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Saturday 2:15pm

Militant women: the suffragettes in Britain

Gender and sexuality

Introduced by Diane Fieldes, veteran socialist activist and writer.

Insofar as people today know the names of those who fought for women’s suffrage in Britain in the early 20th century, it will be the Pankhurst family and the Suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) that spring to mind. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela were frustrated by the lack of progress made by existing organisations trying to win the vote for women. They founded the WSPU in 1903 as a women-only organisation that was initially associated with the socialist movement, but in the years ahead took a very different turn.

As it grew, the WSPU was associated with extremely radical actions such as the 1911 “official window smash” which took out the windows of conservative newspaper offices, and the private residences of politicians who were hostile to votes for women - 160 suffragettes were arrested. In 1913 WSPU members tried to bomb chancellor of the exchequer Lloyd George’s holiday cottage. Another slashed the Rokeby Venus painting in the National Gallery, other women blew up the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey, yet others left acid in postboxes to destroy the mail. Their actions were repaid extremely brutally by the police and judicial system, as women were arrested, beaten, imprisoned and force-fed using extreme violence.

The approach of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst to the campaign became increasingly military. Each action had to be more violent than the last to catch the public’s attention but they did not seek to win wide support. This was not just a tactical question. Christabel in particular led the WSPU in an increasingly right-wing political direction, breaking links with the labour movement and consciously aiming to involve only influential and wealthy women.

Many accounts give the impression that the leadership of the suffrage movement was firmly in the hands of well-to-do women. In reality, class politics shaped the divided response of suffrage campaigners to the Great Unrest, the most significant class confrontation in Britain since the Chartists in the 1840s. Some Suffragettes wanted the government to repress the strike wave. Others threw themselves into organising the class struggle. It was on this basis that Sylvia Pankhurst broke from her family to establish the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1913.

The right-wing trajectory of the WSPU reached its final stage in 1914 when it abandoned women’s suffrage campaigning in favour of fervent support for the war effort. After the war some of its leaders moved further to the right, supporting fascism. For these women, the vote had become isolated from all the political and social issues that made achieving it meaningful. However, thousands of radical suffragists continued to fight for a better world once the vote had been won. Without their struggles, votes for women would have been a much longer time coming.


Judy Cox, ""How working class women won the vote"", International Socialism 158, 2018, https://isj.org.uk/how-working-class-women-won-the-vote/

Laura Miles and Sheila Hemingway, ""Suffragette who opposed World War One"", Socialist Review, October 2014,


Jill Liddington, Rebel Girls: Their Fight for the Vote, Virago Press, 2006 (a review of Liddington’s book by Judy Cox, ""Beyond the Pankhursts"" can be found at https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/2006/isj2-112/cox.html)

Paul Foot, The Vote: How it was won, and how it was undermined, Viking, 2005 - chapter 5, Women

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