Women's militant activism

Museum of London

Rise Up, Women! A look at the militant activism of the suffragette movement.

Deeds Not Words
The Women’s Social and Political Union was founded, in 1903, on the principle of ‘Deeds Not Words’. The Pankhursts, the family who headed the WSPU, sparked in their supporters a ‘spirit of revolt’ that directly challenged the male dominated society in which they lived and brought women to the forefront of public life. From the outset, confrontation with the authorities was inevitable.  

By taking their campaign to the streets the Women’s Social and Political Union attracted maximum publicity for their cause but also placed their supporters in vulnerable situations.

Regular day to day campaign activities - such as selling Suffragette newspapers on street corners, delivering speeches in public spaces, and chalking pavements to announce meetings - were often undertaken by lone women, who experienced verbal and, at times, physical abuse from passers-by.

The first arrest of Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney in 1905 set a marker for future tactics. As frustrations with government refusal to grant women the vote increased, so direct action became more confrontational.

Between 1905 and 1914, over 1,300 Suffragettes were arrested and many of these served multiple terms of imprisonment for a range of criminal offences from obstruction to arson.

Black Friday
 Events such as Black Friday in 1910 -where hundreds of Suffragettes were subjected to manhandling and sexual assault by the police - marked a turning point in the campaign, persuading the leadership to pursue a more underground form of 'guerrilla warfare' that prioritised attacks on property. 

Telegram sent by Maud Arncliffe Sennett to her husband after her arrest on Black Friday. Reads "Arrested quite safe fond love Maud."

Window smashing
In November 1911 window-smashing was officially adopted as a key campaign tactic by the Women's Social and Political Union. On 1 March 1912, up to 300 Suffragettes armed with hammers, stones and instructions from headquarters as to their use and timing, broke shop and office windows in the West End of London.

Following this attack on the windows of 270 premises, the police discovered that 24 toffee hammers had been purchased in February from a shop in Fetter Lane, by a 'well set up intellectual lady'.

Around 220 arrests were made on March 1, and more on subsequent days, as Emmeline Pankhurst declared: ‘The argument of the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics’.

Arson and bombings
A number of hardened Suffragettes were prepared to go even further, by attempting to destroy property through arson and bombing.

The Suffragette newspaper reported over 300 incidents of arson and bombing between 1913 and 1914.

In December 1913, Suffragettes detonated explosives against the walls of Holloway Prison, to protest the treatment of female suffrage campaigners held there.

The Suffragettes tried to only attack unoccupied property and hoped never to endanger human life.

Growing experience and confidence resulted in the development of more sophisticated incendiary and bomb making devices.

Within the Museum of London collection are two metal washers used to devastating effect in Suffragette ‘pillar box’ work. Posted along with an incendiary device, they were intended to cause maximum destruction to the letters within.

Although some Suffragettes, including Kitty Marion, were charged for arson and bombing, many of the attacks remained unsolved, as the Suffragettes became more skilled in evading the police surveillance, and established a network of safe houses.

Attacks on culture
Suffragette attacks on artworks, including the slashing of the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery by Mary Richardson, resulted in the closure of many London art galleries and museums to female visitors.  Between March and June 1914 there were 14 separate attacks on artworks at the National Gallery, Royal Academy, National Portrait Gallery, Birmingham City Art Gallery, Royal Scottish Academy and the Doré Gallery, as well as 2 attacks on cases at the British Museum. Twelve Suffragettes were arrested for these attacks. 

Suffragette ‘outrages’ drew some surprising responses.

An extraordinary letter in the Museum collection addressed to 'Se. Suffrage' and signed 'Reeve 112 Vassall Road Brixton' informs WSPU Headquarters that he has the 'means to assist you in your plots' through access to the Royal Dockyard, and 'could cause thousands of pounds damage easily'.

As a condition of helping, he requests that the Suffragettes 'must pay sum of few pounds for expenses first and what you think fit afterwards on completion'.

In general, however, as Suffragette militancy became more extreme, resulting in considerable disruption to day to day life, the media and public began to turn against the Suffragettes.

As well as negative newspaper reports with images of women being arrested, commercial postcard publishers also satirised the Suffragettes as being unwomanly and having abandoned their traditional domestic roles as wife and Mother.

In the Museum of London collections we also hold several items of hate mail, sent to individual Suffragettes, with threatening and abusive messages: the most chilling forms of anti-Suffragette material.

Anonymous threatening postcard sent to Minnie Turner.

Postcard sent to Annie Williams, WSPU Organiser for Wales in 1913: "We have not heard of any injustices being inflicted upon the Women of this country except the abominable, execrable, and diabolical outrages perpetuated by Female Hooligans who are a disgrace to their sex and to their nation and who ought to receive punishment to the utmost rigour of the law."

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