Socialism Today                     The monthly journal of the Socialist Party

Issue 32 contents

About Us

Back Issues



Contact Us



Issue 32, November 1998

Women, rebellion and revolution

    A rising tide of radicalism
    The WSPU and the labour movement
    Eighty years on

Eighty years ago women in Britain won their first major victory in the struggle for the right to vote. Theirs was an historic struggle which inspired thousands of women in their fight against inequality and discrimination. But with women's lives transformed by economic and social changes over the past few decades, just how relevant is the movement for the vote to women today? CHRISTINE THOMAS writes.

WHEN HARRIET HARMAN declared New Labour's election victory 'a turning point in history' she was referring to the unprecedented number of women MPs elected to parliament. Several commentators and MPs themselves drew analogies with 1918 when a section of women won the right to vote in parliamentary elections for the very first time.

While New Labour MPs and 'post' and 'new' feminists may celebrate women's victory in securing the vote, most would argue that a similar collective struggle by women today is either unnecessary or impossible. Instead, the fight for women's rights is reduced to an individualised struggle for self-improvement. Most of the legal obstacles to women's equality, like not having the vote, have now been removed, they claim. So with the right attitude and determination women can turn the system to their own advantage. The new 'feminised' Labour government is now in place to help women to help themselves to individual liberation.

So is the struggle for the vote just one of historical interest? It is true that through collective struggle women have won important legal rights which have raised their confidence and expectations. But women still face deeply embedded discrimination and prejudice. The continuing gap between men and women's wages, and the fact that women still have most of the responsibility for looking after children, show the limitations of legal and social change under capitalism. Increasingly women will find that however determined they are, with capitalism in crisis, only collective struggle against the system can solve the problems they face.

But what form will that struggle take? How will they pursue their demands as women and as workers? Will working-class women come together with other women in a struggle for women's rights? Or, as some post-feminists argue, are the divisions between women so great that there no longer exists a shared oppression for women to struggle against?

It is impossible, of course, to predict exactly how the struggle for women's rights will re-emerge and there are clearly significant historical differences between the current period and the early part of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, the movement by women for the vote, which took place against a background of collective struggle by the working class and a revolutionary ferment across the whole of society, can give an indication of how that struggle might develop.

  top     A rising tide of radicalism

THE MOVEMENT FOR women's suffrage mobilised thousands of women, from differing class backgrounds. Most people are familiar with images of Edwardian 'ladies' chaining themselves to railings, breaking windows and militantly protesting in favour of votes for women. Less well known are the Lancashire cotton workers campaigning for women's suffrage in the mills and factories of the north of England. Yet all participated in what was one of the biggest movements by women in history.

For much of the nineteenth century however the campaign for the vote was almost entirely the preserve of middle class women, along with women from the growing capitalist class. Through their own personal experiences and involvement in Radical campaigns such as the abolition of slavery and the repeal of the Corn Laws, many began to challenge a ruling ideology which marked out different spheres for men and women and which considered married women the property of their husbands with no separate legal or political rights of their own. The struggle for women's suffrage was waged alongside campaigns to change the custody and divorce laws to allow women to have control over their earnings and property, and to open up higher education and the professions.

By the end of the century many of these demands had been won. Women were able to vote in local elections (if they met the right property qualification), they could stand for election to local councils and school boards, but they still hadn't won the right to vote for a parliament which made the laws which shaped their lives.

Voting for men was restricted by a narrow property qualification. In 1867 the franchise was extended to include men of the lower middle classes and a section of better-off workers. The 1884 Reform Act widened the franchise again, this time to include most working-class men, but it was still based on a property qualification.

For most women suffragists active from the 1860s, their goal was very limited. They demanded the vote on the same restricted property basis as men. For many, even the inclusion of married women was going too far. For all but a small minority, the inclusion of working class women was almost unthinkable.

But in the late 1880s the social and political landscape began to change dramatically. Thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled workers, including many women, were becoming organised for the very first time. Politically workers were beginning to make the break with the Liberal Party, groping in the direction of independent working class representation. Organisations like the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which was formed in 1893, and other socialist groups, drew a new generation of women into political activity.

  In the workplaces they fought against poverty pay, sweat-shop conditions and for the right to organise. And in struggling against the exploitation they faced as workers, they also fought for their own demands as women. Included in these was the right to vote. Selina Cooper, an activist in the movement in Lancashire, explained why the vote was so important to working-class women like herself. Women "do not want their political power to enable them to boast that they are on equal terms with the men. They want to use it for the same purpose as men, to get better conditions... Every women in England is longing for her political freedom in order to make the lot of the worker pleasanter and to bring about reforms which are wanted. We do not want it as a mere plaything".

In The Suffragette Movement Sylvia Pankhurst details the grievances of working-class women who participated in her East End delegation to Liberal prime minister, Asquith, in 1914. They wanted an end to low pay and sweated labour, they spoke out against the degradation and humiliation of the hated Poor Law, they were concerned with the plight of unmarried women, prostitutes and the welfare of mothers and babies. They saw the vote as a means of securing economic and social changes which could transform their lives, not just 'sex equality', which was how the demand was posed by the middle-class leadership of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and, later, by the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), with its vague demand of 'votes for women'.

Although middle-class women always predominated in the movement for the vote, working-class women participated as activists and organisers in all the main suffrage organisations. Class differences did not prevent women coming together to struggle against shared oppression - in this case the denial of the right to vote on the grounds of their sex. But those differences did create tensions and divisions which influenced how the struggle was conducted and the solutions women sought. Equally important was how organisations of the working class responded to the growing women's movement and the demands they were raising.

The 'new methods' of strikes and confrontation employed by unskilled workers pouring into the unions challenged the class collaboration policies of the established union leaders. In the same way, attempts to create a mass base and build grass roots support for the vote amongst working class women stood in stark contrast to the discreet parliamentary lobbying of 'constitutional' suffragists in the leadership of the NUWSS. On May Day 1900 women suffragists in the North of England Society launched a petition aimed exclusively at women cotton workers in Lancashire. They employed tactics learnt through their experiences of organising women workers into the cotton unions.

  "Canvassers in fifty places, one, two, three or four in each, according to the number of the factory population, were soon at work. The method of canvassing has been chiefly that of going to the homes of the workers in the evening after factory hours... some employers allowed petition sheets in the mills, and others allowed canvassers to stand in the mill yards with sheets spread on tables so that the signatories could be got as the women were leaving or returning to work". One year later 29,359 signatures had been obtained as a result of these painstaking efforts, a clear indication that the vote was an important issue for working women and not just those of the middle class.

Women like Selina Cooper enthusiastically took the question of women's suffrage into their own organisations. Local cotton trade unions agreed to ballot their members on the issue being made 'a trade union question in the same way that labour representation has been made a trade union question'. Many in the labour movement backed the case for women's suffrage. Keir Hardie, for example, was a staunch ally of women suffragists and many local ILP branches were very supportive. But for others women's suffrage was dismissed as a demand of middle-class feminists. Margaret Bondfield, a trade union leader, made her contempt quite clear, stating that she "deprecated votes for women as the hobby of disappointed old maids whom no one had wanted to marry". The Social Democratic Federation (SDF), which made a simplistic and false distinction between issues of 'sex' and 'class', rejected what it called 'the bourgeois fad of feminism'.

Amongst some socialists and trade unionists there was a genuine fear that limited suffrage for women would enfranchise those with property and strengthen support for the Conservatives and Liberals at the expense of Labour, just as the Labour Party was beginning to build an independent electoral base. This led many to support 'adult suffrage' in opposition to 'women's suffrage'. But women campaigners suspected with good reason that rather than implying 'universal suffrage', 'adult suffrage' was a convenient slogan for many who disagreed with women securing the vote on any basis or for whom women's issues were always to be dismissed as of secondary or no importance. Hannah Mitchell, a working class suffragist, lamented the reality gap between apparent support for women's issues by the ILP and the attitudes of some male members: "Even as socialists they seldom translate their faith into words, being still conservatives at heart, especially where women are concerned. Most of us who married found that 'votes for women' were of less interest to our husbands than their own dinners".

Sylvia Pankhurst bitterly resented the comments of leading ILP member Bruce Glasier who held that there was no differences of interest on sex, but only class lines so "it was no importance that women should have the vote; for whilst some people could take an interest in politics others could specialise in other directions". Some suffragists like Rebecca West became attracted to syndicalist ideas, frustrated with a Labour Party which was cosying up to the Liberals in parliament and influenced by the huge wave of industrial unrest which took place in the four years leading up to the first world war. "Just as some men go to the public house and come home to beat their wives", she argued, "so the Labour Party goes to see Mr Asquith and comes home to beat its principles". It wasn't until 1912 that the Labour Party finally agreed to back women's suffrage.

  top     The WSPU and the labour movement

IT WAS THE ILP's lukewarm attitude towards women's suffrage which spurred Emmeline Pankhurst into forming the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. To begin with it was a small pressure group within the ILP, orientated towards the labour movement and barely distinguishable from other suffrage groups active in working class organisations in Lancashire at that time. Gradually, however, the WSPU evolved away from the labour movement, partly in response to the Labour Party's refusal to endorse women's suffrage, partly as a consequence of the outlook of the WSPU leadership.

The 'suffragettes', as the Daily Mail dubbed the WPSU activists, awoke thousands of women to the cause of women's suffrage through their militant tactics of direct action and civil disobedience. In 1908 as many as 250,000 marched to Hyde Park in support of votes for women, one of the largest demonstrations ever held in Britain.

Still the Liberal government refused to commit itself to women's suffrage, and responded to militancy with brutal repression. Protesters endured physical violence and indecent assault at the hands of the police. Hundreds were thrown into prison. When women responded by going on hunger strike they were subject to the horrendous torture of force feeding and the brutality of the notorious 'Cat and Mouse Act', which allowed women to be released for a short period on licence and then re-arrested to continue hunger striking, causing untold damage to their health.

The boldness, courage and fighting determination shown by the suffragettes inspired thousands of women to become involved with the campaign for women's suffrage. Membership and support of both the WSPU and the more conservative NUWSS increased. Although the leadership of the much larger NUWSS officially repudiated militant tactics, many activists at a local level continued to work and sympathise with WPSU members regardless of national 'hostilities' or 'truces'.

Most acts of militancy were initiated from below by rank-and-file activists. The leadership of the WPSU would then endorse militancy, both to maintain control of the movement and to sustain publicity for the cause. As civil disobedience gave way to stone-throwing, breaking windows and later arson and bombing, all were justified as legitimate responses to state repression. But escalating 'militancy' of this character alienated many of the WSPU's former supporters, especially in the labour movement. Increasingly individual militancy became the principal form of protest, a substitute for, rather than an auxiliary to, a genuine mass movement to enfranchise women. 'The argument of the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics', declared Emmeline Pankhurst in 1912.

  Sylvia Pankhurst disagreed: "I believe then and always that the movement required not more serious militancy by the few, but a stronger appeal to the great masses to join the struggle'. Although she refused to openly criticise her mother (Emmeline) and sister (Christabel), Sylvia did put her ideas into practice by attempting to build a mass base for women's suffrage in London's East End. This approach was similar to the working-class suffragists in Lancashire and the north whose main strategy continued to be to create mass support amongst working women and their organisations.

Christabel Pankhurst rejected these tactics, seeking a different social base for the WSPU. "It was evident", she wrote, "that the House of Commons and even its Labour members, were more impressed by the demonstrations of the feminine bourgeoisie than of the female proletariat".

Yet between 1910-1914 the Liberal government was under siege from a wave of industrial unrest amongst miners, railworkers and dockers, which spread to other sections of workers, including unorganised women workers in the sweated industries. Civil war was looming in Ireland over Home Rule. The movement for women's suffrage added fuel to a social ferment which potentially threatened not just the Liberal government but the capitalist system itself. In the words of Leon Trotsky, 'a shadow of revolution' was hanging over Britain. But the WSPU was moving away from the labour movement just as the social crisis was intensifying.

Sylvia was herself expelled for the crime of speaking at a mass meeting in the Albert Hall in defence of Jim Larkin and the locked-out Dublin workers. By 1914 the WSPU had degenerated into little more than an underground movement comprised of an elite group of women dedicated to individual acts of destruction in what was increasingly seen as a sex war. In 1913 Christabel wrote a pamphlet called the 'Great Scourge', claiming that 75-80% of men were infected with gonorrhea. 'Votes for Women and Chastity for Men' became the new separatist slogan. When war was declared the WPSU leadership abandoned the struggle and resorted to jingoist support for the war.

  Had the newly-emergent Labour Party initially been more responsive to the demands of women then the movement might have taken a different course and the vote won much earlier. When the Labour Party eventually supported women's suffrage in 1912, even the NUWSS, which had always been very close to Liberal circles, began to support Labour candidates in elections. Since 1906 the Liberal government had felt compelled to implement reforms from above, such as pensions, health and unemployment insurance, to try and undermine support for the growing labour movement and prevent unrest from below. Sylvia Pankhurst and others argue very persuasively that by 1914, the Liberal prime minister, Asquith, was planning to introduce a limited form of women's suffrage to cut across the growing link between Labour and the movement of women for the vote, in an attempt to remove one destabilising social factor in a situation of growing unrest.

The first world war intervened, temporarily cutting across this economic, social and political turmoil. But in 1917 the Russian revolution sparked off a new wave of revolutionary movements. During the war the huge influx of women into the workforce had a significant impact on both women's consciousness and social attitudes generally. The vote was finally granted to women in Britain in 1918, a by-product of revolutionary unrest and growing expectations by women and working-class people in general.

The franchise was limited, however, to women over 30. These were viewed by the ruling class as a more stable base of support than younger women for capitalist parliamentary democracy, which was increasingly being threatened by revolution throughout Europe. It was not until 1928 that all women over 21 were finally enfranchised.

  top     Eighty years on

HUGE CHANGES HAVE taken place in the lives of women since they first won the right to vote. Today women constitute half the workforce in Britain and in many regions are now a majority. This means they are destined to play a much greater role in future industrial, social and political movements than they did in the past.

In the workplaces women are especially hit by low pay, casualisation and attacks on working conditions. Bitter struggles such as those of the mainly Asian women workers at Hillingdon Hospital and the care-workers in Tameside presage further struggles on a much larger scale, echoing those of the wave of new unionism in the 1880s and the 'great unrest' of 1910-1914.

In the struggle to rebuild the unions and for a new workers' party women workers will be to the fore. And in the course of those battles they will, like the working-class suffragists, demand that the unions and socialist organisations defend them both as women and as workers.

Because of the double exploitation which working-class women face, they are bound to play a pivotal role in any future battles for women's rights. But the potential for women to come together across classes, as they did in the struggle for the vote, has not disappeared.

Forms of oppression such as rape and domestic violence, for example, can affect all women irrespective of class. Cuts in public services and attacks on welfare hit working-class women particularly hard, but middle-class women can also be affected as users of services and as workers in the public sector. The attack on lone parent benefits was in one sense an economic issue affecting mainly working-class women. But because of the ideological way in which those attacks were carried out, middle-class women who were not so affected economically, were drawn into the campaign of opposition. Similar defensive struggles could develop in the future as ideological and economic attacks intensify under the impact of the growing economic and social crisis.

The struggle for the vote clearly shows, however, how divisions and conflicting ideologies can rapidly emerge in cross-class movements. The potential exists for such movements to be won to socialism; for socialists to explain how all forms of oppression and discrimination are rooted in the structures of class society, which is based on inequalities of power and wealth. But separatist feminism and other ideologies which, in reality, offer no solution to the problems women face, can also gain an echo.

Today, as over eighty years ago, how socialists respond to issues of concern to women can influence both the outcome of such movements and the growth and development of socialist organisations themselves. As the economic crisis deepens, it will give rise to revolutionary upheavals which will dwarf even those of the period when the struggle for the vote took place. A party which actively puts forward a programme which addresses the specific demands of women and offers a road to economic and social liberation by challenging capitalism and fighting to create an alternative socialist society is absolutely essential.

Home | Issue 32 contents | About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page