A United Movement? Women’s Suffrage and the United Kingdom

A United Movement? Women’s Suffrage and the United Kingdom

This week, Helen Antrobus (People’s History Museum) discusses whether the U.K. women’s suffrage movement was really so united.

In recent weeks, feminists have rejoiced as statues of Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, 20th century giants of women’s suffrage, have been commissioned in Manchester and London respectively. As the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in which women over thirty and with a property qualification won the right to vote approaches, plans to commemorate women such as Pankhurst and Fawcett are well under way. This was a national campaign, with organisations in most major cities across the United Kingdom. However, does public memory remember the women across the nation and, more importantly, outside the urban strongholds of Manchester and London? In this blog I intend to examine what part of the campaign for women’s suffrage is remembered – and what impact this has on its reputation as a truly ‘united’ campaign.

Whilst the stories of suffrage outside of England – and more specifically, London – tend to fall out of public memory, the leaders of the movement recognised the significance of their comrades across the nation. However, the focus of Manchester and London’s roles in the campaign for women’s suffrage are fairly evident. Manchester is often recognised as the home of the Women’s Suffrage movement, thanks to the formidable presence of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, situated at 62 Nelson Street, where the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was born. The women’s suffrage movement, it must be stressed, was not conceived here; the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) had been in play since 1897. There is a surge of suffragettes and suffragists moving to join the heart of the campaign in these two cities, such as Scottish and Irish suffragettes Annot Robinson and Eva Gore-Booth, who settle in Manchester and become key players of the suffrage movement and close to the Pankhurst family. As with many political campaigns in the 20th century, and indeed today, the focus on London and on parliament was a key element to the campaign. It is something that the WSPU, based in Manchester, were conscious of at the time. They sent one of the most dedicated and superior members, Annie Kenney, to London in order to organise a stronger campaign there, and would eventually move the headquarters from Nelson Street in Manchester to Clement’s Inn.

Public memory tends to focus on these metropolitan areas, but the fight for women’s suffrage should be remembered as the united campaign it was. Indeed, each part of the United Kingdom and Ireland had prominent and passionate ties to the women’s suffrage campaign that worked in unity with the rest of Great Britain. In Scotland, women such as Flora Drummond and Helen Archdale were celebrated members of the WSPU, leading marches and protests in Edinburgh and across the country. Dundee suffragette Ethel Moorhead, being one of the more militant members of the organisation (her campaigns involved throwing eggs at Winston Churchill), became the first woman to go on hunger strike after her arrest. In Wales, the NUWSS was the largest outside of London. Irish Suffrage is more complex. The fight for Home Rule was strengthening, and having ties to English organisations such as the WSPU was seen as detrimental to the nationalist fight. Indeed, the WSPU only increased these tensions when they claimed their cause to be more important to the country, and the Irish Party should not be supported if they proved damaging to the fight for the vote. Despite this, the fight for women’s suffrage had been bubbling beneath the surface since the late 1880s, and the WSPU would go on to form a group in Belfast in 1913. This was a campaign that needed absolute unity and consistent support from across the nation. There can be no doubt, then, that it is today’s society that does not always acknowledge the campaigns across all four nations.

What then do we remember? In public memory today, the violence of the suffragette movement is the momentous part of the campaign that is remembered. Where these events occurred – Kew Gardens, the Tower of London – is telling to what we remember about the WSPU’s campaign. Whilst the names of the suffragettes from Scotland, Wales and Ireland are often forgotten, moments of militancy are not. The attacks in Dundee, Liverpool, and Bristol are consistently referenced and remembered. Indeed, one of the most shocking attacks of the militant movement occurred not in London, but in Dublin. In 1912, English suffragette Mary Leigh, known for her dedication to undertaking the more militant actions of the movement, threw a hatchet at Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, injuring John Redmond, an Irish MP.

This concept, of militancy being remembered over unification, is recognised when looking at the campaign in Wales, where peaceful protest and action flourished over the WSPU. As a Liberal stronghold, Wales were unresponsive to the WSPU’s actions against the party; in particular it’s Leader and Prime Minister Asquith, even when Emmeline Pankhurst herself visited Cardiff on a rally in 1906. The case for a link between militancy and public memory can be furthered when considering that the most popular Welsh suffragette, Lady Rhoddaa, was a militant fighter for the cause. A blue plaque now sits next the postbox in Newport that she attempted to blow up.

Many women from the United Kingdom worked together as an organisation, not only in their local towns and cities across the nation, but many subsequently moved to Manchester or London to help with the fighting on what was perceived to be the frontlines. These women came from all over England, Ireland, Scotland, and Manchester and London become hives of multinational suffrage action, where the strength of the movement, and not the individual campaigners, are remembered. Not that this devalues the work carried out in Edinburgh, Belfast, Newport, Cardiff – even as far out as Shetland, women were working together to win the vote.

As already demonstrated, it is often the acts that are remembered in public memory, not the women around the United Kingdom who fought together for the vote. However, as demonstrated by the statues that will grace London and Manchester, the women who are remembered, women such as the Pankhurst family or Millicent Garrett Fawcett, are upper or middle class women who were the celebrated founders and leaders. We see almost nothing in public history about the working class women who powered both the suffragette and suffragist movements. Whilst the Lady Rhoddaa’s and Lady Lytton’s are significant to this story, let us not forget the Ethel Moorheads, Annot Robinsons, Anne Harriet Hughes, Hannah Mitchells. These are the women who united under the banners, and finally, in 1918, won the vote for some women and all men.

Helen Antrobus has an MA in Museum and Gallery Studies, and has worked the People’s History Museum for two years, working to engage sponsors and audiences with the lives and the collections of the museum’s Radical Heroes. She is currently developing and coordinating the exhibitions and events programme for the centenary of the Representation of the People Act. Her previous role in the archive informed her research into the lives of radical women and how they are interpreted through their collections. Her work focuses on engaging audiences with these stories, from women such as Ellen Wilkinson and more recently Betty Tebbs. A specialist in the life of Ellen Wilkinson, she is a regular on TV and Radio, most recently taking part in Great Lives with Matthew Parris and Maxine Peake, The Last Word, and Clare Balding’s Ramblings on BBC Radio 4. She has appeared several times on BBC News and BBC Breakfast.

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