The WSPU otherwise known as the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded in 1903 by Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst. They had been part of theNUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) but had become frustrated by its lack of success. They formed this new organization that became known for its more militant tendencies; their approach was very different from the moderate law-abiding NUWSS. Members of the Union became known as ‘Suffragettes’. Whenever possible members were to wear the three colours of the Union: purple, white and green to show their support for the Cause. Purple stood for dignity, white for purity and green for hope for the future.
For three years the WSPU did valuable propaganda work in the cotton towns of the North of England. Their plans soon turned into direct action which consisted of politicians being questioned and interrupted, and MPs challenged and ridiculed during by-election campaigns. ‘Deeds not words’ was the WSPU’s slogan and a new style for the 20th century struggle. Despite the differences in policy and style, the two organizations (the WSPU and the NUWSS) worked well together, at least in the early years! Mrs. Fawcett, President of the NUWSS, even praised the bold tactics and courage of the WSPU.
Arrest and imprisonment were tactics used by the WSPU. When their requests were turned down they would make protest speeches and be arrested. These women would choose to go to prison rather than pay fines. These tactics gave the WSPU valuable publicity and new recruits joined the movement.
By the autumn of 1907 there were changes in the WSPU. By force of personality and the support of her mother Christabel gained control of the WSPU in London. Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel however were strongly criticized by three senior members of the organization about their style of leadership. Some of their critics (Charlotte Despard and Teresa Billington-Greig) founded a new party, the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). The WFL was also a militant organization which attacked the government, however they criticized the WSPU’s campaign of vandalism against private and commercial property. Over 100 of their members were sent to prison for various offences committed while protesting against the government’s inaction on votes for women. A further example of conflict was when Sylvia Pankhurst was expelled from the WSPU in 1914. She was unhappy that the WSPU had abandoned its earlier commitment to socialism and disagreed with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst’s attempts to gain middle-class support by arguing in favour of a limited franchise. Her final break with the Union came when the movement adopted a policy of widespread arson.
Another tactic used by the suffragettes from 1908 onwards was to confront senior Liberal politicians with banners wherever possible. Very soon women were banned from political meetings unless they had been vetted and searched first. Since the start of their militant campaign there had been a dispute with authorities over the kind of treatment that suffragette prisoners should be given. The WSPU said its members were involved in a political battle, and if arrested and imprisoned should be given the status of political prisoners. Some suffragettes were given this treatment but the government refused to allow special privileges to the vast majority of WSPU prisoners. Once in goal they were usually treated like other criminals. In protest at their treatment the first window-smashers went on hunger strike, refusing all food until they were given political status.
The prisons now became a new battleground in the fight for votes for women. The authorities didn’t want starving, dying women on their hands and at first they released the women who tried to use this tactic in an attempt to stop the creation of martyrs. A few months later however, force-feeding was introduced. In 1913, as a result of public opinion, the government decided to stop force-feeding the suffragettes. Instead they released the starving women from prison and then re-arrested them as soon as they were fit. This Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act was nicknamed ‘The Cat and Mouse Act’ by the WSPU because it reminded people of a cat playing with a mouse.
When the wholesale smashing of shop windows took place in 1912 the police began arresting the leaders of the WSPU. Christabel fled to France where she continued to organize the increasingly militant campaign without fear of imprisonment. Emmeline Pankhurst however was imprisoned repeatedly. A woman in her fifties Emmeline’s actions inspired many other women to follow her example of committing acts of civil disobedience. In one eighteen month period she endured ten hunger strikes.
The most dramatic event of 1913 was the protest of Emily Wilding Davison. She rushed onto the racecourse at the Derby horse race and was killed by the King's horse. The WSPU organized a spectacular funeral procession for her.
On the outbreak of the war in 1914, Emmeline and other leaders of the WSPU suspended their militant activities for the time being and used their energies to help the war effort. In 1917 Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Party. Their party supported equal pay, maternity and infant care and changes to the marriage laws. Christabel stood for parliament in 1918 and 1919 but was defeated both times.
Emmeline Pankhurst died in 1928, the same year that women finally achieved their long struggle for equality with men in the political arena.
Sylvia Pankhurst was actively involved in the First World War and helped to open four mother-and-baby clinics in London. She was a supporter of the Russian Revolution and in 1917 visited Lenin where she ended up arguing with him over the issue of censorship. She had a child in 1927 and upset her mother by refusing to marry the boy’s father because she was totally opposed to signing a marriage contract or taking a mans name. Sylvia remained active in politics throughout her life. In the 1930’s she supported the republicans in Spain, helped Jewish refugees from Germany and led the campaign against the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. After the second World War she moved to Ethiopia where she lived until her death in 1960.
Astatue is to be unveiled on the 24th of May. The statue, which will be lifesize and cast in bronze, shows Sylvia striding forward on a ground covered in placards and sticks.