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Did the WSPU help or hinder the struggle for women's rights?

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Did the WSPU help or hinder the struggle for women’s rights?

In 1867 most of the male population in Britain received the vote most historians agree that the beginning of the suffrage campaign was in 1832 when a woman asked a campaigner, while campaigning for the wider male, vote to include women. It was not until 1903 when Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Woman’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She founded this group having been a member of the Suffragists. She became frustrated with the Suffragists’ tactics, especially their middle class and gradualist ideas. The motto of the Suffragettes was “Deeds, not Words” and this was reflected in everything they did. The Suffragettes were much more radical and militant with their tactics including vandalism and violence.  In contrast the Suffragist tactics at this time were the same as they always had been, using their middle/upper class connections to try and persuade men of influence and standing to back their cause. The Suffragists became a national movement in 1887 when various Suffrage groups joined together to form the National Union of Woman’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS). The Suffragist leadership was purely middle class however it was known within the organisation, in order to gain the vote they would need the support of working class women. Middle class woman from the Suffragists went to work in some of the mills to try and persuade them to support the cause. Many mill workers joined the Suffragist movement to vent their frustration, having been involved in trade unions but feeling like they were just “voices in the wilderness”. Although the Suffragists were not as famous as the Suffragettes and some historians have said that they made no difference in the Suffrage Campaign, the revisionist view suggests that it was important in the struggle as membership stayed very high throughout the suffrage campaign. In 1914 there were 53,000 members of the NUWSS (so despite the publicity) when the Suffragettes tactics became more violent and militant women left the WSPU to join them. There are no official figures for the WSPU so it is impossible to form a complete conclusion on the figures. This gives the impression that the WSPU and the NUWSS were very separate groups however on some mass rallies etc they in fact worked together.

        Early on in the WSPU campaign they raised the public profile of the Suffrage effort by holding large peaceful protests which were entirely legal. This approach, however, did not seem to get them any closer in achieving votes for women. Because of the lack of reaction the Suffragettes upped their campaign. The Chancellor of Exchequer at the time, HH Asquith was a leading opponent of Suffrage was heckled by Suffragettes in the House of Commons. There were also marches and demonstrations outside the Commons which resulted in arrests. The WSPU helped the campaign for women’s rights by keeping the issue of Suffrage in the news and in people’s minds. However there were ways that they hindered the plight for woman’s suffrage in the UK.

        The Suffrage campaign was very violent and destructive. Women not only protested and chained themselves to railings etc, a notable example is the railings outside Westminster; they also sent letter bombs and attacked golf courses with acid. They hindered the campaign as, it could be argued, that the Government, to give in to these women, would be giving in to terrorism and lawlessness. So at the time when these incidents started the Government took a particularly hard line on these women. In 1909 the WSPU tactics had become increasingly militant and the then Prime Minister HH Asquith and other anti-suffrage politicians had had their windows smashed and were followed around the country to be interrupted while giving speeches and taking part in meetings. Winston Churchill was also attacked by a dog whip. This would have hindered the Suffrage effort as treating these politicians badly would do nothing to change their opinion on votes for women. The police cracked down hard on the riotous protests held by the WSPU and many members were arrested. This was a hindrance for the campaign as they lost public support as they were then seen as common criminals as opposed to civilized respectable middle class women.

 While incarcerated, the WSPU claimed, the women had been arrested for a political act and as such should have been held under the status of political prisoners. This was not the case however as women had no political standing in British society with no vote and unable to stand as Political Candidates the Government would be giving in to a degree if they agreed to such status. So while in prison the campaign did not stop for these women. In 1909 Mrs Wallace-Dunlop went on hunger strike in an attempt to gain the status of political prisoner and afterwards many followed. To start with the Government was unsure what to do about the starving women and released them when they went on hunger strike as they understood that the women on hunger strike would make the public support them and have empathy towards the struggle. The Government, while wanting to keep the hunger striking at bay also could not be seen to just let these women off with their crimes the moment they decided not to eat so they began feeding them by force. Force feeding was very disgusting. A greased tube was forced down the women’s throats and then food was poured down it in to their stomachs. Force feeding is very dangerous as the food or vomit could get in to the women’s lungs causing pneumonia and other respiratory problems. This was a failing by the Government as when the public found out what was happening they were angered by the treatment of the women being force fed and the women became martyrs for the cause and began to win back the support they had lost through the acts that had sent them to prison. The Cat and Mouse Act was introduced in 1913. It made Hunger Striking legal to try to discourage women from the behaviour and it stated that when they became ill from hunger they would be released then re-arrested when they were well enough. The Cat and Mouse Act released the pressure from the Government on keeping the Suffragette healthy while in custody and any harm done to her was then her own doing and responsibility. Also it prevented the women from actively protesting when they were released. However on the whole, the treatment of Suffragettes and the actions of the WSPU in prison custody helped the cause and also boosted their public profile.

        Not only did the Suffragettes damage others and their property one famous example is a Suffragette that killed herself for the cause. Emily Davison was a radical activist for women’s rights. She joined the WSPU in 1906 and she involved herself in the most militant protests. In 1913 Emily attended the Derby at Epsom and she ran out in front of the King’s horse. Her intentions in this act have been subject to much analysis since the incident. One theory is she was trying to attach a Suffragette flag to the King’s horse so that when it crossed the finish line it was literally flying the flag of Suffrage. Whatever her real reason it will never be known as she died four days later in a near-by hospital from a head injury. She became a martyr for the Suffrage cause and her funeral was very well attended by Suffragettes and members of the public, paying their respect to a woman who was willing to give her life for Women’s Rights and this legacy lives on today.

        The Suffragette’s actions helped to change attitudes of how the Fairer Sex should behave however not without backlash. Not only did many men not support them but even other women, and women with significance influence did not support them. Queen Victoria was anti-suffrage and was quoted as describing the women’s rights campaign: “that wicked folly of women’s rights”. This attitude was not helped by the Suffragettes as their actions were “wicked” in some cases and the extreme damage they caused was scandalous. In the years 1913 and 1914 the WSPU caused £54,000 worth of damaged and putting several people in danger including David Lloyd George. Their continuous bombardment of demonstrations and militancy did also help the struggle as they helped

        Some of the factors that helped women in getting the vote had absolutely nothing to do with these groups. The start of World War One marked the end of campaigning for the vote as for 4 years women were preoccupied with war work. The Suffragettes agreed to suspend their campaign and dedicate themselves to the Home Front, possibly on a promise of receipt of the vote. A lot has been made of the fact that in 1918 married women over 30 were granted the vote for the first time as though it was like some kind of “thank you” for the contribution women made during the war however the irony is it was younger single women on the whole who risked their lives working in munitions factories throughout the war. There were also changes in government at the time which could have worked in the favour of women. David Lloyd George was much more accepting of change, despite the damage done to his person property, than the previous anti women’s suffrage prime minister HH Asquith. In the past there was also concern among the political parties that women were unpredictable and the parties were concerned about who they would vote for. Conservatives and Liberals were particularly concerned that they would give women the vote only for the women to go and vote for the growing Labour Party. However the fact that women did men’s jobs throughout the war should not be dismissed and some argue that the positive of that erased, in the mind of politicians, the negatives of the Suffragettes campaign. In a way the women kept the country going and abandoned their efforts throughout the war proved to the government that women were not irrational and irresponsible and could be respected in the same way as men however even today women are not on equal footing to men.

        Historian Martin Pugh believes that by 1900 women having no political voice was “untenable”- hard to justify. Women were becoming increasingly important in society as a whole with increased participation in education, employment (including trade unions) and middle class women could even vote in Local Elections. By the 1900s the typical view of women was changing. They were not longer the “second class citizens” they’d been in the 1800s. As times change and woman took on more and more in a newly urbanised society and were expected to take on more responsibility with no voice or vote. This view explores the idea that in fact neither Suffrage Groups changed people’s minds but in fact views were changing with the culture. However if it wasn’t for some women for example, The WSPU and NUWSS standing up to be counted views would have never changed.

        In conclusion the WSPU both helped and hindered the struggle for women’s rights. They kept the issues in the front of the nation’s mind and showed that women could behave as well and men but also as badly as men. The WSPU also induced sympathy from the public following police brutality at demonstrations and force feeding while in prisons. However it hindered it more than it helped as the Government could not been seen to give in to vandals and criminals, which in effect the Suffragettes were. Throughout this period the membership remained high for the Suffragists and so the legality of their operations may have worked in the favour of the women’s suffrage campaign as the Suffragettes were seem but many as very violent.  Despite this the legacy of the suffragettes and in particular Emily Davison lives on in feminists today.

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