Pankhurst’s commitment to working class politics offered a more fruitful strategy for the women’s suffrage movement, compared to the middle class strategy of the leaders of the WSPU
Katherine Connelly, Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire (Pluto 2013), ix, 178pp.
From the start the WSPU combined individual acts of heroism, such as facing violent ejection from a Liberal meeting, with protests that larger numbers of women could be involved in, such as demonstrations outside Parliament or Cabinet ministers’ houses – which also sometimes resulted in arrests. In June 1908, in response to the comment by Herbert Gladstone, the Home Secretary, that mass assemblies by men had won them the vote but ‘of course it cannot be expected that women can assemble Suffragettes, Socialism and Sacrifice in such masses’, the WSPU set out to prove him wrong and undermine his argument for denying women the vote. They organised a huge demonstration in Hyde Park on the 21st of June. Estimates of those who attended ranged between 200,000 and 750,000. It was a glorious display of the WSPU’s flair for spectacle. Numerous banners, some designed by Sylvia, were especially commissioned; women marched in white dresses adorned with purple and green, converging on Hyde Park in seven separate processions. Leading suffragettes, including Sylvia, spoke to the enormous crowd from the various platforms, and the day culminated in a great shout of ‘votes for women’.
The Prime Minister, now Herbert Asquith, responded by saying he had ‘nothing to add’.
Christabel’s reaction was to call for increased militancy to force the government to listen, writing in Votes for Women , ‘what really led Parliament to extend the men’s franchise was not the conviction that there existed a widespread demand for the vote, but fear of serious consequences should the vote be longer withheld’. A ‘widespread demand’ and the ‘fear of serious consequences’ were not, for Christabel, necessarily related.
Evidently her view of ‘serious consequences’ was not drawn from the Chartist movement who tried to make the country ungovernable from below. Instead, Christabel looked to militant action by a very small number of wealthy women. Immediately after Asquith’s dismissal of the Hyde Park demonstration, Christabel wrote in Votes for Women , ‘it is especially the duty of women of distinction and influence to show their earnestness and devotion to this cause by taking part in the militant movement’.
After the June 30th suffragette protest in Parliament Square was attacked by the police and gangs of thugs, and watched by Cabinet ministers, two suffragettes threw stones at 10 Downing Street and smashed two windows. Though the WSPU leadership had not been informed of this in advance, and the women were hardly of the profile sought by Christabel – Edith New had been a pupil-teacher and Mary Leigh was a working-class radical married to a builder – the WSPU embraced the tactic which expressed the frustrations of the membership at the government’s intransigence. However, it also became used as a means of redefining militancy. One of those arrested at the June 30th protest, Florence Haig, told the police court ‘Mr. Asquith has shown us that peaceful demonstrations are useless.’
Even though the mass action of the Hyde Park demonstration marked a qualitative break with the older suffragist movement, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence now defined it as non-militant: ‘the possibilities of constitutional agitation culminated on June 21st of this year’.Militancy increasingly meant individual and not collective action. Marginalizing collective action also meant rejecting the most effective traditions of the labour movement, while individual acts of heroism were likely to attract more attention if performed by a prominent, wealthy woman.
The WSPU and the Great Unrest
Less than two months after Sylvia’s return to England in April 1911, a strike wave erupted across the docks. The WSPU claimed their own militancy was superior to the ‘male’ industrial unrest, and their cause more valid: ‘the Suffragists have far greater reason for their revolt against the existing order of things. In the first place, working men have votes, and by greater skill in their manipulation could gain improvements in their condition without resorting to strikes.’ Where once the WSPU saw the vote as a tool in a wider struggle, it was rapidly becoming apanacea. Instead of denouncing the employers who had plunged working-class families into intolerable poverty, Votes for Women blamed the workers fighting back for the increased burden the strike imposed on their wives:
'Women’s part in the strike has been mainly this – they have paid the greater part of the price and have endured the greater part of the suffering. For the men on strike, the interest and the joy of conflict. For their wives, the troubles which visit the housewife when the cupboard is bare and the children cry to be fed and when the present lack of the weekly income brings a burden of debt to landlord and pawnbroker, which must be repaid as the result of her self-denial in the future.'
The WSPU, which celebrated self-denial and sacrifice, could see no heroism in the Great Unrest. Their insistence that the striker and his wife had different interests was put under considerable strain when unorganised factory workers around the Bermondsey docks – many of whom were dockers’ wives and daughters – also walked out of work in August 1911. Marching through the streets singing ‘Fall in and follow me’, increasing numbers of women joined them. This was not a strike over one specific grievance, it was a tide of rage against the way they were treated every day of their lives: paid poverty wages, reduced even further by punitive fines, they had to rush around carrying huge vats of boiling jam in notoriously dangerous conditions. Pink’s jam factory workers summed it up on their banner thus: ‘We are not white slaves, but Pink’s slaves’. Fighting back transformed these women; suddenly they were confident of their own power:
'The women seemed to be in the highest spirits. They went laughing and singing through Bermondsey, shouting ‘Are we downhearted?’ and answering the question by a shrill chorus of ‘No!’ it was noticeable that many of them had put on their ‘Sunday best.’ In spite of the great heat, hundreds of them wore fur boas and tippets – the sign of self-respect.'
They joined the National Federation of Women Workers in their thousands and in most cases they won wage increases.
Votes for Women, while not condemning the strike, preached that the solution to starvation wages ‘is the Parliamentary vote’, thereby dismissing the rather more immediate solutions being posed by the victims of starvation wages themselves. The WSPU leadership made no attempt to bring these women into the suffrage campaign, implying that the ‘solution’ to these women’s problems lay not in their own hands, but in the hands of others.
Once again, Sylvia rebelled and made her way to Bermondsey not to talk at the women, or tell them that all they needed was the vote, but to get them to talk to her about their lives: ‘I questioned fully three hundred women as to their average weekly wages.
That she was drawn to the women’s strike suggests Sylvia had identified that the WSPU might have drawn new energy from another group of women who were just discovering the power of collective protest. However, she did not at this point have the confidence or platform to argue this within the WSPU – in fact she kept her visit to the Bermondsey strikers quiet until a year later, when Christabel was out of the country.
The tension was perhaps best expressed in her art. Late in 1911 Sylvia provided the artistic spectacle for the WSPU’s Christmas Fair. The canvases she had painted for the Skating Rink in 1909 were re-used to cover the walls, but the theme she chose for 1911 was in stark contrast with the spiritual, classless aesthetic she had created two years before. She designed stallholders’ costumes based on late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century peasant clothes. She explained in Votes for Women: ‘This was an epoch of great change; new ideas of freedom were everywhere in the air. It was the time of the French Revolution.' If Sylvia could no longer depict contemporary workers for the suffragettes, she could get away with depicting working women of the past.
 From the chapter Militancy and Mass Mobilisations (pp.34-36)
 From the chapter The WSPU and the Great Unrest (pp.44-46)
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'.
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