Suffragettes: Activists or Terrorists, the battle that changed everything

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In 1918, an Act of Parliament was passed that gave women the vote in general elections for the first time in Britain. The mother of all parliaments had finally delivered equality of equals to the nation. The Suffragette story brought far more than the vote, campaigning for change would be changed for ever.

Suffragist or women who should have more sense AKA ’Suffragettes’

The New York Time ran an article in October 1906 under the heading of fake Oxford dictionary meanings, it said this of the meaning of Suffragette

A ’Suffragette’ – (Strix flagitans) – a woman who should have more sense

New York Time 1906

It doesn’t get much better, Strix flagitans translates to mean, “demanding Screecher”

The word suffragist on the other hand could be a man or woman who is extending the right to vote, by peaceful means.

The Edinburgh evening news in July of 1906 quotes the Daily Mail as being sympathetic minded to the Suffragette cause. It is clear however the distinction was being made in print at the beginning of the campaign that there were distinct group of women campaigners who where bringing a different type of direct action activisms yet seen in Britain.

The word began life as a derogatory term that became the rallying call sign for a group of women that wanted to be heard at whatever the cost, either through direct action or disruption.

Campaigner objectives of the Suffragettes movement

  • Women to have the same voting rights as men
  • Women to be able to stand as Members of Parliament in the House of Commons.
  • Women to have the same basic rights as men, especially widows and spinsters.

Women in Victorian Britain were seen as less rational, more emotional and domestically orientated. Women were thought not to need the vote.

‘Deeds not Words’

Suffragette Motto

How does real change happen? Problems with the modern approach to protest, activism and direct action

There are two ways change is meant to come about, one is through the ballot box, in the hope that a party exists that has your change in their manifesto and the other is through lobbying your sitting member of parliament, and if your MP agrees with you, you have successfully got one voice in parliament out of 650 which does not amount to much unless the government allocates time for it to be debated.

How does real change come about? How does something that was, become something that is now this. History has shown that fundamental change takes place with a groundswell of pressure from the public, against those elected to serve and that process is often slow and painful. Public opinion is not enough by itself to effect change, the public view is a fickle thing to measure, and each side will manipulate the figures to suit their own respective agenda.

Take for example in 2003, 1,000,000 people march against the Iraq war in London, which was difficult to ignore. The display did not change government policy however, history has not been kind to lawmakers of those times either, but, we are not talking about what is right or wrong here, simply we are talking about the fundamental question, how do you affect change in society. There are 2 views of every argument. One could also argue with the anti-Iraq war protest, there are 50 something million adults in the UK with only 1/50 showed discontent with government policy on Iraq, or enough disconnect to go and protest on the weekend. what of the view of the rest, referendum anyone?

In these times, activism, protesting, and direct action have gone to another level, and in some cases, a very slick operation it is too, at effectively mobilising the public behind a single message, dominating that message across all media channels, getting corporations on the message to either change suppliers, take goods off shelves or change all their logo’s to match the ‘corporate-like’ message of the protest group. The message is also an education to the public, what is right and simply what is wrong and needs to be disregarded.

Do you feel protest groups are lecturing you?

These campaigns for change often quickly get associated with militant fringe group ideology, with embedded extreme Left or Right political viewpoints. Joe public buys the messaging but then loses sight of what they thought they were supporting in the first place, the spare 20 seconds of mental capacity the average person gives for free, was spent already and is not coming back any time soon.

In a modern democracy, healthy debate is good, Right? or is the Left. It is, as long as it reinforces the right message.

The biggest criticism of this modern era of protest, activism, and direct action, is one of ‘No-platforming’ or ‘Drowning out’ all dissenting voices, to the point where the process of change actually clashes with your rights to express a view.

If you want to view examples of that, take a scan on YouTube over the last 15 years, Nigel Farage as a guest on Question Time, News channel interviews, etc. Ok, the Brexit question was an obvious one to pick on, but you can find any topic, find the dissenting voice in any of the big campaigns and see where those dissenting voices end up. botanist David Bellamy for climate change views, 1980s stand up comics, and the rest.

But change is good right, its progress and back to the central theme, change does not happen without an earthquake of direct action and pressure on lawmakers, but there is always a cost and that is something that should be considered, whether blocking a bridge is preferable to criminal damage or loss of freedom of expression as a price to pay not to offend is all up for debate as long as that debate is allowed to take place in a format that presents equal footing and a voice for all, whether it is the right voice or someone else with their own right voice.

So how did the Suffragette Movement affect change, is there anything to learn from it

The fundamental protest strategy of the suffragette movement is not too dissimilar if you take into account the speed at which t=news travelled back then. How did the Suufragtte cause compare to the other big-ticket causes of today?

It was a single-issue cause, no science, Rallies in big landmark areas Hyde park, Trafalgar square. The visitors’ gallery, the house of commons heckled MPs, chaining themselves to railings of Parliament or Buckingham Palace. Window smashing, damaging property, public art, targeting windows with rocks in downing street. Climbing over roofs, dropping into venues through skylights by rope. Causing arson,  using explosives, using megaphones. Taking tea picnics in areas they were not supposed to be in.  Protests, marches, hiding in buildings only to jump out and deliver their message sabotaging events. Sailing over things, using hot air balloons, hiring boats to broadcast their message.

Sabotage and vandalism

Telegraph wires were cut, post boxes were set alight, phosphorous


Many women were arrested over 1000 and it’s known at least 40 men were also imprisoned, many were in Holloway Prison in London. They endured being force-fed, hunger strikes, suffering harsh treatment in prison, separation from their children’s families, abuse, injured, fatalities, lost pay, lost jobs. The Cat and Mouse Act was passed as a tactic to deal with the activists who were arrested. Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister, authorised forced feeding. Then this horrid situation of cat and mouse act, where hunger strikers were released then rearrested once they gained their strength. Mary Richardson was a veteran prisoner temp release more hunger strikes than others out of Holloway.

In 1914, there were 144 acts of destruction over a 7 month period.

Representation of the Peoples Act 1918

Notably, The Representation of the Peoples Act 1918 was eventually passed giving all men the vote aged over 21 and some women over the age of 30. It also enabled women to stand as MPs in the house of commons. It possibly was the foothold for the later 1928 act that then enabled all women over the age of 21 to be able to vote. The number of groups that were formed caused unity Commitment camaraderie.

Trafalgar Square 2018,  set up memorial area, towards the end of the working day, of the key people who were involved in the Votes for Women campaign. Click here Key Players for  full list

Key most heard about are Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett,  Sophia Fry, Emma Watson, Emily Davidson,

Millicent Fawcett London home, Gower Street

Take the house below, it is opposite to where Millicent Fawcett born 1847, lived on Gower St WC1. Dark almost regimented windows, with blanked, bricked out window spaces. Contrasting, the transformations from the industrial revolution, of the 1760s-1840, to the dignified houses you see on Bedford Square.  Without the fight for the women’s vote, we would not be able to tell what females lived in that or any house.  No Vote meant to presence or trace on the electoral list. Women appear on the electoral list now because of what was started by this movement. Also, men were restricted in terms of voting too, this movement enabled more men to become visible on the electoral lists, so we could in time look up who lived where and who our ancestors were.

Millicent Fawcett lived on Gower St WC1 this is the house she would have seen opposite to her home where the blue plaque is.
Millicent Fawcett lived on Gower St WC1 this is the house she would have seen opposite to her home where the blue plaque is.


purple , green, white colours of the womens suffrage, votes for women movement
purple, green, white colours of the women’s suffrage, votes for women movement

Different campaigning groups had banners flags uniforms. In the Museum of London at present, they have the WEST HAM branch banner of the Women’s Social and Political Union 1909-1910. Purple was meant to represent dignity and a royal associated regal colour, white for purity, Green for hope. Sylvia Pankhurst had designed many of the artworks associated with this movement, in particular, the Angel of Freedom Symbol. Sash, badges, rosette jewellery were also worn.  The Women’s Social and Political Union wore purple, white and green to public events. Women were also awarded metal pin badges after particular bravery these are currently on view in the London Museum Exhibition.

Millicent Fawcett Statue parliament Sq
Millicent Fawcett Statue parliament Sq

The absolute Timeline of the Suffragette Movement pre 1900

The Sheffield Female Political Association was the first UK women’s suffrage organisation set up in February 1851. Lead by Anne Kent, Anne Knight.

1851 Harriet Taylor Mill who was the Wife of John Stuart Mill philosopher, civil servant and politically active. It was entitled “The Enfranchisement of Women. 

The 1860s

London National Society for Women’s Suffrage started (LSWS). A group of women in 1865. They formed a discussion group calling themselves “The Kensington Society”. They wrote a petition to parliament to grant women the vote, they were not really taken seriously. However, Henry Fawcett and John Stuart Mill were two MPs who backed the movement. Mill tried to add this to the 1867 reform act but it got overturned, ignored despite the support and many signatures.

Fed up with this decision. The women formed the London Society for Women’s Suffrage (LSWS). John Stuart Mill became their president.

1869: Mill published a paper called “The Subjection of Women” in favour of equality of the sexes.

1870: The LSWS held a meeting in the Hanover Rooms memorable speech by Helen Taylor.

 1875-76: This organisation was holding several meetings in key places where men were frequenting to try and recruit and gain support.

Sophia Fry who was an educator and an activist was married to an MP. This inspired her during the era of Gladstone to form The Women’s Liberal Association in 1881, in her hometown of Darlington. Women were not really taken seriously. In 1886 Fry decided to campaign this matter further and invited 15 other representatives of other groups with similar aims to her home with the idea of forming a national Federation. The Women’s Liberal Federation (WLF) was therefore formed in 1887.

There were two sides of thought to this group, the women who supported suffrage and those that were on the fence or neutral about it. Gladstone wrote a letter that opposed votes for women. Fry although supported the movement and some of the ideas of suffrage she realised the confrontational aspects. In 1892 she then left the WLF and set up The Women’s National Liberal Association.

National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies

Millicent Fawcett Statue parliament Sq
Millicent Fawcett Statue parliament Sq

Getting more voters

The focus was on getting middle-class women who owned property the vote. By peaceful petitions, strong arguments, lobbying docile demonstrations. They wanted a respectable responsible image to assure people they could handle a position in politics. They soon realised they needed working-class women to support them. There were other groups that represented industrial workers, and their economic rights, trade unionists. There was a National and Professional Women’s Suffrage society too. There was even a Men’s league for women’s Suffrage and many splinter organisations who in some form supporting the suffrage movement. Since prior to 1918 the vote was not all equal for men either.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Fed up with the NUWSS slow tactics and the realisation that nothing had changed in 50 odd years of peaceful petitions and campaigns. Founded a splinter group in Manchester in 1903, that had vengeance. This was called the WSPU Women’s and social and political Union. Using working-class women too gain numbers and spread the word. The motto was “Deeds not words” More or less the theme behind the idiom, “Actions speak louder than words”.  The idea was to start the activist militancy side of campaigning, using direct action, commotion, shock, disturbance. Being politically articulate inputting the message or points across, and fearless. Phrases such as “We shall work not by means of any outworn missionary methods but by political action”. London then became the public circus space of the Suffragette headlines.

Emmeline Pankhurst Speech, 10th October 1903

Pankhurst was broadcasting “You must make women count as much as men” It was now the Edwardian era the society also wanted equal political power. Pankhurst’s daughter Sylvia was also active.

The Absolute Timeline of the Suffragette Movement post 1900


Pankhurst protested outside parliament. Suffragettes were known for their extreme measures, hunger strikes, throwing rocks at key buildings where men in positions of power worked. Vandalism, breaking into buildings where women were not allowed.  Jumping out on people, unexpectantly, bomb explosions, boycotting, sabotage. Chaining themselves to railings. Protesting, marches rallies, smashing windows with toffee hammers.


Also in 1906 many papers nationally were using this suffragette term. Even the Tattler contained an article “The Soul of a Suffragette in 1906 by Barry Pain, with a cartoon illustration that would not be allowed in today’s society because of its racist and anti-women connotations.


In 1907 Pankhurst and others clashed on various issues, so another subgroup was formed the Women’s Freedom League. 3 groups didn’t always agree, but the main common aim slowly gained momentum. NUWSS was collecting more members. By 1909 the WSPU had branches all over the Uk. They published a magazine that sold over 20 000 copies a week.

1907 A march from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall in the rain and mud often coined the Mud March.


1908  21st June Saw the biggest political demonstration In British history, a rally in Hyde park sometimes called “Women’s Sunday attracted some 300,00 to 500, 000 activists. Prime Minister Asquith is not interested, and so the women throw rocks through windows in Parliament with messages on them. More chained themselves to railings.

King George ‘s Private golf course

The Golf course was near Balmoral, it had been interfered with by Suffragettes In 1911. The flagpole holes, in the golfing green, had been changed to the colours mainly purple in the night of the suffragette movement. They had inscriptions on them, A Cabinet Minister was staying there at the time that they wanted to lobby and irritate.

Ethel Smyth

A composer and also a suffragette wrote in 1911 “The March of the Women” It became the official Anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union. It was dedicated to Emmeline Pankhurst. Smyth was also put in prison for rock throwing into the Houses of Parliament. She did time I Holloway prison too in 1912. She was made a Dame in 1928.


More than 50 stalls were set up at The Women’s Exhibition, held at Princes Skating Rink, Knightsbridge, on 13-26 May 1909. The stalls by the suffragettes and women’s movements put all their proceeds towards the suffrage campaign fund. The exhibition was decorated throughout with the union’s colours of purple, green and white.

The First Hunger Strike was in 1909, By striker Marion Wallace Dunlop from the Scottish WSPU


The Conciliation Bill carried through and was about to be considered in the House commons giving women the Vote. Asquith terminated the Bill from following through with the message no more time was going to be wasted on this issue. 18th November 1910  WSPU retaliated in more protesting by sending some 300 women to the House of Commons. They were met with strong violence some 6 hours of violence, kicked to the kerb, beaten, assaults and other tactics like groping, injuries fatalities, Arrests. This atrocity was called Black Friday. A photograph was taken of one of the injured of a suffragette, called Ada Wright. The Government tried to stop the circulation of the Daily Mirror article and demanded the negatives which they destroyed. No Enquiry was made into the Black Friday devastation. The retaliation to this launched the window-smashing and vandalising property. They saw this as being quicker and safer from being caught or suffering. 1912 The parliamentary franchise for women bill was entertained but yet again defeated. Retaliations with more smashing windows resulted.


A woman on hunger strike in Holloway prison embroidered a handkerchief with her thoughts feelings about that experience. Janie Terrero created this whilst under pressure, resisting, duress, painful struggle. It is an artifact that is a way to capture, political history. Domestic craft became the symbolism of a powerful message Terrero Janie

There are some embroidered items in the Museum of London’s current exhibition.

Terrero was in her fifties when she embroidered the handkerchief.  She was doing a 4-month sentence for breaking a window. She had not been guilty of any crime prior to this. She was a very able musical composer married to an Argentinian, she was living a comfortable life in Essex with leisure time hobbies.

A lot of women turned to use textiles and in a way, their banners flags and these embroidered works have documented history in symbolic domestic arts with the cloth. Many of them refused to pay fines or accept the lighter option. This would result in them being put in prison. Many would opt for the harsher criminal sentencing to make more of a statement. Different crimes could be filed and sentenced differently and the treatment and punishment differed in severity. Terrero made it known that some of these judges were contemptuous, patronising. She named one of her judges in her embroidery. Judge Lawrie on Wednesday, March 27th to four months”. Writing paper was sometimes not allowed but needle and thread seem to have escaped notice many communicated what happened to them in prison by sewing.


The Cat and Mouse Act was passed, this was hoped to deal with the number of arrests that were increasing. Hunger strikers were temporarily released to regain their strength, but they could then be rearrested. They did not want these women to die whilst under police care.

Emily Davidson  Was arrested many times and force-fed by brutal methods an inhuman amount of times. June 1913 was the year she jumped out in front of king Georges horse which was galloping at Epsom race course. She died as a result 4 days later. Debates speculate that it was not a planned suicide act and perhaps an accident. She went down in history as a martyr to the cause.

Emily Wilding Davidson summary of her input

Born Blackheath 11/10/1872. Women were not allowed to study degrees she studied at Oxford and Royal Holloway College. She was a teacher. She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union WSPU in 1906. Arrested for arson and disturbing the peace.

1909 months prison Strangeways in Manchester throwing big stones at the carriage of David Lloyd George chancellor. In Strangeways she was subjected to a water hose in response to her hunger strike this flooded the cell a bit and she later sued the Prison staff for it.

4/6/1913 She went to Epsom Derby and planned to sabotage the king’s horse in the race by throwing herself in front of it. She died 4 days later.

She also came into the house of Commons came in hid in ventilation shaft 36 hrs. Till found by police. Suffragette my ambition is to get into the house to ask a question. House of Commons.

The Movement needed to Mobilise public opinion, get their interest in the “Votes for Women Campaign. A Few hundred thousand spectators were being pulled into events like this.

Memorial stone about the prisons and the suffrage movement Tower Victoria Gardens
Memorial stone about the prisons and the suffrage movement Tower Victoria Gardens


August of that year WW1 broke out. Women’s groups of the suffrage movement unanimously decided to backbench activism and pull together to make total focus to the war effort. This indirectly showed that women were able to run the fort when the men were away and how they too could adapt and fill roles which previously men did. It also showed them being “professional” not the activists.

10 March 1914 however, Mary Richardson. national gallery London went in to commit an act of vandalism. Walked up to a painting, struck it with a meat cleaver broke the glass, slashed the painting 7 times. It was the artwork entitled, “Figure of Venus Velasquez”,  ‘Rokeby Venus’ . It was seen as the worst act of violence of that kind in history. She told them “I’m a suffragette”.

1914. Aug ww1 started. Unity was required men and women vote campaign put aside. WW1 used women to fill the roles this gave more focus to women’s equality in all social classes. 1918 they were not seen as weak.


The Electoral Reform Bill passed in Parliament, that allowed some women over the age of 30 to vote and those who were over 21 who owned their own house and or were married


The Representation of the Peoples Act is finally passed allowing all men over 21 to vote and all women over 30 to vote. As well as women to stand as MPS in Parliament.

After ww1 the 6th Feb 1918 Representation of peoples act was passed allowed women over 30 to vote. Votes for all


Nancy Astor the first woman in parliament to stand as an MP


Not until 1928 was the 1918  Representation of the People’s act revised.  Finally giving women the equal age of 21 in order to vote, that matched the age set for men.

Emmeline Pankhurst’s home in Manchester was turned into a Museum.

Once women were entitled to vote, their existence became to leave a footprint on electoral registers and it is through this that the census is not the only way to find where women lived or were. As one can see from Pankhursts job description on the 1901 census. She encourages boycotting of the data that the 1911 census enumerators collected. Women were told to hide, go out bend the truth about details given. The view was why should they be counted if they are not given the vote. There doesn’t seem to be 1911 entries for some of these women including Pankhurst herself.

Emmeline Pankhurst died June 14, 1928, tombstone is at Brompton Cemetery in London.

Pankurst Grave stone London Brompton Cemetery
Pankhurst Grave stone London Brompton Cemetery

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