The Suffragette use of terrorism

suffragette terrorism

Were you taught in history that the Suffragette campaign on votes for women just involved smashing a few shop windows and being chained to railings? Well, you may have been denied some critical information. Because the Suffragettes deployed tactics we would define today as terrorism. Some of this Suffragette terrorism was quite shocking and has been swept under the carpet.

From 1903 to 1918, an organisation called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) spearheaded the campaign to gain the vote for women. The so-called “Suffragettes” emerged from a more moderate movement as the belief grew that only direction action would get results. Led by the mother and daughter team of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst – they eventually adopted a bombing and arson campaign that we would easily define as terrorism.

However, this move to terrorist action has been rather airbrushed out of the Suffragette story. Most people are aware of the shop window smashing and chaining to railings but bombs in churches and railways stations has been pushed out of sight.

Using contemporary newspaper reports, the terrorist campaign of the suffragette movement is brought back to the fore and analysed. Did it work? How was it perceived at the time? Who were the targets? What were the methods used?

And as a fascinating postscript – why did some senior Suffragettes become fascists in the 1930s? Fifteen years after women got the vote in 1918, Suffragettes who had led the movement or been high profile members decided to follow Britain’s answer to Hitler and Mussolini – Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists (BUF).

Was there something about the terrorist campaign of the Suffragettes that led some in that political direction?

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Terrorism – borne out of frustration

The Suffragettes had always emphasised their belief in deeds over words. They upped the ante when attempts to gain votes for women by the parliamentary process failed. If democracy couldn’t deliver, then the bomb just might. That was their thinking, and the result was a wave of very real bomb and arson attacks.

The targets were government ministers, and institutions like the Church of England that Suffragettes felt had dragged their feet on the issue or simply opposed women’s suffrage. It seems incredible now, but parish churches were reduced to ashes and bombs planted in Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral.

On 19 February 1913, a bomb exploded at a large mansion being refurbished for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George – who would later become Prime Minister. Emmeline Pankhurst admitted responsibility personally at a rally in Cardiff. She justified the attack on Lloyd George saying that “we have tried blowing him up to wake his conscience”.

Lloyd George retorted that he did support women’s suffrage but not for a minority of well-heeled women (who would vote Conservative more than likely) and the militancy of the Suffragettes was damaging their cause.

A fellow cabinet minister in the Asquith government was a young Winston Churchill whose views on women’s suffrage were far more hostile. Though his exact words are debated, he did write a few years before that “only the most undesirable class of women are eager for the right” to vote. And that they were “adequately represented by their husbands”.

Churchill would be attacked by a male Suffragette wielding a dog whip in an incident that was notorious at the time.

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Suffragette use of terrorism

We have been served up a story for a long time that the Suffragettes rather quaintly smashed windows with their umbrellas and chained themselves to railings. In the run up to the First World War, there was a seemingly ceaseless wave of bomb attacks on public places. By the end of the war, and the granting of votes to women, this aspect of the Suffragettes was swept under the carpet.

But it happened. And it undermines the oft stated mantra that the most successful civil rights campaigns eschewed violence. The Suffragettes had no qualms about terrorism. The Pankhursts didn’t hesitate to justify these tactics. And they displayed a haughty indifference to mainstream public opinion on the matter. Even a certain contempt and disregard for ordinary working-class people.

Some of their planned actions – which thankfully never came to fruition – included bombing attacks on cotton mills, timber yards, and docks. Also, postal depots and telephone operating facilities. These could only have harmed working-class people. One also has to wonder at what was going through the mind of the Suffragette concerned who placed a bomb in a third-class train carriage or under a seat in a train station waiting room in Liverpool.

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The Suffragette rationalism for terrorist methods

The attack on a mansion called The Elms, situated just outside London, is very noteworthy. It suggests that targets were not only those denying women the vote but opponents within the broader women’s suffrage movement. Because what we have here is a violent act against a female aristocrat who supported women’s suffrage but was opposed to the Suffragettes and their methods.

Rosalind Howard, Countess of Carlisle, was an elitist opponent of democracy who seems to have found the idea of working-class men having the vote problematic. But she did support votes for women though not using the deeds-based approach of the Pankhursts. In uncompromising terms, she said that the Suffragettes had “wrecked the progress of a great constitutional reform”.

And then her property, The Elms, was subject to an arson attack. The culprits were apprehended and faced their day in court. What followed gave an insight into the mindset of the average Suffragette terrorist.

In court, the judge – Justice Lawrence – was involved in a fascinating exchange with the accused arsonist Rachel Peace (real name Florence Jane Short). He asked the militant Suffragette if she agreed that a crime had been committed. Peace replied that she didn’t deny guilt but added “I suggest I am not guilty of any evil motive. My motive is pure”.

The judge insisted that the case had to be based on facts and not “the purity of your motive”. He added that had the fire extended from The Elms to other properties nearby then lives would undoubtedly have been lost. Peace retorted that was “very improbable”.

Justice Lawrence then pointed out that the Suffragettes in effect relied on the authorities to ensure that fatalities didn’t result from their bombings and arson:

“I am amused at your theories of probabilities. You seem to think you may break the law and rely on the officers of the law to prevent the consequences of your act in so doing. You rely on the policeman patrolling the streets to find the fire, and the Fire Brigade to prevent it from spreading to houses with people in them.”

Peace was treated appallingly in prison and subjected to forced feeding. This was commonly used with Suffragettes to break hunger strikes. The exchange above shows that in her view, the purity of motive was paramount, and the consequence of a terrorist action was secondary. The struggle was everything.

The inevitable hoax attacks

During the Suffragette terrorist campaign, there were undoubtedly hoax attacks by opportunists and idiots who having started a fire then blamed it on the campaign for the vote.

In the Welsh town of Abergavenny, an eighteen-year-old man, Douglas James, admitted in court to two charges of arson, both at a church rectory. To try and implicate the Suffragettes, he printed the words “Votes for Women” on a large piece of paper that he left at the scene of his crime.

Well, they do say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

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