds to a large extent coloured the ideas of some leading suffrage campaigners. For instance, Emmeline Pankhurst and her husband hired a servant to help with the children, so that “she should not be “a household machine” and could spend time fighting for Women’s Suffrage. Presumably then, the servant became the ‘household machine’. More than reflecting itself in their social relations, did their social position help to push the Pankhursts to assume autocratic control within the WSPU? To capitulation to class snobbery, as with Christabel Pankhurst’s later moral improvement campaigns against working class men’s ‘inherent disgustingness’, and to nationalism and war mongering when World War 1 came? Its hard to say with the latter case, as most contemporary socialists and radicals of both sexes and all classes, it has to be said, joined in the war effort supporting the slaughter of millions.
Emmeline’s early enthusiasm for socialism is often contrasted to her later Tory politics, but it would be interesting to know how much her increasing dislike of socialist groups and trade unions was influenced by the widespread hostility of many male trade unionists, and members of organisations like the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation, to the women’s struggle to assert themselves politically, especially around the 1890s/1900. (For example, when her husband Richard, a long-standing ILP member and worker for womens’ rights, died, a radical newspaper launched an appeal to support the Pankhurst family since their debts partly resulted from their political activity. Emmeline, however, refused to accept the money to pay for her children’s education, asking that the money should be used to build a socialist meeting hall in Richard’s memory. However when the hall was completed in 1903, she discovered that the Independent Labour Party branch that used it would not allow women to join. this and many similar examples of blatant inequality in the supposedly progressive movement gradually helped to push her out of it.) Traditional attitudes towards a woman’s role in society prevailed among men who in other ways were reasonably ‘progressive’, such that women’s suffrage groups had to on occasion fight physical battles to use ‘radical’ meeting places, and women workers were excluded from many trade unions and jobs… There were large numbers of exceptions to this, but the viciousness of the disapproval from what they may have at one time thought of as natural allies contributed to some of Emmeline and other WSPUers’ growing distance from the ‘labour movement’. (The WSPU has generally been characterised as a middle class organisation, but the majority of membership were working class women, especially in northern England, though also in London in areas like the East End, Lewisham and Woolwich; and there were several women of working class origins in the national leadership.While it’s also true that with no formal constitution, the WSPU could sometimes operate top-down, some historians have found evidence of greater democracy in many branches; others assert a democratic approach would not have been practical in its illegal militant activities… The last being an organisational question that rumbles on today…)
I hope it is not taken as ‘whataboutery’ to mention that this year is not only the 100th anniversary of women first being included, but also the 170th anniversary of the last great upsurge in the Chartist movement, possibly the largest political movement of working class people in this country of the last 200 years. A movement that had climaxed ten years before in mass rallies, an abortive general strike and then attempts at insurrection and revolutionary plotting, but had been heavily hampered by government repression, mass arrests and jailings, and drifted into infighting, dilution by alliances with middle class organisations. It’s worth noting that although the movement as a whole was bent on winning the vote for all adult men, Chartism contained a sizable female contingent (including the Female Democratic Associations), with some working to win men the vote and some even, heretically, suggesting that women too should be included… In 1848 the movement revived, focused on the 3rd petition for the Charter, with the famous rally and march from Kennington Common and attempt to reach parliament. The march did not achieve its aim, nor did a summer of riots or the plotting of the ‘Ulterior Committee’ that failed, again, to launch a radical uprising (like the suffragettes, the Chartists were under heavy police observation, penetrated by spies). The Chartist movement went into permanent decline after this… It took another 19 years before some working class men won the vote (again by mass campaigning), in 1867, then this franchise was again extended in 1884, but it was only in 1918 that anything resembling universal MALE suffrage was achieved.
Chartism was always divided (as the radical and reform movements had been for the fifty years before it) over the question of ‘physical force’ – whether violent action would be needed to push through the social change they demanded. Though the government feared Chartism’s revolutionary potential, in reality, revolution was always unlikely – mostly because the movement was kept in bounds by some cautious leaders and a largely cautious membership. The Newport uprising, the unrealised Sacred month of 1839, the Sheffield and Bradford plots of 1840, the 1848 plans to revolt aside, the rhetoric was often more violent than the reality. This is not to denigrate Chartism, which was a huge cultural and social force, as much as political and the legacies of its penetration into every aspect of daily life for millions did help produce the pressure in the 1860s and 1880s that did achieve part of the Chartist program.Why did chartists not go for individual acts of violence, while later movements did? By 1907, when the WSPU began their militant campaign for the women’s vote, time had very much changed. ‘Terror’ tactics had been common currency in many parts of the world for several decades, particularly individual acts of violence, which had proved effective shockers to the authorities when employed by nationalist or socialist/anarchist/etc circles (though their actual effect on social change remains open to debate). However, does class background, and the type/origin of your political movement, have an impact on the kind of direct action and violence you see as legit/effective? Are Middle class activists more likely to plump for individual acts of violence? Are class conscious proles more in favour of collective anonymous riot-style shindigs? Discuss…
The WSPU – NUWSS split shows that division over violence was still as fierce it had been 60 years before, and (despite the historically greater celebration of the actions WSPU) the ‘constitutional’ wing membership was always larger. But the question of the relation of mass movements to their smaller more ‘militant’ wings remains active, and the question of which achieved the results – radical or moderate- is as hotly debated in present day activism as much as dusty historical exchanges. Did the poll tax see off Thatcher? If so was it mass non-payment wit dun it? Or the riots? Or both? The history of resistance to enclosure of common land and open spaces almost always shows up respectable campaigners and a direct action element – the list is as long as your arm.
The vote – for many chartists it wasn’t just about equality. Many saw even just getting the vote as a chance for working class to reshape society more in their own interests, redress economic power of the aristos and capitalists. A minority went further and articulated the need for working class power – to seize control of society completely. Many female suffrage activists 50-60 years later saw things in not dissimilar terms – that while equality was vital, the vote was a means towards a share in power, in the ability to decide policy and shape the way lives were organised, and in whose interests. Anarchists, and some anti-parliamentary socialists, of course, to some extent, decried the question of the vote, both as a distraction from where power really lies in capitalist society, and on the grounds that direct participation and control at a grassroots level trump representative democracy. Anarchist activists and writers also questioned whether the most immediate fight for many women was over the vote, or against the power the men in their own households had over them. Intelligent ruling class strategists worked out that ‘granting’ the vote could defuse more serious pressures… This was especially an issue at the end of World War 1 when revolution was seizing much of Europe and army mutinies and mass strikes seemed to threaten something similar here, at least to scared posh folk.
Press, politicians and all sorts of trite liberal commentators this month have been busy congratulating themselves that ‘we’ have reached the position of equality we have – decoded, meaning that further extensions in power to control our own lives on a day to day level are unnecessary, but that lip service can be paid to social movements that fought to bring us to where we are today. Actions celebrated when its historical would get you ten years in prison now, and the same voices lauding the suffragettes would jail anyone using similar direct action to
Neither the Chartist and suffrage movements were remotely homogeneous and both reflected wide class and other contradictions. Which were evident and open at the time, and should be discussed now, not brushed under a happy clappy carpet of ‘we’re all fine now ‘. Women fighting make violence, rape, systematic power imbalance, pay discrimination, unwaged reproductive labour, not to mention the intersection of race, class and gender relations, beg to differ. But I’ve also seen it recently expressed that ‘second wave feminism’ (meaning the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s-80s, broadly) achieved little and was only ever a movement of white middle class women interested in their own advancement. This huge historical slur is similar in some ways to some of the criticisms if the suffragettes (and not a million miles from over-simplifications levelled at Chartists). Yes, these movements had limits she seen from both our times and even according to the arguments of the time. But they all helped create the world we have, helped win gains we have enjoyed – limited as they be.
Their struggles also helped create the spaces our own movements operate in… People sometimes want to re-invent the wheel as if previous generations had never ridden, or pretend the wheel was square until they got hold of it and shaved off the corners. Young people eh? Read some fucking history.
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar