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Did the suffragettes do more harm than good?

A woman reading a copy of the 'Suffragette' magazine on an open-top London bus.
A woman reading a copy of the 'Suffragette' magazine on an open-top London bus.

On the centenary of women finally getting the vote (or moneyed women over 30 at any rate), it’s hard to think of anything but the suffragettes. Come election time, how often are women reminded that Emily Davison threw herself under a horse so they could take part? But did Davison and her cohort really get women their suffrage?

Many opponents at the time actually held up the suffragettes’ more extreme actions as proof women were far too emotional to make important decisions. At the pinnacle of their violence, in 1913, suffragettes tried to blow up the house of David Lloyd George; one of Britain’s most famous politicians, who actually supported their cause. Not exactly the way to make friends and influence people…

By the time the law changed in 1918, Emmeline Pankhurst had called a ceasefire on the main movement, years earlier. It was the older and less exciting suffragists –generally more likely to start a petition than to spit in a policeman’s face – who saw things through to the bitter end. With women’s considerable contribution to the war effort and jurisdictions like Australia setting the precedent years earlier, success was surely inevitable… at some point.

What most historians agree is that early suffragette tactics breathed new life into a stalling movement. Despite the considerable parliamentary support, decades of law-abiding activism, from Millicent Fawcett’s suffragists, had failed to push things over the finishing line. After promising parliamentary bills in 1870, 1886, and 1897 all failed, it’s easy to understand the frustration which drove Pankhurst and five others to form the Women’s Social Political Union (WSPU) in 1903.

Suffragettes’ tactics like ambushing public meetings and trying to send themselves as “human letters” to the Prime Minister were a liberating force for women of the time – the Victorians’ “angels of the house” –. They also catapulted the issue back to the forefront of national consciousness. The trouble with this style of campaigning, some historians argue, is that you have to keep raising the stakes to stay newsworthy. As things escalated into violence and arson from 1912 onwards, suffragettes were often household names for the wrong reasons. Splinter groups formed, not only from the WSPU, but from the Pankhursts’ own family.

At the same time, history tends to be written by the winners (and most of them were male). Without the WSPU’s audacious break with traditional methods, the movement would have been much easier to ignore. Suffragettes’ early non-violent protests have had a huge influence on activism today. And without the WSPU, splinter groups such as the Women’s Freedom League and Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation, and their huge contributions, would never have followed.

It is impossible to separate later extreme actions from the suffragettes’ considerable legacy. Without this legacy, it is impossible to know how long women in Britain would have had to wait.

French women for instance waited until 1944. Switzerland finally let women have their say in 1971. In Portugal, it was 1976.