SVRN Blog 6 – ‘Enfranchisement would be proffered them on bended knee’: State Violence, Accessibility, and The Militant Suffragettes, by Tania Shew

In this sixth post for the SVRN blog, Tania Shew, President’s Doctoral Award-funded PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Manchester, focuses on the engagements with and expectation of state violence in the militant Suffragette movement. For info on how to submit a blog to the SVRN yourself, and for info on how to register for the upcoming ‘From the State to the Streets’ conference, see the links at the end of the post.

The violence which the state metered out against members of the militant suffragette movement received renewed attention last year. In February 2018, the Labour Party pledged to posthumously pardon the suffragettes who were imprisoned and force-fed, prompting debate amongst historians, politicians and public commentators over whether this was a historically-revisionist suggestion. Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, justified his proposed policy by arguing that militant suffragettes were ‘treated appallingly by… the state’, that their convictions were ‘politically motivated’ and that ‘a pardon could mean something to their families.’1 Whilst these points are all credible, many women’s historians disagreed with the proposed gesture, claiming that the suffragettes would not have wanted to be pardoned. They maintained that a pardon would obscure the agency of the militant campaigners who had often anticipated encountering state violence, intending to use their subjugation as a rhetorical strategy.

In her memoir, My Own Story, militant leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, outlined the thinking behind this strategy: ‘our rule has always been to be patient, exercise self-restraint, show our so-called superiors that we are not hysterical; to use no violence but rather to offer ourselves to the violence of others’.2 Pankhurst and her fellow strategists expected their mass marches and, later, destruction of property to be met with violence against their physical persons at the hands of police officers and prison wardens. Their aim was to use this disproportionate retaliation to demonstrate the imperative for a measured, soothing and traditionally feminine influence on the political process. Pankhurst also hoped that the extreme punishments she and her suffragette comrades received would illicit public sympathy for their cause which, at times, it did.3 Therefore, whilst numerous suffragettes were sexually assaulted, beaten and tortured by state officials, victimhood is arguably not the most appropriate lens through which to view their experiences. It must be noted that some of the most extreme acts of state violence encountered by suffragettes – most significantly the mass sexual assault of suffragettes by police officers on a November 1910 march, subsequently dubbed ‘Black Friday’ – were recorded as deeply shocking by the protestors. At the same time, encountering and submitting to other instances of state violence was part of the militant suffrage leadership’s carefully considered strategy.4 This is why pardoning them could have served to undermine both their intellect and their intended courage.5


Preserving the agency of the suffragettes who voluntarily subjected themselves to extreme repercussions from the state is important. However, tactics designed to end in violence or arrest were not accessible to all suffrage campaigners, especially those who faced class barriers. Working-class suffragettes were heavily represented in suffrage protests, one of the most prominent members of the Women’s Social and Political Union started her life as a Lancashire mill-girl, and when they were arrested, working-class activists often faced the harshest punishments. However, compelling recent research has also illuminated the barriers which working-class suffrage activists could face, inhibiting them from participating in protests which necessitated they take time away from their paid employment. What did these women, who had militant politics but were prohibited from participating in traditional militant actions do? My research points to an alternative, novel and heavily gendered set of militant tactics which some suffragettes favoured due to their supposed accessibility.

My thesis research foregrounds the suffrage campaigners who considered politicising their own personal, romantic relationships with men as a political tactic to achieve their various feminist goals. This began as a means of showing solidarity with feminists fighting for social reforms such as the Married Women’s Property Acts. After the turn of the twentieth-century, suffrage campaigners began considering whether these strategies could be employed within the fight for the franchise itself, couching their proposals within the burgeoning militant rhetoric specifically. Contemporaneous suffrage sympathisers theorised that this tactic could be beneficial as it would allow suffragettes to enact more disruptive measures than those championed by the constitutionalist suffragists, but which would also be beyond the remit of the law.

The first recorded allusion to use of the politicisation of marriage as an easier, and therefore more accessible, form of militancy, which I have encountered in my research so far, came from Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage member, Dr Charles Vickery Drysdale. Writing in the feminist periodical The Freewoman in 1911, he expressed concern at ‘how low the value of motherhood has really fallen’, maintaining ‘that the only hope of making it truly respected is to make it a limited, if not a scarcity article’.7 He then argued that ‘if women would only calmly refuse to be mothers until the state recognised them as citizens, their enfranchisement would be proffered them on bended knee, without the need for any effort or contest’.8

Female suffrage supporter, Lucy Re-Bartlett, made a much more explicit allusion to the politicisation of marriage as an accessible militant tactic in her book Sex and Sanctity. She praised both suffragettes and non-suffragettes alike who, she maintained, were boycotting sexual, romantic or reproductive relations in response to ‘every suffering woman, and every suffering child’. She claimed that ‘In the hearts of many women today is a rising cry something like this… “I will know no man and bear no children until this apathy is broken through – these wrongs be righted!” There are women both married and single with differing degrees of consciousness, with varying intensity, are feeling thus, and acting thus today. It is the ‘silent strike’, and it is going on all over the world.’9 Re-Bartlett specifically linked a marriage boycott to suffrage militancy. She wrote ‘The “madness” which has led to window-breaking’ has ‘many other expressions, far further reaching and totally beyond the power of police or magistrate to deal with’. Re-Bartlett elaborated that ‘“window breaking” is only as one wave breaking from a great sea.’.10

In 1914 the suffrage group the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) discussed encouraging a mass birth-strike amongst working-class mothers in an attempt to persuade the state to enfranchise women. As promoting the use of contraception sometimes prompted legal repercussions, whereas personal use of contraception did not, the middle-class women developing this strategy expressed fear of arrest but did not expect their working-class counterparts to be taking such a risk themselves.11 The motion did not pass at that conference, despite one member claiming that she knew of at least twenty working-class suffrage supporters in her region who were willing to start implementing this strategy.12 The First World War began four months later and it is futile to speculate whether, had war not broken out, the WFL might have begun implementing this strategy following a later conference.

Whilst both the militant suffrage leadership and subsequent historians have often emphasised the parallels between the tactics employed by militant suffragettes and those of previous (predominantly male) radical movements, the suffragettes in my research developed highly novel strategies. In the process, they redefined what it meant to be militant, suggesting that political bravery could just as effectively be performed at home in the romantic sphere as in clashes with the police on the street. More research is now required into this strategy and its links with working class suffragettes in particular.

2 E. Pankhurst, My Own Story, (First published: Eveleigh Nash, 1914. This edition: Vintage, 2015), p.118.

3 Ibid., p. 77, 118.

4 Ibid., p.4.

5 Ibid., p.4.

7 G. Drysdale, ‘Freewoman and the Birth-rate II’, The Freewoman (21 December 1911), p. 89.

8 Ibid., p. 89.

9 L. Re-Bartlett, Sex and Sanctity, (1912) in Jeffreys, (ed.) The Sexuality Debates, pp. 296-7.

10 Ibid., pp.298.

11 WFL 9th annual conference, 28 March 1914, p.63, WLA 2WFL/2/07, for birth control law in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries see W. Langer, ‘The Origins of the Birth Control Movement in England in the Early Nineteenth Century’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 5, No. 4, (Spring, 1975).

12 WFL 9th annual conference, 28 March 1914, p.63, WLA 2WFL/2/07.

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The opinions and viewpoints contained in this blog post are not necessarily shared by the State Violence Research Network, and publication should not be considered an endorsement.

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