The WSPU had been founded in 1903 in Manchester, determined to try to get votes for women by any means necessary. Founded by Emmeline and her daughters, the organisation was frustrated by the many prior decades of slow progress and disappointments. The WSPU was known for its militant actions: its members became known as ‘suffragettes’ – a Daily Mail slur that was reclaimed by the movement. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was the predominant constitutional organisation, often known as the ‘suffragists’.
Emmeline was not a flawless character; along with daughter Christabel, she had a reputation for being authoritarian. Under her leadership the WSPU was highly organised; from its headquarters in central London it communicated with regional branches, organised militant campaigns and reached out to members. The state closely monitored activities at the headquarters, keeping a particularly close watch on Emmeline.
The WSPU’s policy of direct action had begun in 1905, when Christabel Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline, and Annie Kenney interrupted a meeting to ask politicians whether they were in favour of votes for women. In the following years the methods and tactics developed, often organically, as the women repeatedly felt their voices were not being listened to. Emmeline herself was arrested, and evaded capture, many times for the cause.
As the movement continued, mass window smashing campaigns and the targeting of MPs’ houses became more common forms of protest for the WSPU.
You can follow the increasingly militant actions of the suffragettes through some of our other blog posts. Militant methods were often divisive. While historians disagree about their effectiveness, our records show the huge impact militant actions had across government.
While it is great to celebrate figureheads, such as the Pankhursts, the strength of the suffrage movement lay in the foot soldiers who were willing to fight alongside them. The Home Office Amnesty from 1914 records 1,224 women and 108 men who were imprisoned between 1906 and 1914 for offences committed for the votes for women campaign.
These numbers only reflect those arrested, not the people who avoided arrest or campaigned constitutionally; they represent the tip of the iceberg of the movement and the records we hold.
This was clearly a national, mass, organised movement.