WORLD WAR I proved the seismic turning point in the campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain. However, serious groundwork had been laid by the Suffragette movement in the years leading up to the Great War, particularly a century ago – in 1912 and 1913 – as their tactics became increasingly confrontational and controversial.
Campaigns calling for women to have voting rights began in the mid-19th century in response to the Great Reform Act which blocked women from voting. Millicent Garrett Fawcett launched her peaceful campaign for women’s rights in the 1860s, but the women’s suffrage campaign became more radical with the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia.
Tactics employed by the suffragettes included lobbying campaigns targeting politicians and acts of civil disobedience such as mass protests, arson and disrupting political party meetings. Suffragettes who were arrested in connection with their campaign began holding hunger strikes in prison, but were forcibly fed. Here is an extract from an account suffragette Emily Wilding Davison wrote in 1912 of her force feeding experiences:
(Document via parliament.uk)
In February 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst was sentenced to three years after claiming responsibility for a bomb attack on a house being built for the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George. No one was injured in the explosion, and Pankhurst was released early after going on hunger strike. According to a Manchester Guardian report at the time, Pankhurst said:
If they torture me with force-feeding, that cannot last very long; they cannot keep me alive very long; and they will have to let me die or let me go. If I drop out of the fight hundreds will take my place.
Photo of broken windows at Lloyd George’s house following the bomb attack. (PA Archive)
Two months after the attack on Lloyd George’s house, the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Health Act was hurriedly passed through parliament. Under this legislation, hunger striking suffragettes in custody were monitored and released when they became seriously ill or weak, but could be re-arrested again once their health improved. However, the legislation – popularly known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ – was counter-productive in failing to bolster public support against the suffragette movement.
Public awareness of the suffragette campaign was further heightened by a tragic event several weeks later. On 4 June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison stepped out in front of King George V’s horse during the Epsom Derby and died from her injuries a few days later.
In photos: The Suffragette movement in 1912 and 1913: