January 19, 2017

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Suffragettes in East London

January 19, 2017

This blog was first published by Pluto Press in March 2016


The film, Suffragette, comes out on DVD this week, presumably to commemorate International Women's Day. While the film has been rightly praised for portraying the suffering, determination and sacrifice of women who were trying to get the vote, which to many was a symbol of equality and citizenship, it does tell only a small part of the story.


It is set in the last couple of years of a campaign which the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU ) had launched nine years earlier. In this way the film focuses on the more violent and desperate phase of the campaign. It includes the hunger strikes and the force-feeding which many suffered as well as the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the Derby while she was attempting to attach the WSPU colours to the King’s horse, and it focuses on window-breaking and arson.


However, it ignores the origins of the organisation among a number of women from the Labour movement in Manchester and the North West. As the cotton mills employed by far the largest group of women workers in the country at the time and the trade union organisers Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth were encouraging the mill workers to demand the vote. In fact, it was they who initially inspired Christabel Pankhurst when she and her mother Emmeline decided to set up the WSPU, originally intended to be composed of working women. At the large protest in Downing Street in 1905, women from the cotton mills in their grey shawls and clogs formed a significant part.


Other early protests included women from East London with red flags. Although the film shows a working class woman from East London, her experience is at odds with the real story of women in the East End which is much more exciting and dramatic than the story of the film.


The WSPU became increasingly undemocratic. Christabel Pankhurst (who does not feature in the film) wanted her ideas to prevail, and splits occurred. The first was in 1907 when when a number of women left the organisation to form the Women's Freedom League. Christabel was more attracted to wealthy women, who did give generously to the WSPU, and her politics became more and more Tory. She began to see working class women as irrelevant to the fight for the vote. However when she and her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, and leaders of other suffrage organisations like Mrs. Fawcett of the National Union of Suffrage Societies met Asquith, the Prime Minister, in 1912, he was against votes for women and their policy had failed.


While the initial window breaking was a response to violence suffered by women from the police, the arson attacks which began in 1912 started to lose support among the general public. When there was a warrant for Christabel’s arrest she fled to Paris. She had never suffered hunger strike and spent only a brief time in prison, and now she directed the WSPU campaign from abroad. The second split with her supporters Frederick and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence occurred over the campaign of violence.


It was then that Christabel's younger sister Sylvia decided to give up her career as an artist and become a leader of the WSPU. Sylvia believed that the vote could only be won by building a mass organisation of working-class women together with their menfolk. Sylvia had been a loyal member of the WSPU, selling the paper, writing for it, organising and speaking at meetings and going on hunger strike, but she had never openly criticised its policies although she was a friend of Keir Hardie and never gave up her commitment to socialist politics. In fact she wanted to work as an artist in the socialist movement, but she did give her time to designing emblems and artefacts for the WSPU. 


In 1912 Sylvia opened a branch of the WSPU in Bow. This East London Federation of Suffragettes grew into a large organisation which included men. At the huge demonstrations and meetings held by the ELFS the police were rarely able to arrest Sylvia, who was protected by both men and women. This was the time of the Great Unrest, and many of the men in Bow worked in the docks, an area which was vulnerable to strikes. Unlike Christabel, Sylvia had been so successful in her aim of building a strong organisation of working women that in 1914 she was able to organise a deputation of six of these women to see Asquith by saying that she would hunger strike outside the Strangers Entrance to the House of Commons. The huge procession which accompanied this frail dying woman there consisted of both men and women whose presence so near Parliament must have alarmed the government who prevented the demonstration proceeding any further, but Sylvia gave the police the slip and arrived in a taxi. The six women who saw Asquith convinced him of the justice of giving votes for women with their moving life stories.


It is difficult to see how any working man or woman in 1912 could have been unaware of the East London Federation of Suffragettes or find it necessary to go anywhere else in London to carry out activity when there were so many meetings and demonstrations right there at home. Given the support men gave to the East London Federation it is also strange to see the men in the  film so antagonistic to the women. While Sylvia’s initial speeches had been greeted with rotten vegetables and fish heads, this phase did not last long and Sylvia herself was personally very popular. The husband in the film Suffragette separates from his wife because of her activity and gives their child up for adoption. This doesn’t accord with anything I have read about working-class communities at that time, nor does it ring true with my experience of living in East London for the last 20 years of the 20th century.


In 1987 I wrote a play, Sylvia, about Sylvia Pankhurst,[1] initially intended to tell young people in East London something of their forgotten history. In fact this play toured to over 100 venues nationally. Since then there have been several studies of Sylvia’s life and work, two published by Pluto,[2] and suffragettes form part of the national curriculum (though there have been suggestions that they should do so no longer). It seems however that a play is still necessary to tell the other side of the story, the story of the real East London women who fought for the vote in a far more exciting way than the fictional one in Suffragette. Judging from the great response we have had to the play in the revived version (most recently at Wortley Hall, near Sheffield) it is likely to be as popular now as it was back in the 80s and 90s!



1.  Sylvia can be booked through Lynx Theatre and Poetry at http://www.lynxtheatreandpoetry.org/#!sylvia/brxsx


2.  Katherine Connelly, Sylvia Pankhurst Suffragette Socialist and Scourge of Empire (Pluto Press, 2013); Mary Davis, Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics (Pluto Press, 1999)


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© Copyright Jacqueline Mulhallen 2015. All photographs, images and videos are the copyright their creators.

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