Votes for women: ‘deeds not words’

Over 100 years ago, suffragette Theresa Garnett entered a busy railway station and pushed her way towards then cabinet minister Winston Churchill. She reached him through the crowds and began whipping him, shouting: ‘Take that in the name of the insulted women of England’. Other suffragettes meanwhile were protesting, smashing windows and starting fires, following the Women’s Social and Political Union’s (WSPU) call for ‘deeds not words’. 100 years ago this year, following a long and militant campaign led by the WSPU, some women in Britain were given the right to vote for the first time. This was an important step forward for women. Rachel Francis reports.

Despite suffragists campaigning in respectable ways for decades, it was the campaign of the WSPU which brought the struggle widespread attention. Events celebrating the centenary of women’s suffrage remember the vibrant movement of the WSPU. They present a unified campaign in which bourgeois feminist ideas represented all women. However, less prominent in the anniversary celebrations is the role of working class women, socialists and revolutionaries – notably the Marxist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst – for whom the fight for the vote was one part of a wider struggle for real equality and emancipation.

The right to vote

6 February 2018 marked the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which granted the right to vote to around 8.4 million propertied women aged over 30 for the first time. The Act also extended the vote for the first time to 5.6 million working class men who did not own property. Ten years later, the Second Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act granted suffrage to all women over 21.

The campaign for suffrage was not only a question for women. The WSPU was founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, and its primary goal was votes for women. Another of Emmeline’s daughters – Sylvia – quickly became centrally involved. Initially allied with the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the WSPU also lobbied the Liberal Party. When the Liberal Party came to power in 1906, it offered no real support to the suffrage movement. The ILP, meanwhile, was split between those arguing for immediate universal suffrage, and those arguing for votes for men first as a step to full suffrage. The WSPU charted its own path with a lively campaign and increasingly militant actions to force the government to listen. With socialist groups largely viewing the call for the vote as reformist and in the interests of the few, and only a small campaign for universal suffrage, the WSPU enjoyed a dominant position with its call for ‘votes for women’.

The work of the WSPU arose out of changing conditions for women. As increasing numbers of petit-bourgeois women left the home to study and work, facilitated by the growth of commerce, their lack of rights compared with men in similar positions became clear. The movement for the vote for women and equality with men flourished amongst this section. Working class women were also involved – WSPU membership ranged from factory workers to an Indian princess. Working class women were often already in poorly-paid, dangerous jobs, and many were already involved in political activity for improved conditions and the vote, particularly in northern England. Some became involved in the WSPU and a small number were involved in its leadership. There were deputations to parliament headed by working women who described pitiful pay and conditions and insisted they were there ‘for the working classes’, not ‘as a cat’s paw for the middle class’. However, Christabel and Emmeline thought working class women were of little use to their struggle due to their position as the ‘least educated’ and ‘least powerful’. Sylvia’s recognition of the need to mobilise the masses of working class women – and men – in a collective struggle to fight for the vote and wider social change was a major reason for a split in the movement in 1914, to which we will return.

The WSPU represented a break from the earlier suffrage movement through their determination and exemplary radical actions. In 1906 the Daily Mail used the term ‘suffragette’ as an attempt to belittle the WSPU, separating them from the more respectable suffragists. Accordingly, in 1912 the WSPU named their newspaper The Suffragette and declared the ‘suffragist jist [sic] wants the vote, while the Suffragette means to get it’. In addition to starting fires and breaking windows, suffragettes cut telegraph wires, planted bombs and went on hunger and thirst strikes when imprisoned. They realised petitions would be ignored. However, militancy was not enough to ensure the wider progressive character of the WSPU. German revolutionary communist Rosa Luxemburg warned in 1912 that, ‘bourgeois women who act like lionesses in the struggle against “male prerogatives” would trot like docile lambs in the camp of conservative and clerical reaction if they had suffrage’. This was proven to be true early in the case of the WSPU with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. In order to prove their patriotism, alongside the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the WSPU dropped calls for the vote for the duration of the war, changed their journal’s name to Britannia and called on women to put their full backing behind the war effort.

So immediately before the vote was won, leading sections of the suffragettes weren’t campaigning for the vote at all – but for nationalism and war. Their earlier campaign was undoubtedly critical to the Representation of the People Act but other factors were important; the war meant the government needed to grant returning soldiers, propertied or not, a concession. The inspiration provided by the Bolshevik revolution, combined with unrest at home over living and working conditions, was a serious and potentially revolutionary threat. When the Act was passed, Sylvia remembers ‘the sorrows of the world precluded jubilations.’ For the next decade the women did their job as intended and exactly as Luxemburg described – the women who had won the vote overwhelmingly voted Conservative.

Working class on the move

Prior to and during the war was a time of great upheaval and working class women were not just fighting for the vote; they were organising to improve their living conditions and against the very system that kept them oppressed.

In Ireland, women were fighting in the growing movement for national liberation. The Irish Women Workers Union (IWWU), founded by James Larkin and his sister Delia in 1911, positioned its fight for the vote for women alongside its campaign for shorter hours, decent housing and better pay and conditions. In doing so, they opposed the sections of various movements who wanted to isolate the struggle for the vote from the struggle for better conditions. Women were locked out of factories for wearing the badge of the IWWU. In the Dublin Lockout of 1913, solidarity campaigns were set up for striking workers by working class women. Sylvia supported the workers and criticised the reactionary role played by the British Trade Union Congress which sent ‘a handful of crumbs’ rather than taking action. Sylvia’s support for the Irish struggle widened the gulf between her and Emmeline and Christabel.

The East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS), set up by Sylvia Pankhurst in 1913, recognised the need for collective working class action, which led to its expulsion from the WSPU in 1914. Whilst women’s suffrage was their rallying cry, their campaigning went well beyond this. The organisation contained men, unlike the WSPU. The first issue of the ELFS’s paper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, edited by Sylvia (later to become The Worker’s Dreadnought) laid out the necessity of popular resistance. Sylvia recognised that the interests of her mother and sister were not those of the women of the East End. Her understanding that people’s daily conditions, work, housing and child rearing could not wait for a vote was central to the ELFS’s approach. Cost-price restaurants, nurseries and medical facilities were established, providing employment for women in their communities, to fight poverty, illness and unemployment. It was from these centres that meetings, political education, and organising took place. When the war broke out, Sylvia’s theoretical opposition had to be worked carefully into the practical campaigns, with women thrust into war work and men on the front lines. By the end of the war her organisation was agitating in support of the Bolsheviks.

Sylvia’s move away from the tactics of the WSPU, and call ‘not for more serious militancy by the few but a stronger appeal to the great masses to join in the struggle’, was not a turn from direct action itself. Her repeated imprisonment, hunger strikes and force-feedings show what she was prepared to do. However, militancy for her was organising with as many people as possible, opposing the single focus and often conservative positions of both enemies and militant false friends alike. Her newspaper was one weapon, employing the first black journalist in Britain, and filled with articles from anti-racist and socialist writers joining forces with those fighting for the vote.


The suffragettes broke the law because they had to. When suffragettes were released from prison, often weak and ill from hunger strikes and force-feeding, supporters would greet them with a WSPU badge and scroll. The media would be invited to draw attention to their struggle, then they would retreat to safe houses to recover – often to be sent back to prison weeks later. Criminalisation and imprisonment became central to their campaign, one of the many tools with which to fight.

Pardoning the suffragettes, as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised, is patronising at best. At the Shadow Cabinet meeting celebrating 100 years since women got the vote, Corbyn recognised the brutal actions of the state in its treatment of the suffragettes and said that a pardon ‘could mean something to their families’. Granting a pardon excuses the fact that the suffragettes were punished because they had to break the law in order to fight for a basic democratic right. It paints them in a more forgiving, historic and ultimately respectable light.

Alongside this sudden stand against criminalisation, there is less concern with the position of working class women today. The women who bear the brunt of austerity, and the abuse and violence endemic in society, are not mentioned. What about the 3,952 women (and 80,794 men) in prison today who cannot vote? Nearly 50 years since the Equal Pay Act, Women are still discriminated against at work. Attacks on working conditions and services are a double blow to women, working when capitalism needs their labour in the lowest-paid jobs and performing unpaid and unsupported care in the home.

Today, women are speaking out against the widespread violence, abuse and sexism they face. However, a look at the #MeToo and #Time’sUp campaigns are a reminder that Hollywood actresses and MPs do not represent the interests of the working class woman abused by her boss at a job she depends on and cannot leave, or the women who speak out but will never receive the same press coverage. Similarly, the celebrated history of the suffragettes says that the interests of the most powerful sections of bourgeois women are the interests of all women. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan can embrace this kind of feminism, appearing at London’s recent March for Women proudly wearing a ‘Deeds not Words’ sash. Meanwhile, Khan is overseeing savage cuts to domestic violence refuges across London.

A fighting movement is needed which takes up the struggles of working class women fighting against discrimination, austerity, poverty and violence. Khan and his colleagues would be the first to attack and criminalise such a movement if it really threatened their privilege, and their system. Now is precisely the time to break with these false friends and rediscover the lessons of the revolutionary wing of the suffragette movement that can provide inspiration for a real struggle for women’s full emancipation.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 263 April/May 2018


Environment Campaign List

  • Climate protests – a breath of fresh air >

    ‘We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. We have run out of excuses Read More
  • RCG joins Youth Strike 4 Climate - 15 March >

    On 15 March, more than a million school and college students, along with teachers and other supporters joined the second global Youth Strike 4 Climate (click for background on the Read More
  • World has 12 years to solve climate change >

    On 8 October 2018, the world’s leading climate scientists warned in a report for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that there are only 12 years for global Read More
  • 1


Our site uses cookies to improve your browsing experience. By using the site you consent to the use of cookies.
More information Ok