The history of female protest and suffrage in the UK
The history of female protest and suffrage in the UK

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The history of female protest and suffrage in the UK

5.3 Were suffragettes terrorists?

As the years went by, and hopes of new legislation on votes for women were dashed, the WSPU’s methods became more extreme. One approach was to burn down buildings during the night – they were checked beforehand to make sure that no human or animal was present inside. The country house of the leading Liberal politician David Lloyd George was fire-bombed in February 1913.

Another tactic was vandalising paintings and other valuable objects in galleries and museums (targets included the Velázquez painting popularly known as ‘The Rokeby Venus’, which represented the Goddess of Love as a female nude), and many ended up being closed to women or to the public in general.

There were real dangers of a public backlash against this sort of extreme action, especially in the last desperate years of protest between 1912 and 1914. Increasingly, indignant men were physically attacking WSPU members, shops and offices, and driving the movement underground.

Then, in August 1914, the narrative abruptly changed with the outbreak of the First World War. The women’s suffrage societies stopped most of their activities for the duration of the war. Exactly how events might have unfolded without this dramatic rupture in history, we will never know, though many books and other scholarly sources debate this question (see, for example, Martin Pugh’s ‘Epilogue: War and the Vote’ in his book The March of the Women (2000)). You’ll return to this question later in the course.

It’s possible to look further into the militant activities of the WSPU by considering another type of source available to you on the internet. There is a growing archive of television and radio programmes, including historical documentaries, to be found there.

Activity 7 The things we forgot to remember

This activity has two tasks.

In this activity you will explore a radio programme from the series Things We Forgot to Remember, which has been split into two clips for Tasks 1 and 2 below. Listen to each clip, and, either in the text box provided or in your learning notebook, answer the question asked following the first audio and carry out the task set following the second.

Task 1

Listen to the following audio.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 1
Skip transcript: Audio 1 Things we forgot to remember, clip 1

Transcript: Audio 1 Things we forgot to remember, clip 1

MICHAEL PORTILLO
This is Tottenham Court Road in the West End of London, famous now for its electronics and furniture shops. But in 1909, on the site of the building behind me, number 92, a police investigation was underway into a possible conspiracy to murder the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. The potential assassin wasn’t a German spy or a Fenian terrorist – but a small woman in a hat. She was described as a ‘suffragette’. On the 27th of September, Inspector Riley of the Met reported:
READER
I made enquiries late on Saturday evening at 92 Tottenham Court Road, and the proprietor of the miniature shooting range there informed me that about three weeks ago two women (one of whom was described as a little woman wearing a tam-o’-shanter) who were said to be ‘suffragettes’ had been practising with a Browning pistol.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
His superiors at the Home Office took the threat seriously. That shooting range had recently been used by the assassin of Sir William Curzon Wyllie, the aide to the Secretary of State for India. The Home Office’s conclusion:
READER
There is now definite ground for fearing the possibility of the PM’s being fired at by one of the pickets at the entrance to the House of Commons. It seems to me that we have in fact prima facie grounds for believing that there is something nearly amounting to a conspiracy to murder.

[Music.]

MICHAEL PORTILLO
It’s a shocking thought, a suffragette, hatted in her tam-o’-shanter, lurking outside Parliament for the Prime Minister to arrive, then springing forward to shoot him.

[Music.]

MICHAEL PORTILLO
This tableau sits uneasily alongside our image of the suffragettes as noble crusaders for constitutional recognition. When we think of suffragettes, we call to mind the tactics of civil disobedience – women chaining themselves to railings, disrupting meetings, maybe going as far as breaking windows. Is there something we’ve forgotten to remember? That the women’s suffrage movement was prepared to go much further and to embrace lethal violence? I took the Home Office documents to an expert in early twentieth-century guns at an armourer on the outskirts of London to see what ballistics could tell us about the seriousness of the threat.
TONY
What we have to do for the first shot, we have to pull the slide back and let go, which will chamber it.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
These pocket or overcoat pistols, if I was standing close to Carriage Gates at the House of Commons as the Prime Minister swept by in his carriage or car, what chance of hitting him or indeed hitting his car?
TONY
Within 10, 15 feet you would probably hit them. You have to remember that Franz Joseph was killed with a Browning 1910, which is in this calibre 32. The pistol involved is known as the pistol that killed 8.5 million people.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
I wonder if we might have a pop with these. What do you think?
TONY
Yes, we can let you fire this.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
Okay. I’m going to put these squidgy ear defenders in my ear. And if this lady came and practised a few times, how much better would she get at aiming?
TONY
A bit of training would improve it. But it would only show her that she has to get up close.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
Okay. I’m inserting my second earplug.
TONY
Okay. That gun is now loaded.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
It’s a smallish gun, fits very neatly into my hand. Ready? [Fires]. Yeah, a bit of a kick. The barrel definitely moves, doesn’t it? You have to hold it quite steady. Even if it was only half an inch that would be quite a wide miss ...
TONY
Absolutely.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
... if I hadn’t controlled it.
TONY
As you can appreciate, to a lady who fired that for the first time it would have been a shock. So if she’d gone to a range, after maybe firing 10 or15 shots you get a little bit more used to it. Someone who’s never fired a gun, it can come as a surprise.
KRISTA COWMAN
Ministers would walk to the House of Commons. They would not, they would not be chauffeur-driven in a ministerial car.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
Krista Cowman is Professor of History at Lincoln University. She explains that cabinet ministers at the time were vulnerable to attack.
KRISTA COWMAN
You could get at cabinet ministers. They were completely accessible. You could wander down Downing Street, and the suffragettes did on, on several occasions. So I think that within this context it is quite understandable. This is a period of escalating political violence across the scale, not just of women’s violence but from a whole variety of other organisations who are determined to use this form of protest as a means of advancing their aims.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
Professor June Purvis is the biographer of Emmeline Pankhurst. She senses that Prime Minister Asquith was very much the focus of the suffragettes’ anger.
JUNE PURVIS
He was a very staunch anti-suffragist so he wasn’t in favour of votes for women. And I think when the suffragettes began to be assertive, to demand their rights, this was what upset a lot of men in the House of Commons.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
But she dismisses the plot described in the Home Office papers as merely the product of over-zealous policing.
JUNE PURVIS
I’m not quite sure whether it’s just part of the paranoia at the time. I have never come across any evidence of women wielding guns and practising at firing ranges to shoot people. So I’m a bit sceptical of that.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
It’s almost impossible to tell whether the conspiracy was foiled by the vigilance of the police – or whether there was a plot at all. But there is evidence of violence emanating from within the suffragette movement, something that has been forgotten. Dr Christopher Bearman is an independent researcher. His speech has been affected by illness. He’s spent the last few years investigating the occurrence of potentially lethal violence during the suffragette campaign from 1909 to the outbreak of war in 1914. He claims to have evidence that some women were willing to take their campaign to a level little short of terrorism.
DR CHRISTOPHER BEARMAN
Well bombing, some bombs placed in public places. There was one set near the Bank of England in April 1913. In June 1914 a suffragette was taken into custody in Nottingham and in her suitcase was a pound of high explosive with fuses and detonators.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
Professor Krista Cowman’s research has also unearthed evidence of bombings, actual and intended.
KRISTA COWMAN
Edith Rigby placed a bomb in the stock exchange at Liverpool, which did go off. It went off while the stock exchange was not working. But it’s very difficult to time these things, and to argue where the line is between the sort of more symbolic aspects of militant action like that and the way in which you can actually affect protection of people who are involved in the vicinity at the time.
DR CHRISTOPHER BEARMAN
In July 1912 a device of some sort was planted in the Home Secretary’s office, but no details got into the press until 10 months later when the Manchester Guardian claimed it was a bomb which had sufficient power to wreck the office and kill anyone inside.
KRISTA COWMAN
There are other examples where women talk about going out with bombs which didn’t actually detonate. One woman who was an organiser had a bomb in her bag on a bus that started buzzing and she had to get off the bus very quickly because obviously she didn’t want it to detonate with her, with her still holding it.
DR CHRISTOPHER BEARMAN
They had a chemist named Edwy Clayton who in fact lived at Kew. And his wife was the secretary of the suffragette branch there. In April 1913 the police made a number of raids on the suffragette headquarters and on the homes of people who worked there. And they found letters from Clayton. He thought of targets like the National Health Insurance Commission and he was made payments by the suffragettes.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
Arson, bomb-making and intimidation are not what we learned in history lessons about the suffrage movement.
End transcript: Audio 1 Things we forgot to remember, clip 1
Audio 1 Things we forgot to remember, clip 1
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What tactics did members of the WSPU use or consider using in their campaign?

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Discussion

You might have written about:

  • arson
  • destruction of property
  • bombing
  • assassinating the Prime Minister.

Task 2

Now listen to the next audio.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 2
Skip transcript: Audio 2 Things we forgot to remember, clip 2

Transcript: Audio 2 Things we forgot to remember, clip 2

MICHAEL PORTILLO
When we talk of suffragettes we’re referring to just one component of the suffrage movement. The main body was the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, called suffragists. It had been formed in 1897 as a political lobbying group uniting the disparate groups that had campaigned for women’s votes since the 1832 Reform Act. But in 1903 an iconic figure in the battle for women’s suffrage established a breakaway movement, as Professor June Purvis explains.
JUNE PURVIS
In 1903 Mrs Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, or the WSPU as it became known. And she founded that because she was tired of the way women had been campaigning for so long for the vote for women and nothing had ever been produced. So she was tired of committees, she was tired of talk. And what she wanted was a new organisation that was women only and was concerned, as she said, with deeds not words. Initially the WSPU engaged in peaceful campaigning and then gradually, as these means failed, then the peaceful means of campaigning became more militant.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
The WSPU believed in direct action, embracing what they described as the ‘the argument of the stone’. Speaking in 1958, Charlotte Marsh made very plain what the expression meant.
CHARLOTTE MARSH
Well, it was a concerted effort on the part of women all over London to smash windows. It was on the 1st of March 1912 I went across to the station and bought a bunch of violets which I carried in my left hand. And in my right I carried a hammer. I walked down the Strand. When I got to a leather goods shop and then just bang and my hammer through the window. And I continued armed down the Strand for quite a way and did quite a lot of damage.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
The Pankhursts believed that lobbying local MPs and working within the constraints of the law would do little to overcome the bias in the political elite against enfranchising women. This newspaper report from The Times in April 1906 illustrates what they were up against in Parliament. The article quotes William Cremner MP.
READER
He opposed the motion, asserting that according to the last census there were three-quarters of a million more female than male voters. So adult suffrage meant handing the government of the country over to a majority of the electorate who were not men but women – at which there was much laughter in the House.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
In the face of such contempt, the suffragettes of the WSPU brought the campaign to the capital and targeted the government directly. But more protests brought more arrests and more women exposed to the harsh regime of prison. Instances of brutality and force-feeding fuelled the anger of the suffragettes and their action became ever more militant.
KRISTA COWMAN
Bombing came in very much towards the end of the campaign. One of the things that happens after 1912 is that prosecution of suffrage leaders, suffragette leaders, increases massively. Jail sentences increase massively. And the government start to prosecute for conspiracy. And that means that even if you’ve never been involved in militancy you can actually be arrested and you can face a very long prison sentence. Many women then decided, well if we’re going to be prosecuted for not actually doing anything, for just supporting, we might as well go and do something and do it clandestinely. And this is a very dramatic shift.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
As far as we know, militant suffragette actions didn’t claim a single life. But in Edwardian Britain people had been killed by other protest groups using similar methods of violence.
KRISTA COWMAN
Suffragette militancy is happening within a far broader context of political militancy. There is Irish militancy, there has been the Fenian bombing campaign in the late nineteenth century. There is the wave of strikes that sweep the country in 1911 and 1912, where we see the government bringing in the army against strikers. So this is not just women’s militancy, this is a whole spectrum of political militancy which is going on at the time.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
Does this mean that we should now accept that the suffragette movement also had a terrorist wing?
KRISTA COWMAN
One could describe it as a terrorist organisation. I think certainly the suffragettes stand within a broader spectrum of anarchists, of Fenians, of very militant trade unions, who were prepared to use violent means to achieve their ends. And certainly people in their day would describe them in those terms.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
Professor Purvis believes that definition is unfair.
JUNE PURVIS
I don’t agree with that at all. I mean there’s no one universally accepted definition of what a terrorist is. Now, Mrs Pankhurst would be horrified at that sort of means of trying to get your way politically because she never advocated the suffragettes killing anybody. That was really out of the question.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
We take women’s right to vote for granted now and might be prepared to forgive a little violence in pursuit of so just a cause. But Dr Christopher Bearman thinks we should see the campaign for women’s suffrage in the context of the time. Edwardian Britain was far from democratic.
DR CHRISTOPHER BEARMAN
The suffragette campaign happened in a country in which 40 per cent of men did not have the vote, in which no one who was not a householder had the vote. No son who lived with parents could vote. No solider who lived in barracks could vote. It was not then part of citizenship. The manhood suffrage campaign had been going since the 1760s and the 70s but there was no sustained campaign of violence.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
The most extreme militancy of the suffrage movement has been almost entirely forgotten. We’ve inherited images of women being carried away by burly policemen, of Emily Wilding Davison caught on film as she dies trampled under the hooves of the King’s racehorse. We remember suffering and martyrdom inflicted by an oppressive male state. Why don’t we recall arson, bombs and guns? Dr Hilda Keane of Ruskin College, Oxford, is an expert in public history. She thinks the WSPU branch of the suffrage movement was very conscious even at the time of the images it created, knowing that they would pass into history.
DR HILDA KEANE
Women who were active in the suffrage cause were not just involved in a political campaign but saw what they were doing as part of a historic movement, a historical moment in history. They saw this even as they were doing it. Hence the creation of particular iconography, badges, material culture, getting badges if you went to prison, for example. So when you get to the 1920s you’ll have an organisation established called the Suffragette Fellowship which is specifically set up, in their words, ‘to perpetuate the memory of the pioneers’. So they are saying we are making history and we are making sure that it isn’t forgotten.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
Eleanor Higginson, here speaking in 1968, was a suffragette and she saw how important maintaining media profile was to the WSPU leadership.
ELEANOR HIGGINSON
They had been asking for it for 60 years before Mrs Pankhurst started asking for it. And when they asked for it in drawing rooms in a polite manner. And of course that doesn’t attract the press, you see. So when Mrs Pankhurst started, the first thing she found out was sweet are the uses of advertisement and we had to keep the pot boiling.
DR HILDA KEANE
It was this idea of an individual taking a stand and, if you like, being a martyr to the cause. So, for example, on their banners, when they had demonstrations, they would have the image of Joan of Arc and Bodicea. So, militant women and individuals who died for an apparently just cause.
MICHAEL PORTILLO
That was how the WSPU wanted to be remembered, as victims and martyrs rather than as militants who might have killed.
KRISTA COWMAN
I think it probably is the case that we have forgotten a lot of the more violent incidents. I think there are several reasons for this. The first reason is historical. You have to think about why the WSPU campaign ends. It doesn’t end because they’ve succeeded, neither does it end because they’ve decided to stop. It ends because the First World War breaks out. And between 1914 and 1918 Europe sees carnage on such an unprecedented scale that all of the political militancy of that sort of preceding Edwardian code of the years 1900 to 1914 looks like children play acting in comparison with what comes after that. So I think that’s one reason that in the 1920s people aren’t anxious to revisit political militancy of that type because it just, it suddenly seems spurious in comparison with the real violence and the real carnage that’s been suffered during the war.
End transcript: Audio 2 Things we forgot to remember, clip 2
Audio 2 Things we forgot to remember, clip 2
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Summarise the difference of opinion between Krista Cowman and June Purvis over the issue of whether or not members of the WSPU can be described as ‘terrorists’.

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Discussion

Krista Cowman is prepared to admit that the WSPU used tactics that could be described as ‘terrorist’. However, June Purvis resists this description of their campaign. Whose views did you find yourself closest to as you were listening?

This activity has demonstrated once more that it’s important to investigate the range of opinion on a topic, as well as the purpose and possible bias of a particular source.

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