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It’s been argued that women’s war work earned them the vote. Despite this, young munitions workers – like many of those pictured here, in Bradford, 1917 – remained disenfranchised pressure. On the other hand, the glamour and excitement of the Pankhursts left an indelible mark on women’s history and on the history of popular protest.

JA: The Pankhursts had a strong personal following, rather like the Booth family who founded the Salvation Army. Their message incorporated parades, a uniform, strict discipline, the expulsion of ‘heretics’, willingness to go to extremes and dominance by one family. All this went with a vibrant millennial message: effectively a promise of paradise if followers made sufficient sacrifices.

But neither the Pankhursts nor the Booths originated the doctrine for which they expected such sacrifices. They marketed existing beliefs in a vibrant and eye-catching way. The Pankhursts did not create the women’s suffrage movement any more than the Booths created Christianity.

/ M A R Y E VA N S



FR: The Pankhursts have dominated the history of the suffrage movement in Britain, and also the history of the WSPU. Christabel Pankhurst orchestrated hundreds of arson and bomb attacks from Paris. But the stories of the women who actually carried these out have never been told. Their sacrifices are an integral part of the suffrage fight. These are the women we should be remembering on the centenary of the vote.

How much popular support did the ‘votes for women’ campaign command in the years leading up to 1918? JA: There was widespread sympathy for the principle that at least some women should

“While a minority of Britons were inspired by su ragette violence, many recoiled in horror”


have the vote, and a general public acceptance that it would come eventually. That said, there was no enthusiasm.

A favourable majority was secured in the House of Commons in 1897. There was no parliamentary time allotted, but the Conservative leader of the house, Arthur Balfour, said any further electoral reform measure would have to include women’s suffrage. As the proposition was an extension of Liberal ideas of democracy, it did not help that two Liberal prime ministers of the time, William Gladstone and HH Asquith, were both bitterly opposed to votes for women, despite their parties being generally in favour.

JP: As with most progressive causes, there were more men and women opposed to women’s suffrage than in favour of it. It is estimated that nearly half a million women signed anti-suffrage petitions before 1914. The membership of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which included both men and women, was about 50,000 at this time. That of the WSPU, which was women only, was about 5,000 or less.

JB: There are many ways of gauging support for the suffrage campaign, none of them very reliable. It’s important to acknowledge not only gender differences but also the variables of social class, region and religion. Suffragists and anti-suffragists both carried out primitive opinion polls, producing contradictory results to support their own campaigns.

It seems likely that a ‘silent majority’ of men and women held fluctuating opinions, attaching less importance to the whole issue than politicians and campaigners but responding either positively or negatively to the polarising impact of suffragette militancy.

So did su ragette violence help or hinder the campaign? JB: The First World War released suffragette militants from a political cul-de-sac of their own making. While a

Not all women sought the vote, as this c1910 Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League poster demonstrates

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