WSPU Founded by Emmeline Pankhurst

Women's Social and Political Union

Tess Billington holding Votes for Women banner in London 1906

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As founder of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst brought militancy to the British suffrage movement in the early twentieth century. The WSPU became the most contentious of the suffragist groups of that era, with activities ranging from disruptive demonstrations to destruction of property through the use of arson and bombs. Pankhurst and her cohorts served repeated sentences in jail, where they staged hunger strikes. The WSPU was active from 1903 to 1914, when England's involvement in World War I brought women's suffrage efforts to a halt.

Pankhurst's Early Days as an Activist

Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst was born in Manchester, England in 1858 to liberal-minded parents who supported both the anti-slavery and women's suffrage movements. Pankhurst attended her first suffrage meeting with her mother at the age of 14, becoming devoted to the cause of women's suffrage at an early age.

Pankhurst found her soulmate in Richard Pankhurst, a radical Manchester attorney twice her age whom she married in 1879. Pankhurst shared his wife's determination to acquire the vote for women; he had even drafted an early version of a women's suffrage bill, which had been rejected by Parliament in 1870.

The Pankhursts were active in several local suffrage organizations in Manchester. They moved to London in 1885 to enable Richard Pankhurst to run for Parliament. Although he lost, they stayed in London for four years, during which time they formed the Women's Franchise League. The League disbanded due to internal conflicts and the Pankhursts returned to Manchester in 1892.

The Birth of the WSPU

Pankhurst suffered the sudden loss of her husband to a perforated ulcer in 1898, becoming a widow at the age of 40. Left with debts and four children to support (her son Francis had died in 1888), Pankhurst took a job as a registrar in Manchester. Employed in a working-class district, she witnessed many instances of gender discrimination—which only strengthened her resolve to obtain equal rights for women.

In October 1903, Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), holding the weekly meetings in her Manchester home. Limiting its membership to women only, the suffrage group sought the involvement of working-class women. Pankhurst's daughters Christabel and Sylvia helped their mother to manage the organization, as well as to give speeches at rallies. The group published its own newspaper, naming it ​Suffragette after the derogatory nickname given to suffragists by the press.

Early supporters of the WSPU included many working-class women, such as mill-worker Annie Kenny and seamstress Hannah Mitchell, both of whom became prominent public speakers for the organization.

The WSPU adopted the slogan "Votes For Women" and selected green, white, and purple as their official colors, symbolizing respectively, hope, purity, and dignity. The slogan and tricolor banner (worn by members as a sash across their blouses) became a common sight at rallies and demonstrations throughout England.

Gaining Strength

In May 1904, WSPU members crowded the House of Commons to hear discussion on the women's suffrage bill, having been assured in advance by the Labor Party that the bill (drafted years earlier by Richard Pankhurst) would be brought up for debate. Instead, members of Parliament (MPs) staged a "talk-out," a strategy intended to run down the clock so that there would be no time left for discussion of the suffrage bill.

Infuriated, members of the Union decided they must use more drastic measures. Since demonstrations and rallies were not producing results, although they did help to increase the membership of the WSPU, the Union adopted a new strategy—heckling politicians during speeches. During one such incident in October 1905, Pankhurst's daughter Christabel and fellow WSPU member Annie Kenney were arrested and sent to jail for a week. Many more arrests of women protesters—nearly 1,000—would follow before the struggle for the vote was over.

In June 1908, the WSPU held the largest-ever political demonstration in London's history. Hundreds of thousands rallied in Hyde Park as suffragist speakers read resolutions calling for the women's vote. The government accepted the resolutions but refused to act upon them.

The WSPU Gets Radical

The WSPU employed increasingly militant tactics over the next several years. Emmeline Pankhurst organized a window-smashing campaign throughout London's commercial districts in March 1912. At the designated hour, 400 women took hammers and began smashing windows simultaneously. Pankhurst, who had broken windows at the prime minister's residence, went to jail along with many of her accomplices.

Hundreds of women, including Pankhurst, went on hunger strikes during their numerous imprisonments. Prison officials resorted to violent force-feeding of the women, some of whom actually died from the procedure. Newspaper accounts of such mistreatment helped to generate sympathy for the suffragists. In response to the outcry, Parliament passed the Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act (known informally as the "Cat and Mouse Act"), which allowed the fasting women to be released just long enough to recover, only to be rearrested.

The Union added destruction of property to its growing arsenal of weapons in its battle for the vote. Women vandalized golf courses, railroad cars, and government offices. Some went so far as to set buildings on fire and plant bombs in mailboxes.

In 1913, one Union member, Emily Davidson, attracted negative publicity by throwing herself in front of the king's horse during a race at Epsom. She died days later, having never regained consciousness.

World War I Intervenes

In 1914, Britain's involvement in World War I effectively brought about the end of the WSPU and the suffrage movement in general. Pankhurst believed in serving her country in a time of war and declared a truce with the British government. In return, all imprisoned suffragists were released from jail.

Women proved themselves capable of performing traditional men's jobs while the men were off at war and seemed to have earned more respect as a result. By 1916, the fight for the vote was over. Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act, granting the vote to all women over 30. The vote was granted to all women over 21 years of age in 1928, only weeks after the death of Emmeline Pankhurst.

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Daniels, Patricia E. "WSPU Founded by Emmeline Pankhurst." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Daniels, Patricia E. (2023, April 5). WSPU Founded by Emmeline Pankhurst. Retrieved from Daniels, Patricia E. "WSPU Founded by Emmeline Pankhurst." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).