20th century, Humanities

Race, Class, and the Demographics of the British Suffragette Movement

By Olivia Hicks

The British suffrage movement was complex, powered by countless groups and individuals, and moulded by both domestic and international political climates. Despite this, the cultural legacy of the suffragettes is that of a few specific figures – Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett, and Emily Wilding Davison, among others. Suffragettes such as these were largely similar in appearance, if not in approach. They were white, middle class, and well-educated.

These women were the ones who climbed the ranks of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and National Union of Women’s Suffragette [correction: suffrage] Societies (NUWSS) – but does this mean most women in the movement resembled them? Or that the movement wasn’t supportive of those who did not? Thousands of women participated in the decades-long struggle for the vote, many of whom did not look or talk like Emmeline Pankhurst, and who were not raised like Millicent Fawcett. The efforts of these more famed suffragettes should not be underestimated, controversial as they often were. However, a great deal is owed to those who followed them, who were imprisoned and tortured for their beliefs, who signed petitions and marched in the streets of cities across the United Kingdom. A true demographic analysis of these people proves impossible, but we can see, time and again, that the roaring mass of suffragettes contained within it, women whose voices are not represented within the mainstream presentation of the British suffragette movement, and who deserve to be heard, and whose existence in the movement, while primordial, was often wrought with difficulty and hostility.

Women’s fight for the vote and the fight for worker’s rights were closely associated – or, at least, the main organisations for the separate movements were. The newly formed Labour Party was the first political party to support women’s suffrage, in 1912. In this year, the NUWSS campaigned on behalf of Labour candidates (provided that they themselves were advocates of women’s suffrage). This sentiment was repeated a year later, when the 1913 Council Meeting of the NUWSS dedicated an “Election Fighting Fund” to Labour candidates, with the same criterion of individual commitment to the movement. The relationship was not just in the minds of the suffragettes, however; many within the labour movement acknowledged the importance of women’s political voices. A December 1912 edition of “Labour Leader” contains an appeal by Margaret Bondfield, declaring that “no New Jerusalem can be built, no Socialist State achieved by men alone”, that “anything which shackles [women] equally shackles you.”

This is not to say that there were no class tensions on a social or personal level within the suffragette movement, or even that all suffragettes were content with the working woman’s political involvement. Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst’s famous feud over the involvement of working class women, and particularly Sylvia’s East London Federation of Suffragettes, demonstrates the intensity of ideological contrasts, as well as the tensions within the Pankhurst family. According to Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline and Christabel had told her to separate from the WSPU, as “a working woman’s movement was of no value; working women were the weakest portion of the sex, how could it be otherwise? Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest.” They were not opposed to the worker’s movement per se, but in their minds, it had no place in the women’s movement. This was a frequent attitude to working women in the Suffragette movement; that they did not want the vote, that they were not invested in politics, that their education and upbringing separated them to such an extent that they were of no use to, and had no desire to be in, the campaign for women’s franchise.

Lydia Becker
Lydia Becker

It is difficult to understand Christabel and Emmeline’s argument, in light of the immense achievement of the thousands of working class women whose voices, bodies, thoughts, and actions, formed the bedrock of the fight for women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom. Indeed, the early unions and organisations of Suffragists were centred in working class areas. Lydia Becker’s work in Manchester took British suffragism from a philosophical exercise to a practical and viable political force – it was from the working class of Manchester that her organisation, the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee (later the North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage) drew its membership. One of its members, the working-class Lily Maxwell, became the subject of the unusual clerical error that led to her being the first British woman to cast a vote, in 1868.

In 1901, the North of England Society presented a petition of women workers from the Lancashire cotton mills, led by Selina Cooper to parliament. 29,359 working class women signed the petition. Even if many suffragettes were middle and upper class, there can be no denying the devotion and passion with which many working-class northern women took to the cause, nor the sheer number in which they did so. Rather than being a separate organisation that happened to pre-date the more famous NUWSS and WSPU, it really was a crucial step in the spread of the movement across the nation; a young Emmeline Pankhurst was first introduced to the movement by Lydia Becker, in Manchester in 1874. In the late eighteenth century, Manchester and the predominantly working class northern cities of England were the intellectual and political centres of the British suffragette movement, being home to the first large collection of organised suffragists, and speaking tours designed to inspire and convert women to the cause. This would not have been possible if it had not been for the working class northern women, even if the later movement would not see their demographic represented at a higher level. There are exceptions, however, such as Annie Kenney, a cotton-mill worker who later became associated with the Pankhursts and was widely recognised as one of the leading members of the WSPU.

The experience of working class women involved in the suffrage movement was not the same as middle and upper class women engaged in the same political activities. Ties to the aristocracy and well respected families protected many women, and meant that the consequences of political activism were not as harsh or as threatening as they could be. Many suffragettes were aware of this disparity, but none went as far to prove it as Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton, an aristocratic woman who used her social position to highlight the cruel and unfair treatment of working women fighting for the vote. Lady Lytton had been arrested several times for demonstration, but had received relatively gentle treatment, spending her sentences in prison infirmaries, on account of a weak heart, or else being discharged earlier than her conviction would normally allow.

Lady Constance

Lady Lytton was more than aware that this treatment was purely because she was the daughter of the esteemed Lord Lytton, the former Viceroy of India, and became committed to exposing the unequal treatment of suffragettes in British prisons. To do this, Lady Lytton disguised herself as a seamstress, taking the name Jane Wharton, and was arrested again, and imprisoned in Liverpool. This imprisonment in Liverpool Gaol resulted in harsher treatment and force-feeding, before the prison authorities realised who she was, after which she was swiftly released. While her weak heart had been treated delicately at Newcastle Gaol, this treatment was not repeated in Liverpool. Her heart was not tested, and the Liverpool Gaol prison doctor completed an examination of her and declared her to be strong enough to undergo force-feeding eight times – something that had been out of the question for Lady Lytton in Newcastle, but was routine for seamstress Jane Wharton in Liverpool, despite the two women being the same person, with the same health and heart.

Class is not the only demographic aspect of the suffragette movement that deserves investigation. Race, too, must be discussed. As a global Empire, issues of race and culture were very much in the cultural and intellectual consciousness at the beginning of the 20th century, and it featured heavily in popular discourse. As this applies to all political discussion, so it must too apply to suffragette thought, which, far from existing in a vacuum, was entrenched in all aspects of the political and intellectual landscape.

Sumita Mukherjee is a researcher at the University of Bristol, who specialises in Global Feminism and Indian Suffragettes – her book, Indian Suffragettes: Female Identities and Transnational Networks, will be published in 2018.  I spoke to her about the role of Indian women in the British suffragette movement, and of the issue of race more generally. She was quick to emphasise that the majority of British suffragettes were white women, and that there is no record of large numbers of women of colour organising in Britain to campaign for women’s suffrage; likely due to the numbers of minority ethnic communities and their political power. However, one notable exception to this rule is the considerable impact made on the British public and suffragette mainstream by Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who Dr Mukherjee describes as “unique to have risen to such a prominent role”.

Princess Sophia
Princess Sophia

Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, but was born in London and raised in Britain, with an upbringing almost indistinguishable from the white upper class suffragettes who rose to prominence at the start of the century. Her father was a favourite of Queen Victoria, who was Sophia’s godmother. Her sister Catherine was also an active suffragette, though her impact does not compare to the incredible presence Sophia managed to gain in the public sphere. Dr Mukherjee tells me that Sophia “saw herself as British, and had many aristocratic and royal connections”, and it was this background that enabled her, as an Indian woman, to be as respected as she was, and for her opinions to be voiced and heard. Sophia joined the WSPU in 1909, and became a friend of the Pankhursts. Her wealth and social prominence was an incredible asset to the WSPU; she was a prominent player in the aristocratic suffragette campaign to refuse to pay taxes, reasoning that a government which refused to acknowledge women as political citizens had no claim to tax them – Princess Sophia’s role in this campaign is said to have personally angered King George V, and she raised considerable funds for the cause, often from her own personal and family wealth.

Despite Princess Sophia’s British upbringing, and self-identification, at an early age, as a citizen of the Empire, her identity as an Indian woman was never removed from her political activism. Sophia was also an active campaigner in the Indian suffrage movement, and when she died, Princess Sophia’s ashes were scattered in India at her request, despite her having spent most of her life in the UK and USA. Princess Sophia was not a woman of colour performing a white woman’s role in the suffragette movement; her activism was as much rooted in her ethnicity as it was in feminism, and while her individual background as the daughter of a former King (Indian but raised British) is almost unique, her dedication to women worldwide was ubiquitous and unqualified, as was her dedication to the liberation of her people.

As our conversation moves away from Indian suffragettes and the life of Sophia Duleep Singh, and towards the more general role of race in the British suffragette movement, Dr Mukherjee tells me that “there was never a question about excluding women of colour, but there aren’t any attempts to include women of colour in the movement, because of the numbers of women of colour in Britain at the time.” She is careful to emphasise the role that the British Empire played in suffragette thought; “They were mimicking discourse about the empire of race. A lot of the language was quite patronising, they felt that Britain was a symbol of liberty, libertarianism, and democracy. There was patronising discussion of treatment of women elsewhere in the world, and they were concerned about women elsewhere achieving suffrage before them, particularly about Turkish suffrage.” This, it seems, is the prominent attitude of British suffragettes as concerned race; a racism not rooted in hate, such as was expected of mainstream American suffragettes, but overwhelmingly patronising, with underlying assumptions about the superiority of British women, and with no conscious attempts to include women who were not white, but with no particular disdain for the few women of colour who did manage to make their voices heard in the movement.

Answering whether or not the British suffragette movement was intersectional seems to be projecting modern expectations and terminology of feminism onto a period and cultural climate incomparable to our own. Questions of empire complicate the British relationship to race, and British social structure of the early 20th century had a poor concept of access or social mobility. Nevertheless, women of colour and working class women were as engaged in politics and the fight for the vote as their white, upperclass counterparts, even if their voices were restricted by a society that was undeniably focused on the white, male, aristocrats who had power, and, of course, the vote. The suffragette movement was the enfranchisement of the disenfranchised, and thus it should come as no surprise that the mould-breakers were not just women, but also women of colour and working class women who had to work twice as hard to make themselves heard, but whose impact on British political life was nevertheless powerful, and essential to the legal emancipation of British women in the first half of the 20th century.

Were there suffragettes who blindly swallowed accepted beliefs of race and class? Those who simply ignored women of colour and working class women? Of course. Were there suffragettes who were among the more violently racist and classist of their era? Most certainly. Did these suffragettes represent the overall tone of the movement? This is more difficult to say. Far from one organised group, far from having anything resembling a party line, views that were and weren’t “suffragette” are hard to define. The more careful assessment of the movement’s association to race and class is to acknowledge both those who treated women of colour and working class women poorly, and those who overcame barriers of race and class, to have their voices heard.

Photo Credits:

Featured Image: http://www.museumoflondonprints.com/image/228665/artists-suffrage-league-manchester-womens-suffrage-demonstrations-programme-1908

Lydia Becker: http://www.oldham-chronicle.co.uk/news-features/8/news/78099/iconic-lydia-can-build-for-the-future

Lady Constance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Constance_Bulwer-Lytton

Princess Sophia: http://www.wondersandmarvels.com/2015/03/princess-sophia-the-suffragette.html

2 thoughts on “Race, Class, and the Demographics of the British Suffragette Movement”

  1. There was no such thing as the “British Suffragette Movement.” It was called either the suffrage movement or the women’s suffrage movement.

    NUWSS stands for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (not “Suffragette Societies”). The women and men who belonged to the NUWSS were suffragists, not suffragettes.

    The terms suffragist and suffragette are not interchangeable. They have quite distinct meanings.

    There were no “American suffragettes.” Suffragette is a term used to indicate members of the WSPU, which was a British militant organization.

    You offer an oblique quote from Dr. Mukherjee about “the numbers of women of colour in Britain at the time” but you don’t engage with the fact she was emphasizing: there were very, very few women of colour in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th century. This fact is at odds with your invented narrative of the “powerful” and “essential” role played by politically engaged women of colour, whom you claim actively strove to participate in the suffrage movement while being shut out by their white counterparts.

    You ask “Were there suffragettes who were among the more violently racist and classist of their era?” and you answer “Most certainly.” What is your basis for such a sensational claim?

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