Hyde Park was bathed in glorious sunshine as ‘Women’s Sunday’ began on 21 June 1908. Organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union, the massive demonstration for women’s suffrage saw thousands march in seven processions all over London, gathering for a day of peaceful protest.
As the elegantly dressed leader of the WSPU, Emmeline Pankhurst, walked through the park, she heard brass bands and singers over the excited chatter of the crowds, and saw banners reading “Votes for Women” fluttering in the summer breeze. The occasional bugle signalled the start of a speech at one of the 20 stages erected around the park. Emmeline, a renowned orator, would speak throughout the day.
A sea of purple, white and green – the newly adopted colours of the WSPU – washed over the park on innumerable rosettes, badges, sashes, banners and flags. Purple stood for dignity, white for purity and green for hope. The wealthier women present proudly bore the colours on their jewellery, wearing amethysts, pearls and peridots.
An estimated 500,000 people filled Hyde Park demanding a women’s suffrage bill. It was described in the WSPU’s newspaper, Votes for Women, as a “monster meeting”, with trains being specially chartered to bring suffragettes from all over Britain.
But Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was unmoved; women’s suffrage was no closer. Such a frustrating failure caused WSPU tactics to escalate into direct action. Adopting window smashing, arson and destruction of property, the suffragettes would face prison – and the horrors of forcible feeding – to claim a long-withheld right: the vote.
“WHAT A PITY…”
Growing up in Moss Side, Manchester, Emmeline Pankhurst (née Goulden) encountered a clash of two conflicting cultures in her family home. On one side, her childhood was surrounded by political and social activism as her relatively affluent parents, Robert and Sophia Jane, were fierce advocates of parliamentary reform. She became a “conscious and confirmed suffragist” after accompanying her mother to a meeting at the age of 14.
But on the other side, the intelligent and tenacious Emmeline was frustrated by the differing attitudes towards her and her brothers. She later wrote about lying in bed one night, when her father came into her room, leant over her and sighed, “What a pity she wasn’t born a lad.”
To Emmeline, the catalyst for social change was going to be universal suffrage. It was a view shared by her husband, Richard, an esteemed barrister and fervent socialist over twice her age.
The couple were married on 18 December 1879. In the first ten years of their marriage, they hosted suffrage meetings in their home, founded the Women’s Franchise League in 1889 and had five children: Christabel, Sylvia, Francis Henry (known as Frank), Adela and Henry Francis.
Working as a Poor Law Guardian, Emmeline saw the horrific conditions of the workhouses and became intransigent in the belief that the vote for women – “the mother half of the country” as she described them – was not just a right but a requisite for the end of poverty and social hardships.
While her resolve hardened, Richard’s health failed. In 1898, he died at the age of 64 of complications from stomach ulcers. Visiting a friend in Switzerland, Emmeline discovered the news from an announcement in the newspaper.
Channelling her despair into the fight for enfranchisement, Emmeline was increasingly exasperated by the lack of progress of suffrage groups, as well as the Independent Labour Party, of which she was a member.
So, on 10 October 1903, she established the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with the help of her daughter Christabel, 23, now active in the movement along with and Sylvia, 21. Open only to women, its sole interest was obtaining the vote and, as their motto, ‘Deeds, not words,’ suggests, they were prepared to use action to achieve it.
The early years of the WSPU were focussed on petitions and demonstrations targeted at the governing Liberal Party, including a young minister named Winston Churchill. But arrests slowly became frequent as they aimed to gain public attention.
As Emmeline, first detained in 1908 for trying to forcefully enter Parliament, declared at one of her many trials, “We are not here because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.” A schism in the suffrage movement ensued, between the peaceful suffragists and the WSPU ‘suffragettes’. The term was coined by journalist Charles E Hands in the Daily Mail in January 1906 as a pejorative slur, but it was embraced by Emmeline and her cohorts.
Women were no longer protestors, but soldiers in a war for enfranchisement. In the aftershock of ‘Women’s Sunday’, many women began to believe the denial of legal representation left only illegal actions as a way to be heard. The infamous ‘war on windows’ commenced as stones were hurled through windows and, to make arrest more difficult, women chained themselves to railings. The suffragettes were propelled into the public eye and Emmeline took responsibility for all deeds, resulting in her being charged for inciting destruction of property.
JAILED AND HUMILIATED
But if the authorities thought locking the suffragettes up would prevent action, they were wrong. Prisons around the country became battlefields from 1909, when artist Marion Wallace-Dunlop carried out the first hunger strike, protesting the treatment of suffragette inmates.
By refusing to eat, she obtained her release after 91 hours as it was feared she would die of starvation. Other women started doing the same, at great personal risk, leaving prison authorities with two choices: let the dangerous hunger strikes continue, or instigate forcible feeding.
This barbaric practice saw a prisoner bound or held down and a milk-and-brandy mixture forcefully funnelled into their gullet or, worse still, a plastic tube two-foot long was shoved through their nose. The violent, excruciating and dangerous procedure left prisoners traumatised.
Emmeline described it as, “One of the most disgusting and brutal expedients ever resorted to by prison authorities.” She escaped the ordeal by fending off prison guards with a jug, but she could hear the screams of others echo down the prison walls. When word reached the press, the government was heavily criticised and the suffragettes launched a damning propaganda campaign.
Things were only exacerbated with the controversial ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ in 1913, which released frail prisoners, weakened from hunger striking, until they recovered their strength. They were then re-arrested to serve the rest of their sentence.
For a while, public opinion swung in favour of the suffragettes. Emmeline had enjoyed successful speaking tours of the US, and the British government faced criticism, especially after the notorious ‘Black Friday’. Following the failure of the Conciliation Bill on Friday, 18 November 1910, which would have given a number of wealthy women the vote, an infuriated Emmeline marched with 300 women to the Houses of Parliament.
Stopped by the police, women of the deputation were beaten, kicked, thrown to the ground, groped and some had their faces grated against the iron railings of Parliament Square. Over six hours, hundreds were arrested, and the deaths of two women, including Emmeline’s little sister Mary Jane Clarke, were attributed to the injuries received.
‘Black Friday’ signalled an escalation in militancy: window smashing intensified, arson attacks became regular, acid was used to write “Votes for Women” on golf greens, and works of art were vandalised, including an axe being taken to The Rokeby Venus by Velázquez. Women who vehemently disagreed with such militant measures left the WSPU, including Emmeline’s daughters Sylvia and Adela.
The rift in the Pankhurst family would never heal but Emmeline persevered. A bodyguard unit was even created under the direction of Jiu jitsu expert Edith Garrud. On 21 May 1914, at the gate of Buckingham Palace, Emmeline was arrested for the last time delivering a petition to the King. But with an inevitable global conflict looming, the war for enfranchisement was about to be postponed.
THE ROAD TO VICTORY
World War I saw a radical change in Emmeline. Dissent gave way to unbridled patriotism and the government’s most vociferous critic became an ally overnight. All WSPU actions were ceased to support the war effort and, in return, suffragette prisoners were released. Women started working in jobs previously seen as unacceptable, and they thrived.
As the war dragged on, even with reduced activity by suffragettes and suffragists alike, Britain took its final steps towards suffrage until 1918, when the Representation of the People Act was passed. It gave the vote to women over 30 – with some qualifications concerning property ownership – resulting in about 8.5 million new voters.
Weary of activism, Emmeline stepped back from the WSPU. In her final years, she moved several times and even considered running for Parliament as a Conservative candidate, but deteriorating health prevented her. Her death on 14 June 1928, aged 69, came a matter of weeks before the Equal Franchise Act, finally giving all women the same voting rights as men.
Although she would not live to see the fulfilment of the ultimate aim for which she had striven for decades, the hope and determination she felt on that bright, warm day in Hyde Park had kept her going in the face of obstinate misogyny. Today, the WSPU colours that adorned the park can be seen wrapped around her grave.