Pankhursts Found the Women’s Social and Political Union Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Through the use of civil disobedience and militant obstructionism, the Women’s Social and Political Union introduced the issue of women’s political rights into the mainstream of pre-World War I British politics.

Summary of Event

Apart from the Middle Ages in parts of Western Europe, where egalitarian principles permitted the ownership of property by women, the inclusion of women in voting (both in towns and in rural parishes), the ability of women of means to attain an education, and the important right to free choice in marriage, a norm increasingly demanded by the Church, there are few examples of women being treated as equal to men in the history of humankind prior to the mid-nineteenth century. Throughout much of the world, inequalities were the result of custom, religious teachings, prejudice, and law. Women lacked or systematically were denied, solely on the basis of their gender, educational opportunity, meaningful employment, the right to vote, basic human rights, and legal identity. Women’s Social and Political Union[Womens Social and Political Union] Women;organizations Woman suffrage;Great Britain Social protest [kw]Pankhursts Found the Women’s Social and Political Union (Oct. 10, 1903) [kw]Women’s Social and Political Union, Pankhursts Found the (Oct. 10, 1903)[Womens Social and Political Union, Pankhursts Found the (Oct. 10, 1903)] [kw]Social and Political Union, Pankhursts Found the Women’s (Oct. 10, 1903) [kw]Union, Pankhursts Found the Women’s Social and Political (Oct. 10, 1903) Women’s Social and Political Union[Womens Social and Political Union] Women;organizations Woman suffrage;Great Britain Social protest [g]England;Oct. 10, 1903: Pankhursts Found the Women’s Social and Political Union[00810] [c]Women’s issues;Oct. 10, 1903: Pankhursts Found the Women’s Social and Political Union[00810] [c]Social issues and reform;Oct. 10, 1903: Pankhursts Found the Women’s Social and Political Union[00810] [c]Government and politics;Oct. 10, 1903: Pankhursts Found the Women’s Social and Political Union[00810] Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Fawcett, Millicent Garrett

In Europe from the fourteenth century onward, women’s abilities to serve as sovereigns (as in France, where Philip the Fair removed the right of monarchal succession to women) and to participate in scholarly activity (as had been previously the case in many convents) were substantially abridged. Parisian tax rolls show that in the thirteenth century women owned businesses and shops and pursued occupations; they were schoolmistresses, doctors, pharmacists, dyers, copyists, binders, and more. In France, this gradually changed in subsequent years, with the Napoleonic Code ultimately denying women rights they previously enjoyed in regard to property ownership. Thus, under the influence of classical Roman law, rights enjoyed by women were gradually eroded in the later Middle Ages. In 1593, women were for the first time in France excluded from government positions and functions. This process of reduced rights for women was further emphasized in the works of Enlightenment writers.

This trend slowly began to change in Western societies as the result of the democratic and liberal ideas of the later Enlightenment and as the result of the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century. Great Britain was the first nation to experience this revolution. Economic development led to demands for political change from the emerging middle class. The Reform Bill of 1832 extended suffrage to most middle-class males, and within one generation the Liberal Party emerged, representing the middle class and heir to the Enlightenment ideas of the rights of man. Reform bills in 1867 and 1884 extended the right to vote to most adult males in Britain.

Social legislation provided for basic public education, improvement of factory conditions, and solutions to some of the social ills caused by industrialism. Very little of this legislation dealt with inequality based on gender, however. In the nineteenth century, British women were treated as inferior to men. Stereotypes and prejudices portrayed women as weak and incapable in most areas. Only after 1887 did married women have the right to own property and to enter into contracts on an equal basis with unmarried women. Most professions and occupations were closed to women by statute. The only professions that were socially acceptable for women were those of teacher, secretary, and homemaker. Industry, particularly the textile industry, employed women in large numbers but usually in nonskilled, low-paying jobs.

There were some who believed that the Enlightenment ideas of the “rights of man” should apply to all people. A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft and The Subjection of Women (1869) by John Stuart Mill were early statements on the need for, and the right of, woman suffrage. In the 1860’s, small groups of educated middle-class women began forming to discuss the need for woman suffrage. The National Society for Women’s Suffrage National Society for Women’s Suffrage (Great Britain) (founded 1867), under the leadership of Lydia Becker, and the Women’s Franchise League Women’s Franchise League[Womens Franchise League] (founded 1889), under the leadership of Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst, were the most important organizations advocating woman suffrage.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed in 1897 under the leadership of Millicent Garrett Fawcett. This organization continued the policy followed by others in working within the existing political system to achieve the vote for women. The Liberal Party offered only nominal support for woman suffrage and made no serious attempt to introduce legislation granting women the right to vote. The Conservative Party was overtly hostile to the idea, and the House of Lords, with its right of veto, was dominated by Conservatives.

With little to show for decades of working within constitutional guidelines, some suffragists proposed a more militant approach to the issue. The death of Richard Pankhurst in 1898 temporarily forced Emmeline Pankhurst to abandon political activity and to devote her efforts to providing a living for her family. Her daughter Christabel Pankhurst, who studied law but could not practice because of her gender, began working with the North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage, an organization primarily for working women.

To the great irritation of the Pankhursts, the Manchester branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) refused to admit women to a meeting hall that was named for Richard Pankhurst. The ILP was the logical political home for the proposed group, but Labour politicians were largely disinterested in woman suffrage as an issue. The Pankhursts thus decided to form their own group, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). On October 10, 1903, the WSPU held its first meeting at the Manchester home of Emmeline Pankhurst.

Little is known of the early meetings of the WSPU, as records of minutes, strategies, finances, and membership no longer exist. Two facts are clear: Men were excluded from membership, and the WSPU had a clear platform. A WSPU pamphlet dated December, 1903, stated that “for all purposes connected with, and having reference to, the right to vote at Parliamentary elections, words in the Representation of the People Act importing the masculine gender shall include women.” Simply translated, universal manhood suffrage should be understood to mean universal personhood suffrage. The statement of purpose by the WSPU was not new, but the group’s method of attracting attention to the issue was.

Politics in Great Britain relied on the constitutional method—that is, formal procedures that were to be followed in a prescribed manner. Earlier reform campaigns occasionally had resorted to nontraditional political tactics, such as propaganda campaigns, mass rallies and marches, demonstrations, and civil disobedience. The problem was always one of attracting the attention of the establishment and achieving a goal before the nontraditional tactics alienated that same establishment.

Prior to the WSPU, women’s suffrage groups had not only followed the unwritten rules of political activism but had also remained true to the stereotype of women. The Pankhursts observed that following the rules had achieved nothing. Over the next decade, the WSPU utilized every traditional and nontraditional tactic available. In addition to making speeches, holding rallies, and distributing printed materials, WSPU suffragists made press headlines by heckling and taunting politicians wherever possible. In October, 1905, two women were ejected forcibly from a Manchester meeting hall and then arrested. The incident taught the WSPU that militancy attracted far more publicity than did traditional tactics.

At first, militancy was subordinate to constitutional methods. Occasionally women suffragists were arrested, and while they were in jail they held hunger strikes Hunger strikes;suffragists to call attention to the movement. When authorities resorted to force-feeding hunger strikers and several women were injured, the WSPU became more militant. In 1909, the first stone-throwing incidents occurred. These escalated by 1912 into even more violent acts, such as the smashing of shopwindows, arson, and vandalism of artworks.

Government response to the militancy was predictable. Police raided WSPU headquarters and arrested suffragist leaders. Hunger strikes soon followed, and, in 1913, the government passed the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act. Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act (1913)[Prisoners Temporary Discharge] The “Cat and Mouse Act,” as it was quickly dubbed, allowed the government to release prisoners who were on hunger strike and rearrest them later. Also during this period, Emily Davison Davison, Emily achieved martyrdom when she died after running into the path of the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby. The WSPU held a huge funeral procession through London to publicize her dedication.

Despite the members’ efforts, the WSPU’s actions did far more to alienate potential supporters than they did to gain support for woman suffrage. The government considered suffragists to be primarily an irritant and not a major problem. The outbreak of war in August, 1914, changed everything. Emmeline Pankhurst called an immediate halt to militancy, and the government released women suffragists from prison. Throughout World War I the WSPU, the NUWSS, and other women’s suffrage organizations worked for the war effort. Women filled traditional men’s occupations, thereby freeing men for the trenches. Largely because of women’s contributions to the war effort, limited suffrage was granted to women in Great Britain in February, 1918. Voting equality was finally achieved with the Representation of the People Act of 1928. Representation of the People Act (1928)


It is difficult to assess or quantify the exact impact of the WSPU, but the organization’s influence can be seen in three particular areas. First, limited suffrage was granted to women in 1918, and suffrage equality was achieved in 1928. Second, the civil disobedience and militant tactics practiced by the WSPU became a permanent feature of British politics. Third, the organization’s activities challenged the stereotype of the submissive female. The culmination of the women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain can be seen in the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister.

It cannot be proven that the activities of the Pankhursts and the WSPU were either crucial or essential to women’s winning the vote. Indeed, it can be argued that their efforts actually were counterproductive. The WSPU overstepped the boundary of what was considered in that era to be acceptable political activist behavior. The group’s militant campaign alienated many potential supporters of woman suffrage in Great Britain. Moreover, it is probably accurate to state that women received the vote because of their war record between 1914 and 1918. The social changes brought about by the war resulted in political changes. It also can be argued that the efforts of the WSPU placed the issue squarely in the center of British politics, a place where it had never been before. Without such awareness, it is possible that woman suffrage would not have been granted in 1918.

Politics itself was changing, and the relatively placid constitutional system would never be the same. At the same time that suffragists were resorting to arson and window smashing, Ulster Protestants, with the assent of Conservative Party leadership, were arming and preparing for civil war. Radical labor unions in Great Britain, throughout Europe, and elsewhere advocated violence in strikes. Compared with other, later movements, the WSPU was quite tame in its militancy. Indeed, comparisons could be drawn between the WSPU and the civil disobedience of both Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the American South. Marches, demonstrations, debates, sit-ins, and protests were characteristic of all these movements, and all were concerned with basic human rights and human dignity.

Perhaps the greatest impact of the WSPU can be seen in the change in the image of women in Great Britain. WSPU suffragists, unlike their predecessors, were certainly not meek, submissive women. The hunger strikes, the demonstrations and scuffles, the rational speeches, and the intelligence of the leadership demonstrated that the suffragists could not be dismissed as a group of hysterical females. The WSPU was well organized, determined, and efficient. That the members were willing to suffer imprisonment and even, in the case of Emily Davison, death, served to demonstrate that women were human beings who deserved equality.

It cannot be said that the WSPU, or the Representation of the People Act, or any other individual event or act brought about equality for women in Great Britain. Margaret Thatcher, however, served as prime minister of Great Britain from 1979 to 1990, a period of service longer than that of any other prime minister since the eighteenth century. That she could even vote can be traced to the determination of the woman suffragists of the WSPU. Women’s Social and Political Union[Womens Social and Political Union] Women;organizations Woman suffrage;Great Britain Social protest

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barker, Dudley. “Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst.” Prominent Edwardians. New York: Atheneum, 1969. One of four biographical sketches presented to illustrate the age, which was one of glitter and unrest. A brief introduction to the topic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bartley, Paula. Emmeline Pankhurst. New York: Routledge, 2003. Biography of Pankhurst uses newly available archival material to examine her evolution into a militant leader of the women’s suffrage movement. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dangerfield, George. The Strange Death of Liberal England, 1910-1914. 1935. Reprint. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. A significant, albeit dated, book. Examines various political crises in Great Britain in the five years preceding World War I. Unsympathetic to women’s issues and harsh in judgment of the Pankhursts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holton, Sandra Stanley. Feminism and Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain, 1900-1918. 1986. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Provides an overview of the women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain. Focuses primarily on the differences among the political groups within the suffragist movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hume, Leslie Parker. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, 1897-1914. New York: Garland, 1982. Studies the impact of the NUWSS, which coordinated the activities of a coalition of nonmilitant women’s suffrage organizations. Concludes that the conciliatory attitude of the NUWSS countered the negative effects of the WSPU’s militancy. Includes an excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. 1914. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Written at the beginning of World War I. Praises the militant wing of the women’s suffrage movement. Requires careful reading because of omissions and rationalizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pankhurst, Sylvia. The Life of Emmeline Pankhurst: The Suffragette Struggle for Women’s Citizenship. 1935. Reprint. New York: Kraus, 1969. This work reflects not only the devotion of a daughter to her mother but also the dedication of a suffragist to the cause of women’s rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pernoud, Régine. Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000. An insightful critique of a number of fallacious modern ideas about the Middle Ages, including the inaccurate modern understanding that women had no rights during that period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosen, Andrew. Rise Up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903-1914. 1974. Reprint. London: Ashgate, 1993. Scholarly overview of the WSPU utilizes numerous primary sources. Well documented.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rover, Constance. Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain, 1866-1914. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967. Excellent overview of the lengthy struggle for suffrage by women in Great Britain. Primarily a political analysis, and certainly not a paean to the personalities involved. Includes an excellent bibliography and numerous useful appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wright, Almroth E. The Unexpurgated Case Against Woman Suffrage. 1913. Reprint. McLean, Va.: IndyPublish, 2003. A virulent attack on the women’s suffrage movement that conveys the resentment and antipathy faced by suffragists. Useful for understanding the fear and prejudice of the era.

First Woman Is Elected to the U.S. Congress

National Woman’s Party Is Founded

Canadian Women Gain the Vote

British Women Gain the Vote

League of Women Voters Is Founded

U.S. Women Gain the Right to Vote

Proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment

Categories: History