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History How the vote for all women was won

MARY DAVIS explains the historic significance of Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of Suffragettes

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act when women over 30 with a small property qualification were enfranchised, even though the 1918 Act gave all men over 21 the vote.

Sylvia Pankhurst casts her vote
Sylvia Pankhurst casts her vote

For some reason there appears to be a greater preference to mark the 1918 anniversary than 1928 when, at last, all women over 21 were enfranchised.

We need to re-examine suffrage history.

We are accustomed to thinking that the historic demand for “votes for women” meant votes for all women. At the time it was formulated in the late 1860s, the demand was that women should obtain the vote “on the same terms as that agreed or may be accorded to men.”

However, the 1884 Reform Act only enfranchised 40 per cent of adult males. Thus, this formula excluded most women, despite the fact that all the suffrage societies including the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) adopted it.

Criticism of the limited demand — although not the issue — came from working class women since suffrage on this basis would not enfranchise them.

Within the WSPU Sylvia Pankhurst became critical of this long accepted women’s suffrage demand, which had been drafted by her father. Hence we can witness, on the most fundamental strategy of the suffrage campaign, a tension between class and gender politics.

This tension is indicative of something much more than personal differences. It captures the complexities of the competing loyalties of class and gender.

Given the limited provisions of the 1884 Act, it was not unreasonable for socialists and others to wish to remedy the obvious democratic deficit in the male suffrage entitlement.

However, such a seemingly logical demand took on a controversial aspect during the period in which the campaign for women’s suffrage was at its height since it could be, and often was, counterposed to women’s suffrage.

This said, however, insufficient attention has been paid to the pro-feminist supporters of adult suffrage, who undoubtedly exercised a strong influence among working class women.

Ada Neild Chew, an organiser for the Women’s Trade Union League in Lancashire, opposed the traditional limited suffrage demand on the grounds that such a bill if introduced would be “a class and property Bill and we have enough property franchises already. A vote for women by all means, but, when we get it, let us see that the working women, the women who earn their daily bread by their daily toil…. shall be considered first and not last.”

Sylvia Pankhurst’s writings suggest that she regarded the limited demand as a profound tactical error from as early as 1906 for two reasons.

First, because the women’s movement’s rejection of adult suffrage fuelled the rift between it and the labour movement. Second, she regarded the precise nature of the women’s suffrage “magic incantation” as “no longer appropriate after 1906” since it was undemocratic and exclusive.

A bill based on the traditional demand would give votes only to “propertied spinsters and widows.”

Much later, reminiscing on how the vote was won, she expressed an even more forthright criticism of the traditional suffrage demand.

She wrote: “In those days no-one dared to ask for the vote for every woman. Right up to the end the suffrage societies, with the sole exception of my own East London Federation ... worked for little bills to enfranchise less than 10 per cent of us, and at many stages they actually proposed to exclude married women altogether.”

For her therefore the issue of the women’s franchise was a class question and meant that it had perforce to be an issue for the labour movement and vice versa.

She viewed with alarm the growing coolness shown by the WSPU to the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party (ILP). This was all the more shocking to Sylvia in view of her family’s previous longstanding connections with the ILP.

She wanted working class women to be fighters on their own account, free from the patronising attitudes of middle class women

In 1907, Christabel Pankhurst issued a press statement formalising the WSPU position which asserted that the WSPU made no distinction between the Tory, Liberal and Labour Party. She ignored the fact that the ILP, since 1905, was committed to women’s suffrage.

The rift between the WSPU and the labour movement, including the ILP, was complete and final in 1907.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s decision to form a suffrage organisation in the East End of London was not motivated solely by her frustration with the WSPU but more positively by her desire to create a mass women’s movement.

This, she said, would be accomplished “not by the secret militancy of a few enthusiasts, but by the rising of the masses.”  

She chose the East End because “it was the greatest homogenous working class area accessible to the House of Commons by popular demonstrations.”

She was aware that the WSPU had become a predominantly middle class organisation and that its hostility to the Labour Party was deeply resented in working class areas.

She wanted working class women to be fighters on their own account, free from the patronising attitudes of middle class women which, however well-intentioned, served to place women workers in the role of victims thereby undermining their potential to liberate themselves.

The outbreak of the WWI in 1914 propelled the WSPU away from feminism in favour of patriotism. It suspended its activities on suffrage to focus attention on the war effort, leaving the East London Federation as almost the only active group in the suffrage campaign.

In 1914 Sylvia and her organisation, the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), were expelled from the WSPU. Throughout the war, in contrast to the parent body, the ELFS distinguished itself in maintaining its commitment to its original purpose — the fight for women’s suffrage.

Given the vast array of other activities in which it was involved, it would have been easy to lose sight of this. T

he issue of human (adult) suffrage now emerged as an important campaigning demand, attracting support from the Labour left. This wider support increased during the course of the war when the ELFS moved steadily in a socialist direction.

The left trend in the ELFS and its weekly paper The Women’s (later ‘Workers’) Dreadnought mirrored the leftward turn within the working class movement generally.

This development was due to the growing opposition to the war after the introduction of conscription in 1916, the strength of the shop stewards and workers’ committees and the impact of the Russian Revolution.  All these issues and campaigns were supported, and in the case of the Russian revolution led, by the ELFS.

In 1917, the Workers’ Suffrage Federation (as the ELFS was now called) stated that no measure was acceptable unless it provided for complete adult suffrage.

The government’s Franchise Bill, introduced in 1917, was, of course, unacceptable to the WSF and to all socialists since, although, for the first time women were included in its provisions, it proposed to enfranchise only women over 30 on the basis of a small property qualification.

It was a shabby all-party compromise which explicitly rejected the principle of equal suffrage in favour of the safer bet of enfranchising older women on the presumption that they were likely to be wives and mothers.

The terms of the Bill serve to demolish the oft-repeated argument that women gained the vote as a reward for their war work. It was younger, single women who were the most directly active in this regard as workers in munitions factories or as nurses in the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD). Such women were explicitly excluded.

Sylvia was almost the only feminist voice in opposition to the Franchise Bill. However, its anti-egalitarianism was not the only reason for her antipathy towards it.

She saw that the government’s motive was to take the sting out of any further agitation on the question by leaving  it “in the hands of the ladies he had seen” — that is the “well-dressed” women of the “respectable” suffrage societies who contributed to the patriotic fervour during the war.

This conveniently excluded the wartime “diluted” labour of working class women who had taken over men’s jobs.

From this time onward there is little mention of the suffrage question in the Workers’ Dreadnought or in the minutes of the Workers’ Suffrage Federation despite the fact that the Bill, enfranchising women over the age of 30 gained Royal assent in February 1918.

For Sylvia this was not a great victory for women and not a matter for rejoicing.

She pointed out that “less than half the women will get the vote by the new Act ... the new Act does not remove the sex disability; it does not establish equal suffrage.”

In the first general election in which women could participate, 17 women stood as candidates, one of whom was Sylvia’s sister Christabel who stood for her newly formed and very short-lived Women’s Party. No women were elected.

Ironically, Emmeline was later adopted as a Conservative candidate, for an East London constituency. The only women elected in 1918 was the revolutionary Sinn Fein candidate who had fought in the 1916 Easter Rising, Countess Constance Markiewicz. She refused to take her seat as a protest against British rule in Ireland.

During the suffrage campaign, the strategic issues that Sylvia Pankhurst and other socialist feminists faced have great resonances for all women activists today as we struggle to reconcile the class/gender divide when it resurfaces with uncanny regularity in the continuing campaign for women’s equality.

It is this present struggle that has fuelled our long campaign to erect a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst which will soon grace Clerkenwell Green and represent the neglected role of working class women in the fight for the vote and true equality.


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