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

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5.4 Reflecting on the militant actions of the suffragettes

What did the militancy of the WSPU achieve? Without doubt, it stirred up publicity. In the years leading up to 1914 there was a steady flow of headlines in the national press about the latest building to be burned down, the latest museum piece to be vandalised or the latest possible bomb hoax, coupled with the latest arrest, hunger strike, release or reimprisonment of a leading suffragette.

But was this the ‘right type’ of publicity? Did it make the goal of securing votes for women more or less likely? Historical opinion remains divided. One danger was that, especially in the years of heightened militancy between 1912 and 1914, it allowed the authorities to treat the women’s suffrage movement simply as a public order issue, rather than engaging properly with the arguments for electoral reform that the movement wanted to put across. It also may have discouraged law-abiding readers for whom the whole idea of breaking the law was out of the question.

On the other hand, the militant activities of the WSPU ensured that the women’s suffrage movement remained at centre stage in the national debate. It prevented opponents of women’s suffrage within the establishment from ignoring the issue and brushing it to one side. The WSPU had a knack of stirring up public attention, always managing to provoke a response, whether positive or negative. The hope was that as long as that public interest was alive, the possibility of reform was also alive.

In the meantime, the NUWSS continued its work, still drawing in large numbers of supporters and making the moral case for reform. It showed that the cause of women’s suffrage was not backed only by militants, but was also supported by many moderate, law-abiding citizens – a message that was crucial for winning over the state and the public as a whole. Its role in the quest for votes for women should not be forgotten.

As noted earlier, there is one major factor that makes it hard to determine the relative contributions of the WSPU and the NUWSS to securing votes for women: the intervention of the First World War. When war broke out in 1914, the issue was unresolved. You will see later in the course that the war was to have a transforming effect on attitudes in government and among the public towards giving women the vote.