Sylvia Pankhurst. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Sylvia Pankhurst. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On the centenary of women winning the right to vote, Katherine Connelly explores how they fought for their rights and resisted war

Women won the vote because of the work they did in the war.

It is a familiar refrain, usually used to insist that campaigning does not work; that all women needed to do was demonstrate their patriotism and willingness to work in a munitions factory in order to win the right to vote. But is it true? 

The British state

The idea that the British state granted women the vote out of generosity and gratitude for war service appears ludicrous when we consider the nature of the state.  In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels described the state in a capitalist society as ‘a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.’[1] Marx and Engels concluded that the state is not neutral, but an instrument to maintain the dominance of the dominant class and, because it protects the interests of the elite at the expense of the majority, it is fundamentally undemocratic. The particularly undemocratic nature of the British state must also be recognised. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century it presided over the biggest Empire in the world. Therefore, the very power and prestige of the British state was reliant upon the subjugation of millions of people and denial of their democratic rights. The vast bulk of the state is a democracy-free zone: in Britain the civil service, the armed forces, the police, the judiciary, the monarchy, and the House of Lords are all unelected. 

Every struggle for the right to participate in the election of representatives to just one body within the state, the House of Commons, was bitterly resisted by the British state. In 1819 a peaceful demonstration in Manchester calling for universal suffrage and electoral reform was charged by the yeomanry (armed representatives of the local elites which existed before a national police force was created) on horseback who slashed at the crowd with their sabres, injuring hundreds. The number of people killed was never officially established, but is thought to have been around 15-18. In the 1840s, Chartist campaigners for political representation and reform were killed, imprisoned and transported. In the Edwardian period, women campaigning for the right to vote faced police violence on their demonstrations, imprisonment and forcible feeding in the prisons.

Each struggle for democratic rights contained the potential to undermine the foundations of the British Empire. The anti-suffragists argued that women were already represented well enough by men, that women were constitutionally unsuited to the difficult job of voting, that women were too emotional and irrational, their brains were smaller. Were these not strikingly similar to the arguments that justified colonial rule over vast swathes of the globe? For the British state the preservation of the Empire was paramount and they would go to any lengths to defend it – as 1914 proved. 

The suffragettes

The outbreak of the First World War exposed the weakness of the dominant women’s suffrage organisations as the leaderships of both the ‘suffragist’ National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the ‘suffragette’ Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) suspended their campaigns in order to support the war effort. It was not inevitable that this should have been so. In fact, at precisely this moment the suffrage movement could have held the British state to ransom. The NUWSS had links with suffrage organisations across Europe and could have powerfully argued that women had no stake in this conflict. In the event, the decision to support the British government that had persecuted women’s suffrage campaigners was not universally popular with all the suffrage campaigners themselves. In the NUWSS, leading members including Helena Swanwick and Margaret Ashton resigned from the NUWSS in order to pursue peace campaigns. In the WSPU, a number of prominent militant suffragettes opposed the pro-war stance of the leadership; in 1915 Mary Leigh, the first window smashing suffragette, challenged Emmeline Pankhurst at a public meeting, only for Pankhurst to tell the audience ‘that woman is a pro German’. 

The decision of the NUWSS and WSPU leaderships to support the war effort extended from their pre-war political trajectories.  Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the NUWSS, was wholly committed to the preservation of the British Empire. For Fawcett, votes for women represented the opportunity for women to participate in the running of the state and the Empire, confirmed by her words on the outbreak of war: ‘Let us prove ourselves worthy of citizenship, whether our claim is recognized or not.’

The WSPU was founded by women involved in the socialist and trade union movements of the early twentieth century. However, in the face of the intransigence of the Liberal government, its leaders Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst grew increasingly pessimistic about the power of collective action. Working-class women began to be marginalised in the campaign as women from elite backgrounds were encouraged to undertake militant action on behalf of everyone else. The political priorities of the campaign changed accordingly; in June 1911 the WSPU appealed for the new king’s support with a Coronation Procession through central London in which the centre piece was an ‘Empire Car’, surrounded by an Empire Pageant, thus allying the women’s movement with the preservation of imperial power.  While suffragettes were ordered to sever their links with the Labour Party, Christabel Pankhurst was privately consulting the leader of the Conservative Party. 

There was opposition to this approach.  Most notably, Sylvia Pankhurst rejected the elitist politics of her older sister Christabel and from 1912 began to organise a campaign of working-class suffragettes in East London. With working-class women at the heart of the campaign, it would be harder for the more conservative suffragettes to present the vote as a safeguard of the status quo and could instead transform the struggle into a popular campaign for radical social change:

I wanted to rouse these women of the submerged mass to be, not merely the argument of more fortunate people, but to be fighters on their own account, despising mere platitudes and catch-cries, revolting against the hideous conditions about them, and demanding for themselves and their families a full share of the benefits of civilization and progress.[2]

The East London suffragettes supported working women taking strike action for better pay and conditions, linking the political demand for the vote with the immediate social and economic problems they were tackling. In 1913 Sylvia Pankhurst spoke at the Albert Hall in solidarity with Irish workers fighting an employers’ lock out of trade unionists in Dublin. For this, Sylvia and the East London suffragettes were expelled from the WSPU in January 1914. Free to pursue their own policy, they refused to stop campaigning when the war broke out, but it was a very new organisation and had not had time to develop sufficiently strong links by August 1914 to organise united resistance to the war from women and workers. 

It is only logical to argue that if there had been no campaign for votes for women before the First World War, the government would not have conceded votes for women after it. However, 1918 was not an unqualified victory for the women’s suffrage movement either. The decisions of the NUWSS and WSPU in 1914 had disarmed the movement and helped arm the state (quite literally in the case of the WSPU who organised “Right to Serve” marches). As anti-war suffrage campaigners might have predicted, they were poorly rewarded for this. Where was the victory parade, the tributes to its leaders and the mass canvassing from a vibrant campaign to turn out a transformative women’s vote? The vote which women won in 1918 was far from being a declaration of women’s equality, instead it provided some women the vote on an unequal basis – forcing the suffrage movement to depart from its longstanding demand for the vote to be granted to women ‘as it is or may be granted to men.’  Whereas men received the vote at the age of 21, the Representation of the People Act of 1918 granted women the vote at the age of 30.  About 22% of women over the age of 30 found themselves ineligible to vote because they did not meet the minimum property qualifications stipulated. Having dissipated its own forces at the beginning of the war, the women’s suffrage movement was not in a strong position to challenge this settlement. 

The War

If supporting the war had not helped the suffrage cause why, then, were (some) women granted the vote at the end of it? Very simply, democratic change was not achieved because people supported the war, but because they opposed it.

The war itself did not foster democratic freedoms, instead it curtailed them. The right to vote was suspended as the general election, due in 1915, was postponed; Home Rule for Ireland was taken off the agenda; trade unions were pressured to renounce the right to strike; conscription was introduced in 1916; and freedom of speech was severely restricted by the Defence of the Realm Act. Although the war allowed the state to become more repressive, it also revealed the extent to which it relied upon the compliance of ordinary people who were increasingly realising their power.

Women’s lives were transformed by the war. Huge numbers of women fled the atomisation and restrictions of domestic service to work in the factories which allowed them greater personal freedom and a larger number of co-workers. Women were expected to keep the ‘Home Front’ going. But as employers and landlords on the Home Front evidently exploited the war to increase their profits, this became the arena from some of the first acts of significant wartime resistance. In March 1915, angry at rapid increasing rents, women in Glasgow organised rent strikes and flying pickets to stop evictions. From 1915, unofficial strikes began to break out in the Glasgow shipyards, munitions factories and South Wales coalfields. Then, at Easter 1916 in Dublin, there was an uprising against British rule which was brutally crushed, its leaders executed. Women, including many who had been involved in the women’s suffrage movement, played an important role in the uprising and the revolutionaries’ proclamation promised a government ‘elected by the suffrages of all her [Ireland’s] men and women’. In East London, Sylvia Pankhurst declared her support for the revolutionaries and defied the British government by sending a journalist, Patricia Lynch, to smuggle reports out of Dublin. In the article Sylvia published in her newspaper, Lynch quoted an elderly woman whose child had been killed in the uprising: ‘the English don’t hate the Germans the way they hate us.’

At the start of the war, the German socialist Karl Liebknecht had declared that the ‘main enemy is at home’. Increasing numbers of people were now starting to ask if he had been right all along. 

In 1917, two revolutions in Russia smashed the Tsarist state and pulled Russia out of the war. Years of industrial slaughter were not being ended by military victory as each government had promised, but through the defiance of soldiers refusing to fight and workers attempting to overthrow their governments. There were mutinies in the French, German and British armed forces, and, in 1918, a revolution in Germany that overthrew the Kaiser. 

The British establishment feared a similar revolution in 1918. Lord Burnham told the head of Special Branch: ‘We cannot hope to escape some sort of revolution . . . and there will be no passionate resistance from anybody.’ 

This was the context in which the British government considered including women in the Representation of the People Act. It was explicitly not the young women working in the munitions factories that they sought to enfranchise (some MPs had even argued 30 was too young, and that the vote ought only to be given to women over 35). The Act was thus designed to exclude the women deemed susceptible to radical ideas.

Speaking on the Bill in Parliament in 1917, Herbert Asquith, one of the most truculent opponents of women’s suffrage now expressed his support.  He made it clear that his change of heart was motivated by the need

of finding a solution for issues fraught with the possibility of engendering grave domestic friction and internal friction. They were desirous of rendering, at a time when the national energies were almost wholly centred upon the successful prosecution of the War, a service which might prove of the highest value to the State.[3]

It was not patriotism in the war that forced the government to grant votes for women in 1918, instead it was the upheaval and resistance (or ‘grave domestic friction and internal friction’) that the war provoked. It is fitting that the first woman elected to Parliament in 1918 was one of those who had most contributed to that friction: Constance Markievicz, a suffragette and participant in the Eater Rising. A fighter for democracy and freedom from the British Empire she refused to take her seat in Westminster. In Dublin, Glasgow, East London and many other parts of Britain besides, the fight for democracy was sustained by those suffragettes who had not forgotten the lesson that the British state was never going to grant a benevolent gift, but would have to be forced to concede democratic rights.  This remains a lesson and they remain an inspiration to us today. 



[2] E.S. Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement(London: Virago, 1977), p.417.



Kate will be speaking on “War? Suffragettes? How women won the vote” on International Women’s Day in Manchester at the Pankhurst Centre, from 7pm.  She will be leading a walking tour about Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Suffragettes in London on Friday 9th March, meeting at 6pm at the exit of Mile End station.  All welcome.

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'.