How far do you agree with the view that militancy was the key factor in the achievement of female suffrage between 1880-1918? Essay

The closure of the war marked a significant period in women’s history. The franchise was extended to women over 30, enabling them to vote in national elections, after forty years of campaigning and hardship, through exploiting peaceful and diplomatic tactics to unlawful militant means. However, was militancy a hindrance or of assistance? Militancy within the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) embarked in 1905 by Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, her right hand women, during the Liberal assembly in Manchester.

Militancy itself began diminutive with the heckling and interruption of meetings such as that of the Christabel incident where the refusal of silence was made along with physical attack on a policemen, finally leading to her arrest. Although this is not seen as extreme today, the stereotypical boundaries and expectations of middle class women were broken therefore proclaimed as militant, shocking the nation, at first gaining sympathy. Emmeline Pankhurst described this in her book ‘In My Own Words’ writing ‘to be satisfied with nothing but action on our question.

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Deeds, not Words was to be our permanent motto’. This emphasises to what extent Emmeline Pankhurst felt militancy was crucial. Therefore, militancy in itself was thought to be a key factor in order to obtain the suffrage. 1908 and 1909 saw the escalation of intense militancy. Arson became a frequent weapon of the WSPU alongside pillar box bombing and window smashing, rooting through an incident in London 30th June 1908, where Mary Leigh and Edith New smashed the windows of the Prime Minister’s house during a riot that was developed through a peaceful rally.

This provoked sympathy since the authorities retaliated ruthlessly, indicating militancy was a key part due to the reactions it provoked, attaining widespread support. Militancy increased as the Suffragettes became ignored by the government. Nevertheless, despite gaining publicity, militancy gave legitimate reasons not to give women the vote; reasons before their campaign were based solely upon prejudice because women never had undertaken roles outside the home. This meant that opposition to them became stronger and alienated the general public from their cause.

Under the influence of the autocratic Pankhurst’s, influential individuals like the Pethick-Lawrence’s who raised i??3,000,000 towards the WSPU were expelled in 1912. Additionally, all links with the working class and the Independent Labour Party were dismissed alongside the removal of Sylvia Pankhurst. These actions were criticized openly, arguing that the aim should be focused on the suffrage rather than raging a ‘sex-war’. This turned many against the WSPU showing that militant thoughts were unpopular since divisions were created within the party itself.

By 1908, militancy was taken to such extremes such as the fated attempt by Emily Davidson in 1913 where she dove before the King’s race horse. The attacks became spontaneous, sparking off without the consent of the leadership, reinforced by the riots of Black Friday where 300 women became involved in bloody fighting. Due to militancy the WSPU membership declined between 1912 and 1913, membership falling by 34% and in the following year a further 42%. Disillusionment led to party divisions such as that in 1907 where the WSPU spilt into the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), taking a third of the membership.

Even Millicent Fawcett criticised the WSPU stating they ‘did more harm than good’ however did credit them of raising more awareness in their first few months than that that was raised the in last ten years’ of the pacifist NUWSS (National Union of the Women’s Suffrage Society). Sympathy decreased as militancy ascended, losing sympathetic figures as Winston Churchill and Lloyd George. Evidence of the nation’s resentment was seen after such extremes when the ‘Rokeby Venus’ was slashed in the National Gallery.

The populace retaliated by trapping the WSPU members in a lift and assaulting them with cake. The press ridiculed the WSPU, portraying them as ‘wild’ and ‘sexually deviant’ with ‘mental disorders’. Women stated that criminals should not be able to vote just for the reason they were male, however their militant actions were no different to those of a criminal, thus not qualifying to vote, highlighting that militancy gave legal justification for the anti arguments, therefore losing much support.

Militancy turned away sympathetic, potential and influential supporters both political and local. However, gains like mass awareness were achieved alongside highlighting determination the ability to fight for a cause. Although, by exerting this pressure on the government, the government became more reluctant to give in and be highlighted as ‘inferior’, indicating the negative effects of militancy. Despite these achievements, other factors also contributed in gaining the vote for women in 1918 such as the early Suffragist campaign between 1880 and 1907.

According to Derrick Murphy, ‘although British women did not have the right to vote in national elections, they did play an active role in politics’. This is true since party’s such as the Conservative’s and the Labour established smaller political branches in which women were very active such as the Primrose League of 1883 which consisted of 49% women membership. Contribution was made by raising money and campaigning in elections. To further highlight this, in 1887, the Women’s Liberal Federation was established. Furthermore, women also had financial privileges such as if women owned their own house, she became the ratepayer.

These women could vote in local elections according to the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 which was extended to council elections under the County Councils Act of 1888. According to Derrick Murphy, ‘in 1894, both married and unmarried women were allowed to vote in the new urban and rural district council elections and, for the first time, women could also stand for elections to these new councils’. This shows that women were being accepted in society, thus slowly deteriorating the separate spheres, and by the 1850’s it seemed that women would finally attain the vote nationally, mostly importantly this was done pacifistically.

Additionally, the fact that women could stand as members of the Boards of Guardians for the management of the Poor Law and also serve on the local School Boards under the Forster Elementary Education Act of 1870. This contained 1,147 women which was a remarkable amount. This showed that women were more than capable of handling politics and household responsibilities as well as making significant decisions for the well being of the local and council community, diminishing the anti arguments that women were not intellectually fit to do so.

This brought women closer to the vote, done through peaceful methods, showing that militancy was not needed in order to achieve the vote. The increasing educational and job opportunities brought about the demolishment of the separate spheres, showing through peaceful means widespread support was obtained. Helen Blackburn stated in her volume ‘Women’s Suffrage’ that in 1837 there was ‘no High Schools for girls’, in addition to the fact that ‘women could not enter university’. Moreover, ‘women did not have any rights’ whatsoever over and their ‘husbands were the sole guardians of their children’.

However, by 1901, ‘every town of any size had a girls High School’, there were ‘2000 women graduates, 1500 certified students, and 8 women had received honorary degrees’ and ‘there was a network of women’s organisations covering children’s welfare, maternity, nursing, education, employment and of course political work’, indicating to what extent women had broken out of the separate spheres and proved their intellectual strength, being accepted by the stereotypical society. Besides, this was obtained through peaceful methods, highlighting that militancy was not necessary for the final aim to be achieved.

The NUWSS was instituted by Millicent Garett Fawcett who unlike the WSPU, the NUWSS used peaceful and law-abiding methods to extend the franchise to women. Their aim was ‘to promote and claim of women to the parliamentary vote on the same terms as it is or may be granted to men’. The NUWSS was formed by all minor suffrage movement parties uniting, establishing in Manchester in 1897. MPs such as John Stuart Mill were actively participating with the Suffragists who had close links with all political parties. He raised the women’s suffrage issue in the vote of 1867 Reform Act which created over half a million new male voters.

Due to militancy in the later years such supporters were lost. The Mud March in February 1907 was the first procession to London where over 3,000 women marched pressuring the government who in June, the Prime Minister Asquith asked to see a majority of the suffrage supporters. Hence, in June 1908, the ‘Women’s Sunday’ in Hyde Park was organised by the WSPU alongside the NUWSS, involving over half a million women in a peaceful demonstration. Women of poor background were paid by richer members as aid, however despite the effort; Asquith claimed that this was not enough to prove the majority of women wanted the vote.

This gained sympathy and raised much awareness, increasing the membership significantly. Those who did not want to participate openly could do so anonymously. This fixed the women’s suffrage debate strongly on the political map and finally became an urgent and vital debate, with much consideration, all done peacefully showing the insignificance of militancy. To highlight the weakness of militancy, the NUWSS began to show they were separate from the WSPU, such as the ‘Mud March’. This demonstrates that militancy was having a negative effect on the public, thus the NUWSS began to campaign peacefully and obtained many supporters.

This can be seen in the declining membership of the WSPU and the reclining of the NUWSS between years 1910 and 1913. The precession of the first Conciliation Bill in 1911 marked the stronghold of the NUWSS. 146 local councils gave their official confirmation to the Bill allowing the second reading to passed. The second Bill in 1912 was defeated and the militancy of the Suffragettes was quick to be blamed, illustrating that militancy hindered the progress. The Radical Suffragist Party on the other hand was more focused on working class women.

For this reason, were labelled ‘radical’ not for their actions but their views. These contributed in social conditions and set up women’s trade unions which created equal rights for women such as payment and working hours. This once again highlighted women could be organised and make decisions for the benefit of the society. During the Great War, all militant activity ceased instantly when the war began in 1914. Women were determined to prove themselves to be fit physically and mentally in a state of war.

However, ironically the war had pushed the suffrage off the political agenda after it had been finally been fixed after many years, therefore militancy kept the pressure on the government who in return kept the suffrage on the map in case militancy escalated again, if it was removed. The patriotic Pankhurst’s ceased their militancy and took foot into factories to produce ammunition and other vital occupations such as the emergency services since all men were sent to the front due to conscription.

Despite the long term, poisonous effects of the chemicals, turning the skin yellow and causing infertility, the women continued to work for the country, being named as the ‘canaries’. This signified the physical power of the women, a constant anti suffrage argument. However, despite the Suffragettes’ active and physical contribution, the Suffragists who although opposed the war due to their pacifist nature, however did contribute such as home front farming. This active role brought women as strong, patriotic and adaptable to the eyes of the nation and most importantly the government.

Doing these dangerous jobs helped break down the rigid concepts of what were seen as male activities. Women gained a large deal of pride and confidence through their new responsibilities and new standards of behaviour were established. The Anti’s argument that women did not qualify for full citizenship since they could not defend the realm due to physical and mental deficiencies, had now been proved utterly wrong, most importantly, women gained support through active and patriotic acts such as helping with the war effort rather than active and militant, clearly showing the insignificance of militancy.

In 1916, a new coalition (collective) government was elected as he Liberal Government came to an end. This benefited the suffrage movement since both the Labour and the Conservatives had similar aims, thus the different voting groups did not matter. It was likely that women would favour Labour and working class men, the Conservatives due to the reform of working conditions. This would even out the majority therefore not make a major impact. Whereas the Liberals, they appealed greatly to upper class men therefore were reluctant to push the majority votes towards the other parties in fear of losing their own power.

On the other hand, the collective government could only gain support from extending the franchise. The Prime Minister Lloyd George and Commissioner of War Winston Churchill openly supported the movement therefore it was clear a great change was to occur. Additionally, if the movement had not expressed its determination and tinted such capability in political and social affairs, the coalition government would have not considered the issue at such important that it did, showing militancy did have an impact.

It can be argued that the end of the war in 1918, women were awarded for their loyal service to the country. Women had indeed ‘earned’ the right to vote and consequently, the Representation of the Peoples Act (ROPA) was introduced. This gave the national vote to all women over 30 however; this was only 8 million of the population. The majority of the women who contributed remained disenfranchised. Additionally, this was only a subsection to the ROPA, which was mainly built upon the enfranchisement of the soldiers and sailors.

The Electoral Register had to be reconsidered since men lost the qualification to vote if they were at the front for more than a year and many had been killed in action. Women were added on as a subsection which was a compromise to prevent the initiation of militancy and those who objected to the extension since 8 million women did not make a great significance. Therefore suggesting that militancy was important since it forced the government make a compromise and can be seen as a delayed effect rather than a hindrance.

However, not all women attained the suffrage; the women included in the Act had not generally participated in the war work. This suggests that despite such peaceful efforts, only a minimal percentage of women attained the suffrage. This means that militancy had a greater impact since at the time of high aggression, the government considered giving the vote to all middle class women, therefore including a greater percentage if not the total percentage of middle class women. This suggests indeed militancy was a key factor, in the questions of anticipation of the suffrage.

Other factors such as international context also played a part in gaining the vote for women. Social breakthroughs had already occurred in other European countries such as Switzerland, France, Germany and even Russia. Britain being a power did not want to have the humility of falling behind, pushing the debate for the vote towards the movement. Conversely, the women included had not generally participated in the war work. In conclusion, despite militancy raising mass awareness and determination with some successes, it can be seen it was a hindrance more than of assistance.

This is because later it started turning influential individuals against the movement and also proved many of the anti arguments correct. Clearly, the most important factor would be of the early suffrage campaign. This campaign, yet slow, brought many successes, both social and political, and indeed by the 1900’s, it seemed that women will finally be granted the vote. This factor enabled women to break through the separate spheres and challenge stereotypical view pacifistically, highlighting them positively in the eyes of the country and removing many major comparisons to their male counterparts.

Consequently, it is extremely likely women would have gained the vote earlier if not had it been for militancy since it is argued that the second Conciliation Bill had been rejected in 1912 solely due to the extreme militant activities, demonstrating the negative impact of militancy on the vote. On the whole, militancy although giving some headway, was not the most important factor; evidently it was the early suffrage movement which raised the issue in such ways that conditions improved socially and politically for women. Additionally, at such improving rate, it undoubtedly seemed women would finally obtain the vote by 1900.


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