Don’t be fooled by “Suffragette”: Violence alone did not secure the women’s vote

Plenty of suffering, but not much suffrage.
Plenty of suffering, but not much suffrage.
Image: Focus Features/YouTube
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The trailer for the star-studded new film Suffragette hits every item on the Hollywood social-protest movie checklist. There are dismal factories, clamoring crowds, and beautifully dirt-smudged women planting bombs. “As Mrs. Pankhurst says, it’s deeds, not words, that will get us the vote,” Helena Bonham-Carter says in a voiceover as her character lights a fuse onscreen.

That’s certainly powerful stuff. But was Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the British suffragette movement, actually right?

The British fight for women’s suffrage was a complex and messy movement. Most popular narratives hew to the simplistic version told in Suffragette: Pankhurst bravely led women in marches and hunger strikes, and her determination eventually won women the vote. There’s even a statue of her at Parliament.

The truth is far more nuanced. To understand Suffragette within the context of other social protest movements, we first must note that the mass mobilization of women wasn’t accomplished by Pankhurst or by the union she ran. It was achieved by a much larger, generally pacifist organization, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), that has since faded from public memory. In fact, both in their time and in current scholarship, the actions of Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel were believed to have delayed women’s enfranchisement.

The first British women’s suffrage societies were founded in 1868, and in 1897 were combined into the NUWSS. In 1903, dismayed by the lack of public interest in the cause, Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Her goal was to grab public attention and command traditionally masculine political venues. At first, she and her followers heckled male politicians, chained themselves to town hall fences, and charged into the House of Commons. These measures were hugely successful in attracting publicity. By 1908, suffrage demonstrations were drawing tens of thousands of attendees at a minimum.

From the beginning, suffragette demonstrations were met with violence from police and bystanders. When imprisoned suffragettes went on hunger strikes to protest being treated as criminals rather than political prisoners, the government began force-feeding them—a brutal practice that sometimes ended in death or disablement, depicted in its gruesome detail in the new film.

Anger at the government’s harsh punishment made the NUWSS and other nonviolent suffrage organizations sympathetic to the WSPU for a few years. But as time went on, the NUWSS became frustrated that the WSPU was drawing public attention away from the nonviolent regional societies that had already been campaigning for the vote for 50 years. It was the NUWSS that was negotiating with political leaders to introduce voting legislation into Parliament. It was also the NUWSS that had organized events like the famous 1907 “Mud March” of 10,000 women. And unlike the WSPU, the NUWSS insisted that the vote should be extended to all women regardless of social class.

Eventually, NUWSS elders such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett began to worry that the militants were alienating sympathetic allies and betraying the nonviolent origins of the movement.

Set in 1912, Suffragette depicts how WSPU suffragettes planted bombs in mailboxes, wielded knives and acid in crowded museums, and set buildings on fire. Pipe bombs, chemicals, explosions, stones, axes were all tools of the WSPU and the outside contractors they paid to carry out their plans. These attacks did occur, as a response to Pankhurst’s calls for more audacious campaigns of violence.

What the film does not mention is that by 1912, the WSPU had already been reduced to a fringe group. Since 1909, Emmeline and Christabel had increasingly insisted on total control of the organization. Their possessiveness over their vision—including their desire to limit the women’s vote to include only women with property—caused rifts, leading them to rapidly lose members.

The real-life WSPU attacks dramatized in Suffragette were carried out by a set of about a hundred women, including private agents who were paid to perform the bombings. By comparison, at the same time, the NUWSS had nearly 600 regional societies, totaling more than 50,000 members—about ten or twenty times WSPU membership, and about 500 times the number of dedicated violent militants.

With the release of this film, various media outlets have raised the question of whether suffragette violence should be viewed as domestic terrorism. It’s a debate that has preoccupied historians for the past decade. Most now concur that the WSPU’s goals—at least from 1912 to 1914—were primarily to cause public panic. Although the Pankhursts insisted they would “respect life,” WSPU plots risked bystanders’ injury and death. If the loaded term “terrorist” seems surprising, it is mainly because that term has become heavily racialized, and because public memory has filed away the suffrage movement as a quaint feminine protest with a few shattered panes of glass.

In reality, suffrage demonstrations were treated as a public emergency. Police pursuit of the suffragettes included one of history’s first uses of photography as a surveillance tool. Many museum security procedures we still use today, search as searching bags or roping off paintings, were developed specifically to guard against suffragette threats. Joint task forces were formed, uniting police with politicians and heritage site administrators in order to develop preventive measures against potential attacks. Though we don’t know it, militant suffragism changed the texture of our daily lives.

Still, the WSPU was not the group that won women the vote. In fact, its activity stopped well before any bill made it to Parliament’s floor. When World War I broke out, the Pankhursts halted all WSPU action to support the war effort. Their sudden allegiance with the government angered many of their few remaining followers, and what little was left of the WSPU was effectively eviscerated. After the war’s end, Emmeline largely abandoned the suffrage movement in favor of advocating for British imperialism and against Communism.

Meanwhile, the NUWSS continued campaigning for the women’s vote throughout the war, strategically using women’s war work to bolster their arguments for the vote. Parliament finally gave into their demands in 1918, when a voting rights bill designed to accommodate returning soldiers was expanded to include women over 30 who met the property requirements. Women were not granted full equal voting status to men until 1928. If not for the increase in violent protests, the women’s vote might have been achieved in 1912, when the government toyed with introducing a new Franchise Bill.

Suffragette‘s airbrushing of the WSPU and deletion of the NUWSS should give us pause. The long trend of imagining militant suffragettes as harmless ladies was troubling. But glamorizing their actions is also problematic. The vast majority of suffragettes have vanished from public memory because the NUWSS’s work did not satisfy media demands for a gripping story. It was long-term, legislation-oriented, regional, and often rural. It was invested in meeting women’s local needs as well as their national demands, and in addressing class inequalities alongside gender ones. In other words, the NUWSS encouraged solidarity in a way that the WSPU did not.

Watching Suffragette in 2015, it’s impossible not to think of its contemporary resonances. The images of police brutality are especially haunting in an age when a long history of excessive force against people of color is finally receiving mainstream media attention and police departments have been given failing grades by almost half the people they are sworn to protect. The torture of suffragette prisoners brings to mind other contemporary problems like prison guards’ abuse of inmates and recent high-profile deaths in police custody such as that of Sandra Bland.

But we should be careful about equating modern-day protests with militant suffragism. If we’re looking for suffrage parallels to a social movement like #blacklivesmatter, the NUWSS might actually be a better candidate. That group was both grassroots and interclass. It was militant, too—in its organization, its dedication, its effective mobilization into mass demonstration, and its persistence when the rest of the country was no longer paying attention. It’s only the spectacular nature of the WSPU’s violent protests that prevented the NUWSS from claiming the militant moniker for themselves.

Even so, the parallel isn’t perfect—and we shouldn’t try to make it so. Social movements emerge in response to specific complaints and pressures. Histories of oppression are not commensurable, and neither are methods of challenging that oppression. Neither is militancy a fixed concept.

Our goal in discussing films like Suffragette should not be to conflate subjugated groups or their social movements, but to contest the process of lumping each multifaceted movement into a single, narratively appealing mass. Only then will we be able to mine history for its strategies as well as its spectacle.