Were feminists who adopted militant methods to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women. Though by far the most famous members of the women's movement before 1914, their contribution to winning the vote has been much diminished by modern scholarship.
The term ‘suffragette’ was coined by the Daily Mail to distinguish them from the suffragists who had been working for the vote since 1866. The movement originated with Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, who founded the Women's Social and Political Union in 1903. They regarded militancy as justified in view of the failure to achieve the vote after 40 years of campaigning. Initially this involved interrupting the meetings of leading politicians, attempting to enter the lobby of the House of Commons, and intervening at by‐elections at which electors were urged to vote against Liberal candidates. However, the growing violence used by the police and the hostility of the public towards the suffragettes led them to change tactics. This involved window‐breaking, setting fire to pillar boxes and buildings, destroying the turf at golf courses, and dramatic incidents like the slashing of a painting, the Rokeby Venus, by Mary Richardson in 1914.
As a result the authorities began to impose prison sentences on the suffragettes, who went on hunger strikes. In order to avoid the death of a suffragette in custody attempts were made at forcible feeding. However, this proved dangerous to health, and thus in 1913 the government resorted to special legislation, dubbed the ‘*Cat and Mouse Act’, to allow the authorities to release hunger‐strikers but rearrest them when their health had improved. In 1913 Emily Wilding Davison foiled the government's strategy when she threw herself under the king's horse on Derby Day and died of her injuries.
Their campaign clearly set back the cause by antagonizing many non‐militant women and by alienating pro‐suffrage members of Parliament. But the crucial weakness lay in the Pankhursts' failure to mobilize working‐class men and women. This lack of a genuine mass movement explains why the government freely employed the police against them.
The outbreak of war in August 1914 rescued them from the impasse. They quickly accepted an amnesty whereby prisoners were released and militancy suspended. Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel effectively abandoned not only militancy but the women's cause itself. During the war they attempted to build a new role by speaking on recruiting platforms and urging workers not to strike. In the process they moved further to the right. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the suspension of the Pankhursts' campaign, the vote was granted to 8.4 million women in June 1918. Thereafter Mrs Pankhurst spent much of her time lecturing in North America, Christabel gave up politics for religion, and Sylvia adopted several causes including the British Communist Party.
Subjects: British History.