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suffragettes

suffragettes were feminists who adopted militant methods to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women. Though by far the most famous members of the women's movement before 1914, their contribution to winning the vote has been much diminished by modern scholarship.

The term ‘suffragette’ was coined by the Daily Mail to distinguish them from the suffragists who had been working for the vote since 1866. The movement originated with Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, who founded the Women's Social and Political Union in 1903. They regarded militancy as justified in view of the failure to achieve the vote after 40 years of campaigning. In particular, the Pankhursts argued that women would have to force the government to introduce its own bill instead of relying upon backbench legislation. To this end they attempted to mobilize public opinion against the post-1905 Liberal government. Initially this involved interrupting the meetings of leading politicians, attempting to enter the lobby of the House of Commons, and intervening at by-elections at which electors were urged to vote against Liberal candidates. However, the growing violence used by the police and the hostility of the public towards the suffragettes led them to change tactics. This involved window-breaking, setting fire to pillar boxes and buildings, destroying the turf at golf courses, ambushing cabinet ministers, and dramatic incidents like the slashing of a painting, the Rokeby Venus, by Mary Richardson in 1914.

As a result the authorities began to impose prison sentences on the suffragettes, who went on hunger strikes. In order to avoid the death of a suffragette in custody attempts were made at forcible feeding. However, this proved dangerous to health, and thus in 1913 the government resorted to special legislation, dubbed the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, to allow the authorities to release hunger-strikers but rearrest them when their health had improved. In 1913 Emily Wilding Davison foiled the government's strategy when she threw herself under the king's horse on Derby Day and died of her injuries.

Up to 1908 militancy attracted much publicity and pushed women's suffrage higher up the political agenda. This led more women to join the non-militant organizations than hitherto. The Pankhursts also proved notably successful as fund-raisers. Using Sylvia's artistic talents they marketed a wide range of products bearing suffragette slogans and colours (purple, white, and green). Mrs Pankhurst also undertook American lecture tours to raise money in 1909, 1911, and 1912.

On the other hand, their campaign clearly set back the cause by antagonizing many non-militant women and by alienating pro-suffrage members of Parliament. But the crucial weakness lay in the Pankhursts' hostility towards the labour movement and their failure to mobilize working-class men and women. This lack of a genuine mass movement explains why the government freely employed the police against them. By 1914 the Pankhursts' autocratic style had reduced the WSPU to a beleaguered group, loyal to the family, but losing impact outside it.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 rescued them from the impasse. They quickly accepted an amnesty whereby prisoners were released and militancy suspended. Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel effectively abandoned not only militancy but the women's cause itself. During the war they attempted to build a new role, this time in alliance with the government, by speaking on recruiting platforms and touring the industrial districts to urge workers not to go on strike. In the process they moved further to the right. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the suspension of the Pankhursts' campaign, the vote was granted to 8.4 million women in June 1918, and at the 1918 election their efforts were rewarded when the coalition leaders agreed to give Christabel their support as a parliamentary candidate in Smethwick. She was, however, defeated by Labour, and the Women's Party created to promote her candidacy promptly folded. Thereafter Mrs Pankhurst spent much of her time lecturing in North America, Christabel gave up politics for religion, and Sylvia adopted several causes including the British Communist Party and the defence of Abyssinia against Italian occupation in the 1930s. Most ex-militants left public life, though some, such as Lady Rhondda, pioneered new women's organizations including the Six Point Group and the Open Door Council. Militant methods, however, were not resumed.

Martin Pugh

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suffragette

suffragette a woman seeking the right to vote through organized protest; the term is recorded from 1906, in an account in the Daily Mail of 10 January of a meeting between ‘Mr Balfour and the Suffragettes’.

The suffragettes were more formally members of the Women's Suffrage Movement, an organization which initiated a campaign of demonstrations and militant action, under the leadership of the Pankhursts, after the repeated defeat of women's suffrage bills in Parliament.

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suffragette

suf·fra·gette / ˌsəfrəˈjet/ • n. hist. a woman seeking the right to vote through organized protest.

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suffragette

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