In the first of this short series on the ABC of Feminism Louise Whittle, who blogs at HarpyMarx, writes on women’s suffrage, trade unions and the radical suffragists.
No cause can be won between dinner and tea, and most of us who were married had to work with one hand tied behind us. (Hannah Mitchell, The Hard Way Up).
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 woman 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… (Selina Cooper, pictured, 1906 from Wigan Observer)
The history of the women’s suffrage movement during the 20th century has been overshadowed and dominated by the middle class suffragettes of the Pankhursts the select few, predominantly London-centric (even though Pankhursts started off the suffrage campaign based in Manchester).
What about working class women activists? Who were they? Many were active in Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire. Many were campaigning around pay issues and other matters. And many of these women were active in the textile unions. Women’s suffrage wasn’t just a middle class pre-occupation, for working class women it was hand in glove with the labour movement.
Working class women trade unionists included:
Selina Cooper: textile worker from age of 10. She stood up at Labour Party conferences arguing for women’s suffrage.
Helen Silcock: She took the demand for women’s suffrage into the male dominated TUC congresses.
Sarah Reddish: She was based in Bolton, union organiser and suffragist.
Sarah Dickenson: Based in Salford, another leading Trade Union organiser.
Ada Chew: worked as a tailoress and exposed the sweated labour in her local paper. She was also a Trade Union organiser.
Women looked to the Trade Union movement, vehicles like the Women’s Trade Union Council and Women’s Trade Union League (marching, right). Petitions were organised in places like Lancashire and Blackburn. During 1900, women organised open air meetings at local guilds, Labour churches and ILP branches. They got 15,000 signatures of women cotton workers.
During the summer of 1901 woolworkers, cotton and silk workers in Cheshire organised petitions for supporting women’s suffrage. In Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cheshire around 311,000 women (217,000 men) worked in textiles yet they were disenfranchised and therefore voiceless.
Radical suffragists rejected the aim of the traditional women’s suffrage societies led by Millicent Fawcett (National Union of Women Suffrage Societies) - a property based vote. Their demand was simple: ‘womanhood suffrage’…
Due to the coming together of radical suffragists during the 1890s, support rapidly grew, there was factory meetings, women’s suffrage motions put through union branches and trade councils.
Women suffragists encountered friction and hostility within the labour movement regarding the vote. Expectation that women were there to fulfill a function – traditional gender role as woman in the background, as Hannah Mitchell observed:
Even my Sunday leisure was gone as a wife and mother for I soon found that a lot of Socialists talk about freedom was only talk and these socialist young men expected Sunday dinners and huge teas with home made cakes potted meats and pies, exactly like their reactionary fellows.Unfortunately groups such as the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) opposed women’s suffrage: Bourgeois fad of feminism (1884).
TUC Congress was male dominated at Congress in 1901 – suffrage motion by Helen Silcock, President of the Wigan Weavers. It was defeated. Tactics were different for 1902 Congress – Silcock seconded the motion, it was proposed by Allan Gee, Huddersfield Sec. of Wool Workers’ Union, on the national executive of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). It was defeated again.
Women’s suffrage motions (1901, 1902) were defeated at Trade Union Congress in favour of adult suffrage motions. Suffragists were accused of ‘sex prejudice’ or ‘class prejudice’…. (and to be honest, from my own political perspective, I can’t understand how fighting for basic feminist demands counter poses class. It doesn’t).
These arguments put many women in a quandary. Suffragists like Selina Cooper went to speak to a group in Tunbridge Wells and was told, not to let that class hatred and bitterness come into your heart again. The Pankhursts’ (Emmeline and Christabel) started to reject their labour movement connections and especially alienated the ILP (All belonged to the aristocracy of the Suffragettes, argued Christabel Pankhurst and Emmeline: No member of the WSPU divides her attention between suffrage and other social reforms).
Undeterred, radical suffragists carried on building the women’s suffrage movement by addressing Trade Union meetings. They asked members to be balloted on women’s suffrage. Majority support – Weavers’ union in Burnley instructed committee to bring women’s suffrage before TUC and Labour candidates supported by textile unions to introduce women’s suffrage bill if elected. This started to build up support from working class women workers – suffrage group started to shoot up. The winter of 1904-1905 4,000 people attended a meeting regarding women’s suffrage at Manchester Free Trade Hall.
The popularity of our movement gives us great hope. (Esther Roper).
The LRC Conference in 1904 passed a resolution supporting women’s suffrage but the following year conference passes an ‘adult suffrage’ motion as opposed to women’s suffrage. Not the place of the LRC to place sex first; we have to put Labour first in every case… (Harry Quelch, SDF member and Trades Council delegate)
In 1907 Labour Party conference defeated a motion on women’s suffrage. Keir Hardie spoke (as ever) in favour of it. It was in 1912 when support for women’s suffrage was eventually adopted!
Friction developed between the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union formed in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst) and the ILP. In the 1906 Cockermouth by-election, WSPU spoke but didn’t encourage the male voters to vote for Labour candidate. The Pankhursts moved to London from Manchester in 1906.
Radical suffragists didn’t support direct action of violence and arson rather they were horrified by it. They preferred, instead, to build alliances, organise within the mass organisations of the working class. While the WSPU was London-centric had no real base outside London. At peak they had 88 branches, 34 in London. Majority of membership middle-class, with no industrial base.
A procession in Feb 1907 known as the ‘Mud March’ as it saw 3-4,000 women battle and march through the mud. In June 1908, 2,000 working women marched in Manchester demanding the vote. The aims were ‘to protect their Labour, improve their wages and defend their industrial and TU interests’.
Women eventually won the vote in 1918 (and even then it was for women over 30). Why? Because of the shortage of male workers due to the First World War, therefore women were entering the job market doing traditional male jobs. It gave women more opportunities. The suffrage movement during the war was suspended though majority of the radical suffragists opposed the war. Even after women were granted the vote – it didn’t stop the radical suffragists from campaigning for other feminist demands such as equal pay, contraception, child care, child benefits (the parallels between the demands now and then!)
How will the fight for women’s suffrage be remembered?
The direct action of the Suffragettes, brought the campaign to the forefront of consciousness, along with the dogged and courageous struggles by Trade Union women activists campaigning for women’s suffrage in the labour movement. Direct action gave it public attention but was no substitute for mass organisation and building support. Direct action does have its place, and lets not forget the appalling vicious treatment women experienced while in prison (force feeding and later, the misogynistic, Cat and Mouse Act of 1913). Even though I question the tactics, I still admire the bravery and defiance of these women at a time when behaviour like this was considered ‘unladylike’ and the pressures on these women to conform to traditional gender roles were immense.
Sheila Rowbotham makes the point as well when she writes that the direct action and violence of the suffragettes was born out of despair. It must have been soul destroying and demoralising when the labour movement consistently failing (support was fragmented) to stand shoulder to shoulder in the fight for universal women’s suffrage.
Hannah Mitchell puts it in perspective when she writes: When the women began to destroy letter-boxes and set fire to churches, I could not bring myself to blame them. Those who do so, should remember the long years of peaceful propaganda, the insolence of politicians, the brutality of stewards, the indifference of the police, the prison sentences, ‘forcible feeding’ with all its horrors, The Cat and Mouse Act which repeatedly sent women back to prison, and caused many to flee from this country to some freer state.
Radical Suffragists have been written out, hidden from history of the women’s suffrage movement, no recognisable trace has been left. These anonymous and invisible women had names and political spirit, activism and courage. We remember Sylvia Pankhurst but what about Hannah Mitchell, Cissy Foley, Selina Cooper, Sarah Reddish, Sarah Dickenson and Ada Chew. It is time to remember the contribution of these committed brave working class women and to give them the lasting recognition these so deserve.
In 2011 women still have an uphill struggle for true recognition, liberation and equality.