In 1912 two very different policies fought for dominance in the suffragette movement. Sylvia Pankhurst’s defence of mass protest is still relevant today, explains Katherine Connelly.

Sylvia Pankhurst arrested

The first of March 1912. Police gather at Scotland Yard to discuss tactics for the suffragette protest called for three days later. Suffragettes broke shop windows just three months before – it must not happen again. Meanwhile, the sound of breaking glass shrieked all across the West End as smartly dressed women walked up to some of London’s famous department stores, pulled out hammers and smashed their windows.

If police thought the protest announced for the 4th had just been a clever ruse, they were also wrong about that. More widows were smashed across fashionable Kensington and Knightsbridge on that day too.

Suffragette leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) Emmeline Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence and Frederick Pethick Lawrence were all arrested and charged with conspiracy. Long prison sentences loomed.

But Christabel Pankhurst, strategist of the WSPU, was nowhere to be found. The Pethick Lawrences had sent her a warning that she was about to be arrested.

The undemocratic structures of the WSPU now proved to be a practical problem. If all the leaders were imprisoned, who could take their place? Christabel was convinced it was in everyone’s best interests that she should continue to dictate WSPU policy.

In the dead of night suffragettes spirited her across London, burnt her famous hat, and provided her with a disguise so that she could board the morning boat train to France. Over the next two years her carefully selected envoys would travel across the Channel and return with Christabel’s instructions.

There was, however, a problem – and she was Christabel’s young sister, the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. She is perhaps best remembered as the suffragette who built a working-class militant suffrage campaign in London’s East End, after being expelled from the WSPU following her appearance on a platform with Irish and labour leaders in November 1913.

The basis for Sylvia’s East End campaign was developed in the years before 1914 when Sylvia began to influence the political direction of the WSPU. The conflict between the group around Sylvia and the group around Christabel over the most effective campaigning tactics still resonates in the debates of today’s movements.

When Emmeline Pankhurst, Emmeline and Frederick Pethick Lawrence were sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment in the 1912 conspiracy trial, Sylvia decided to become a full-time suffragette activist, putting aside her cherished dreams of becoming an artist. She had looked on with increasing dismay as smaller and smaller groups of suffragettes performed ever more militant actions, encouraged by a leadership that shunned alliance with the labour movement and other wider campaigns.

The turning point had come in 1908. Challenged by the government to show mass support for votes for women, the suffragettes plunged all their efforts into building a huge demonstration at Hyde Park. There were perhaps half a million in the Park that day. The Times even reported it might have been 750,000. But, although mass support had been proved, the government’s hostile attitude remained the same.

Christabel’s response was to reject mass action in favour of militant action by ‘influential’, generally wealthy, women. Immediately after the Hyde Park demonstration she wrote in the suffragette newspaper Votes for Women that the movement now needed ‘women of distinction and influence to show their earnestness and devotion to this cause.’1

Suffragette leader Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, writing less than a month after Hyde Park, explicitly rejected the capacity of working-class women to participate effectively in the movement:

‘I appeal especially at this moment to the strong to come forward now and take upon their shoulders the burden of the weak. It is not the toiling mother, the sweated worker, the deserted wife, the worsted in life, who can bear the strain and stress of the battle we are fighting for women’s deliverance to-day’.2

At Hyde Park the women had proved they had public opinion on their side – so the WSPU leadership’s argument went – and this had not won them the vote, so increasing militancy would now be used instead to force the government to grant votes for women.

This was an essentially one-dimensional view of the role of a mass demonstration which neglected the way in which a demonstration can build a movement by bringing new people in, inspiring them at a time when they can see how broad the support is for a cause they are beginning to identify with.

Sylvia Pankhurst perceived a further problem with the leadership’s rejection of mass demonstrations. She understood that public support is not a static phenomenon: it is not a feather planted in a cap that can be pointed to when uncomfortable questions are asked.

If the escalating militancy after 1908 was not accompanied by a continuous dialogue with the public, if the movement did not feel it had to justify itself to the public, then they would lose the support they had won.

By 1912, now that her own mother and the other leaders faced a long stretch of imprisonment and the life-threatening hunger strike and probable forcible feeding (both Pethick Lawrences were force fed, Emmeline Pankhurst successfully resisted the prison authorities’ only attempt to do so), Sylvia feared that they would be forgotten, that the suffragettes would be unable to mobilise the public outrage needed to free them.

Sylvia threw herself into an argument in the movement to combat this:

‘there was an outcry in the Union that propaganda meetings were useless, the one thing essential being the destruction of private property to arouse the public, and the terrorizing of Cabinet Ministers. Both in speaking and organizing, I set to work to combat this view, and to secure the extension, not the slackening, of propaganda work’.3

She persuaded other important figures in the movement of her view and the suffragettes prepared to organise the biggest demonstration since Hyde Park in 1908. In the build-up they held ‘Women’s Sunday’ demonstrations all across London, as well as dinner-time and evening meetings timed to attract working-class audiences.

Sylvia noticed that crowds that had shouted that militants “Ought to ‘ung” a few months before were now being won over to enthusiastically supporting the suffragettes.4

Alliances with the labour movement began to be rebuilt as leading members of the Independent Labour Party were invited to join the suffragette platforms. While Christabel had wanted only influential women, Sylvia sent speakers to the solidly working-class East End as well as to Bermondsey, where women factory workers who had recently been on strike supported the campaign.

These efforts culminated in a huge demonstration in Hyde Park – the second largest ever held by the suffragettes. Symbolising the new radicalism were specially commissioned banners with slogans evoking ‘Peterloo’, the working-class demonstration for the vote in 1819, and red ‘caps of liberty’, also used at ‘Peterloo’, which Sylvia added to the suffragette colours of purple, white and green.

This was the exact opposite of what Christabel Pankhurst had wanted Sylvia to do. In fact, Christabel had instructed Sylvia to burn down Nottingham Castle!

While Sylvia was mobilising people onto the streets in the summer of 1912, Christabel was organising a secret campaign of arson. The nature of this activity meant that it was something most women could not get involved in. It had to be done by very small groups of women, who would have to pay a very high price if arrested.

Letter boxes were a favourite target. This tactic had been pioneered by one Emily Wilding Davison in 1910, but it was not a tactic the leadership urged until summer 1912.

There was now no attempt even to claim public support. In a notorious front page of the new suffragette newspaper, The Suffragette, an ‘open letter’ to the British public claimed they did not care what the public thought because they held the public in contempt.

‘Were you of any use to it [the suffragette movement], and was your sympathy of any use to it in the old days? Certainly not! The fact is that from a practical point of view your anger and your irritation are very often more to be desired than your approval’.5

The letter went on:

‘Your approval in the majority of cases leads to nothing. There are two ways of moving you to action. One is to stir your emotions by means of some appalling tragedy, dramatically described for you by the Press. The other is to make you thoroughly uncomfortable. The more effective of these two ways is to make you uncomfortable’.6

In the end, the two tactics were not as different as the article made out. The same woman who had pioneered the letter box fires would run out onto the Derby to disrupt the horse race and be killed in collision with the King’s horse. It is sadly ironic that Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral in 1913 would be the occasion of the last WSPU central London street pageant, Sylvia having transferred her efforts to the East End by this time.

Both the arson campaign and this act of extreme self-sacrifice were united by a sense of frustration with the failure of the campaign to win its ultimate victory.

This was exacerbated by the strategy of the WSPU leadership who did not urge a turn towards wider alliances or demonstrations to pull ever more campaigners in, but instead blamed the vast majority of people for failing to do enough to support the campaign.

For just over a year, Sylvia Pankhurst was able to develop a different strategy within the WSPU which she would later put into practice far more spectacularly in the East End. This strategy did not blame the public for the failure to win the vote, but instead sought to make the vote relevant to their lives by uniting the campaign with protests against poverty and exploitation.

The campaign in the East End remained militant – windows were smashed and women were arrested – but these actions were always explained and debated in regular mass demonstrations in the East End’s Victoria Park.

Katherine Connelly is currently writing a biography of Sylvia Pankhurst, due to be published by Pluto Press in 2013.


1 Votes for Women, 25 June 1908, p.265

2 Votes for Women, 9 July 1908, p.296

3 E.S. Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement (London: Virago, 1977), pp.384-5

4 Votes for Women, 14 June 1912, p.597

5 The Suffragette, 20 December 1912

6 The Suffragette, 20 December 1913

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.