Women's Social and Political Union

Women's Social and Political Union

The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was the leading militant organisation campaigning for Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom. It was the first group whose members were known as "suffragettes".


The WSPU was founded at the Pankhurst family home in Manchester on 10 October, 1903 by six women, including Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, who soon emerged as the group's leaders. The WSPU had split from the non-militant National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, disappointed at the lack of success its tactics of persuading politicians through meetings had found.

The founders decided to form a women-only organisation, which would campaign for social reforms, largely in conjunction with the Independent Labour Party. They would also campaign for an extension of women's suffrage, believing that this was central to sexual equality. To illustrate their more militant stance, they adopted the slogan "Deeds, not words".


In 1905, the group convinced the Member of Parliament Bamford Slack to introduce a women's suffrage Bill they had drawn up. The Bill was ultimately talked out, but the publicity launched the rapid growth of the group.

The disappointment of the failure of the Bill led the WSPU to change tactics. They focused on attacking whichever political party was in government, and refused to support any legislation which did not include their demands for enfranchisement, thus dropping their commitment to other immediate social reforms.

In 1906, the group began a series of demonstrations and lobbies of Parliament, leading to the arrest and imprisonment of growing numbers of their members. An attempt to achieve equal franchise gained national attention when an envoy of three hundred women, representing over one hundred and twenty five thousand suffragettes argued for women's suffrage with the Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. The Prime Minister agreed with their argument but "was obliged to do nothing at all about it" and so urged the women to "go on pestering" and to exercise "the virtue of patience [."] Some of the women Campbell-Bannerman advised to be patient had been working for women's rights for as many as fifty years: his advice to "go on pestering" would prove quite unwise. His thoughtless words infuriated the protesters and "by those foolish words the militant movement became irrevocably established, and the stage of revolt began [."] Commenting on the phenomenon, Charles Hands, writing in the "Daily Mail", for the first time described the WSPU's members as "suffragettes". In 1907, the group launched a monthly journal, "Votes for Women", and held the first of several conferences, called "Women's Parliaments".

The Labour Party then voted to support universal suffrage. This split them from the WSPU, which had always accepted the property qualifications which already applied to women's participation in local elections. Under Christabel's direction, the group began to more explicitly organise exclusively among middle class women, and stated their opposition to all political parties. This led a small group of prominent members to leave and form the Women's Freedom League.

Campaigning becomes more militant

Around the turn of the century, a subgroup called the Women's Tax Resistance League, using the slogan "No Vote, No Tax," began a campaign of tax resistance.

In 1908 the WSPU adopted purple, white and green as its official colours, and held a 300,000-strong rally in Hyde Park where they used the speakers corner to great effect. They also opened a chain of shops to raise money.

In opposition to the continuing and repeated imprisonment of many of their members, they introduced the prison hunger strike to Britain, and the authorities' policy of force feeding won the suffragettes great sympathy from the public. The Government later passed the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913, commonly referred to as the Cat and Mouse Act, which allowed the release of suffragettes when near to death due to malnourishment, but officers could re-imprison them once healthy. This was an attempt to avoid force feeding.

A new suffrage bill was introduced in 1910, but growing impatient, the WSPU launched a campaign of protest in 1912 on the basis of targeting property and avoiding violence against any person. Initially this involved smashing shop windows, but ultimately escalated to burning stately homes and bombing public buildings including Westminster Abbey. It also famously led to the death of Emily Davison as she was trampled by the King's horse, Anmer, at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

Included in the many militant acts performed were the burning of churches, restaurants and railway carriages, smashing government windows weekly, cutting telephone lines, spitting at police and politicians, partial destruction of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George's home, cutting and burning pro-suffrage slogans into stadium turf, sending letter bombs, destroying greenhouses at Kew gardens, chaining themselves to railings and blowing up houses. A doctor was attacked with a rhino whip and in one case suffragettes rushed the House of Commons. On March 10, 1914 the militant suffragette Mary "Slasher" Richardson walked into the National Gallery and attacked Diego Velázquez's Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver. In 1913, suffragette militancy caused £54,000 worth of damage, £36,000 of which occurred in April alone.Fact|date=May 2007

The group also suffered some splits. The editors of "Votes for Women" were expelled in 1912, and the group launched a new journal, "The Suffragette". The East London Federation of mostly working class women and led by Sylvia Pankhurst was expelled in 1914.

WSPU during World War I

The WSPU became jingoistic on the outbreak of World War I. The WSPU worked with the government to encourage women to serve. While the majority of WSPU members supported the war, a small number formed the Suffragettes of the Women's Social Political Union (SWSPU) and the Independent Women's Social and Political Union (IWSPU).

Christabel moved to Paris, where she was able to run the organisation without fear of arrest. This also reduced the level of democracy in the group, and enabled her, over the objections of Kitty Marion and others, [http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/WmarionK.htm Spartacus: Kitty Marion ] ] to declare on the outbreak of World War I that the WSPU should abandon its campaigns in favour of supporting the British government in the war. They stopped publishing "The Suffragette", and in April 1915 launched a new journal, "Britannia". The group faded from public attention, and was dissolved in 1917, with Christabel and Emmeline founding the Women's Party.


Ray Strachey, The Cause: A Short History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain, p.301


External links

[http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:RAD.SCHL:sch00200 Records of the Women's Social and Political Union.] [http://www.radcliffe.edu/schles Schlesinger Library,] Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

ee also

* Dame Ethel Mary Smyth
* Toffee hammer

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