However well we think we know the suffragists and suffragettes, it is still easy to be dazzled by the iconic images: a tiny Emmeline Pankhurst being lifted off her feet by a burly policeman, Emily Davison tumbling under the hooves of King George V’s horse at the Derby, an enraptured Christabel Pankhurst rousing her supporters. Yet there is so much more to the story of the crusade for women’s suffrage, involving men as well as women, than those pictures suggest, as these books by Diane Atkinson and Jane Robinson abundantly reveal.
With their flamboyant leaders and guerrilla tactics, the suffragettes have always hogged the limelight while the non-militant suffragists have languished in the shadows, despite the fact that they were around for longer and numbered many more. In reality the division was often blurred, as many women moved between the two groups or were simultaneously members of both.
Robinson’s book, which focuses chiefly on the suffragists, and particularly on their ‘Great Pilgrimage’ of 1913, provides a welcome fresh look at the constitutional campaign. By contrast, Atkinson’s book, which concentrates on the suffragettes, retreads some familiar ground but succeeds in adeptly combining a step-by-step account of the militant struggle with vivid cameos of the women involved. Published to coincide with the centenary of the grant of the vote to women over thirty in February 1918, they make timely companion volumes. The real strength of both books, however, is that they bring back to life the numerous ordinary women who took part in that struggle. Their voices, unearthed from diaries, memoirs and letters, continue to resonate today.
The books chart the origins of the suffrage campaign up to the founding in 1897 of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett. Pretty, petite and polite, Fawcett was no shrinking violet: she spent four months investigating British atrocities in South Africa, travelling much of the time by bicycle. A shrewd tactician, she kept the NUWSS firmly committed to its non-violent principles as she negotiated with the slippery Liberal government. When Emmeline Pankhurst launched her Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, Fawcett thanked her for ‘reigniting’ the cause.
Although the NUWSS remained by far the bigger outfit, and unlike the WSPU accepted men into the fold, it was the WSPU that stirred hearts and won minds with its rousing rallies in the industrial North, its adoption of the familiar purple, green and white colours, and its commitment to ‘Deeds not Words’. When Pankhurst’s daughter Christabel and millworker Annie Kenney were arrested after unfurling a banner demanding ‘Votes for Women’ at a Liberal rally in Manchester in 1905, Fawcett supported them. As more arrests followed, she admitted that the ‘suffragettes’, as they were dubbed by the Daily Mail, had achieved more in twelve months than she had managed in twelve years. But as the WSPU embraced increasingly aggressive tactics, the NUWSS grew concerned.
Initially the suffragettes’ campaign veered closer to slapstick than violence, as Atkinson gleefully relates. Its supporters filled the front row of a Liberal rally in the Royal Albert Hall, then tore off their capes to reveal mock prison clothes; they piled into two furniture vans in an attempt to invade the House of Commons; they harangued MPs from a boat on the Thames. Cabinet members woke to find their gardens decorated with suffragette colours and golf courses were etched with ‘Votes for Women’ in acid. The activists who perpetrated these perceived outrages included such women as the five Spong sisters, all vegetarians, a number of whom went to prison for their beliefs; Dora Thewlis, known as ‘the Baby Suffragette’, whose mother encouraged her to take action and who was first arrested at the age of sixteen; and the formidable Flora Drummond, nicknamed ‘General’ for her organisational skills. Some were supported by fathers and husbands, who likewise went to prison for the cause.
As the government repeatedly backtracked on promised reforms, the suffragettes espoused more violent methods – smashing windows, slashing paintings, planting bombs and setting fire to theatres and churches. Having initially courted arrest, they increasingly sought to evade capture. At the height of the struggle in 1913, Pankhurst boasted a bodyguard of twenty women trained in jujitsu and armed with Indian clubs.
It was against this background that the NUWSS organised the Great Pilgrimage, which saw hundreds of women and men set off from points as far afield as Carlisle and Land’s End to walk to London during the summer of 1913. Both a peaceful protest and a demonstration of the strength of ordinary people’s support for women’s suffrage, the march culminated in a rally in Hyde Park that attracted fifty thousand. Women and men of all ages and backgrounds took part. Lady Rochdale, daughter of the third Earl of Ellesmere, walked side by side with Emily Murgatroyd, a millworker since the age of ten. Cheered by well-wishers, who gave them food and money, the marchers were also attacked by mobs who mistook them for militants.
Whether the suffragists or suffragettes were more effective in winning the vote is impossible to call. When the vote was granted in 1918, it was widely regarded as a reward for women’s war work, though the age limit ensured that women were still in a minority within the total electorate. Which of the two outfits had more fun is easier to answer. Although Robinson says it was ‘grander’ to join the pilgrimage than to smash windows, there seems little doubt that the suffragettes had a whale of a time donning elaborate disguises and dodging plodding detectives, as Atkinson’s fizzing first-hand accounts make clear. Even through the gruelling hunger strikes and horrific force-feeding, most kept up a relentlessly positive spirit.
Perversely, perhaps, Robinson’s story of the suffragists’ pilgrimage is a jauntier read, sometimes to the point of seeming overly chatty, while Atkinson’s weighty volume, with its long procession of events and names, is more staid, though it undoubtedly represents a colossal feat of research and a magisterial assemblage of material. Both are worthy salutes to the extraordinary women – and men – whose voices raised in chorus demanding ‘Votes for Women’ still ring clear.