The Suffragettes wanted the right for women to vote.
The move for women to have the vote had really started in 1897 when Millicent Fawcett founded theNational Union of Women’s Suffrage. “Suffrage” means the right to vote and that is what women wanted – hence its inclusion in Fawcett’s title.
However, Fawcett’s progress was very slow. She converted some of the members of the Labour Representation Committee (soon to be the Labour Party) but most men in Parliament believed that women simply would not understand how Parliament worked and therefore should not take part in the electoral process. This left many women angry and in 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. They wanted women to have the right to vote and they were not prepared to wait. The Union became better known as the Suffragettes. Members of the Suffragettes were prepared to use violence to get what they wanted.
In fact, the Suffragettes started off relatively peacefully. It was only in 1905 that the organisation created a stir when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney interrupted a political meeting in Manchester to ask two Liberal politicians (Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey) if they believed women should have the right to vote. Neither man replied. As a result, the two women got out a banner which had on it “Votes for Women” and shouted at the two politicians to answer their questions. Such actions were all but unheard of then when public speakers were usually heard in silence and listened to courteously even if you did not agree with them. Pankhurst and Kenney were thrown out of the meeting and arrested for causing an obstruction and a technical assault on a police officer.
Both women refused to pay a fine preferring to go to prison to highlight the injustice of the system as it was then. Emmeline Pankhurst later wrote in her autobiography that:
The Suffragettes refused to bow to violence. They burned down churches as the Church of England was against what they wanted; they vandalised Oxford Street, apparently breaking all the windows in this famous street; they chained themselves to Buckingham Palace as the Royal Family were seen to be against women having the right to vote; they hired out boats, sailed up the Thames and shouted abuse through loud hailers at Parliament as it sat; others refused to pay their tax. Politicians were attacked as they went to work. Their homes were fire bombed. Golf courses were vandalised. The first decade of Britain in the twentieth century was proving to be violent in the extreme.
The government of Asquith responded with the Cat and Mouse Act. When a Suffragette was sent to prison, it was assumed that she would go on hunger strike as this caused the authorities maximum discomfort. The Cat and Mouse Act allowed the Suffragettes to go on a hunger strike and let them get weaker and weaker. Force feeding was not used. When the Suffragettes were very weak……….they were released from prison. If they died out of prison, this was of no embarrassment to the government. However, they did not die but those who were released were so weak that they could take no part in violent Suffragette struggles. When those who had been arrested and released had regained their strength, they were re-arrested for the most trivial of reason and the whole process started again. This, from the government’s point of view, was a very simple but effective weapon against the Suffragettes.
It is possible that the Suffragettes would have become more violent. They had, after all, in February 1913 blown up part of David Lloyd George’s house – he was probably Britain’s most famous politician at this time and he was thought to be a supporter of the right for women to have the vote!
However, Britain and Europe was plunged into World War One in August 1914. In a display of patriotism,Emmeline Pankhurst instructed the Suffragettes to stop their campaign of violence and support in every way the government and its war effort. The work done by women in the First World War was to be vital for Britain’s war effort. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed by Parliament.