Women’s Suffrage and the First World War

When war was declared in August 1914 the women’s suffrage campaign had been going on for fifty years. Some historians have argued women were close to achieving their aims while others have argued that women were no closer than previous years. However it is undeniable that the women’s suffrage campaign was radically interrupted by the onset of the war. The different suffrage organisations had different approaches. These approaches are important in our understanding of the beliefs and the women involved.

The most famous women’s suffrage organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, took one of the most interesting and radical approaches. WSPU members, labelled suffragettes, had taken militant action in their fight for women’s suffrage in the years since 1910 and were deeply unpopular amongst many in the government. Therefore their role during the First World War would come as a shock. Upon the outbreak of the war Emmeline Pankhurst ordered that all activities relating to women’s suffrage would cease and the WSPU would concentrate on the war effort. The WSPU became engaged in the war effort by becoming directly involved with the recruitment of the armed forces, by surprisingly becoming closely involved with the government. They allowed the funds raised by the WSPU for women’s suffrage to be used for the war effort, to the anger of many in the organisation. With such actions along with an increasingly jingoistic rhetoric, the WSPU began to split. Many left and two new organisations were formed: Suffragettes of the Women’s Social Political Union (SWSPU) and the Independent Women’s Social and Political Union (IWSPU). Neither of these two organisations made much of an impact. What remained of the WSPU dropped their newspaper The Suffragette in 1915 for a new newspaper The Britannia. Finally in 1917, the WSPU disbanded and became the Women’s Party.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was the much larger organisation, although in popular memory the refusal to take part in militant activities and adopt a peaceful approach meant it has often been forgotten in comparison. Led by Millicent Fawcett the organisation was divided by the outbreak of the war. Up until a month before the war began, the NUWSS had been arguing for mediation attempts to prevent the war. However upon the outbreak of the war, Fawcett adopted the position of supporting the war effort. This was partly as an attempt to gain more support for the cause of women’s suffrage as one of the popular arguments against women’s suffrage was that women could not be trusted to vote, as they were pacifists. This led to divisions in the organisation which resulted in a split in the organisation. All of the national officers barring Fawcett and the treasurer resigned in protest against the position that the NUWSS took on the war. Most of these women joined groups focused on promoting peace.

Despite the support for the war the NUWSS gave, the organisation was never as jingoistic or as involved in the political side of the war as the WSPU was. The NUWSS focused on the role of women in the war. It contributed to the setting up of hospitals and employment of nurses. Similarly within the UK it organised registers for unemployed women to find them wartime work such as in munitions and as bus conductors.

Nevertheless the NUWSS did not abandon women’s suffrage entirely. Many branches of the organisation continued to demonstrate and petition in favour of women’s suffrage. The organisation also retained its structure which allowed it to quickly return to its campaign for suffrage.

The East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) was an offshoot of the WSPU originally set up in 1913 by Emmeline Pankhurst’s middle daughter, Sylvia Pankhurst. The ELFS was unique in that its members and focus was on working class women rather than the middle and upper class women that dominated the movement. By 1914 the ELFS had become a separate organisation, leaving the WSPU over ideology. The outbreak of the war further drove Sylvia away from her mother and her sister Christabel, compared to their jingoistic nationalism Sylvia was a pacifist and the ELFS took an anti-war stance. The organisation focused on protesting against conscription and supporting working class women affected by the war. They campaigned against measures that tried to limit financial support to the wives of soldiers and also embarked on a number of charitable endeavours such as a toy factory and cut price restaurants. Many of those involved in the ELFS were drawn to socialism and communism with the organisation supporting the 1916 Irish Risings and the October Revolution in 1917. This led to the various name changes the organisation underwent, as did the organisation moving from focusing on women’s suffrage, to universal suffrage for all whom yet to have the vote. The organisation would continue to change its name and merge with various groups until after the war.

The Women’s Freedom League, created by a group of dissatisfied former WSPU members in 1907, like the ELFS were also anti-war. They were by no means as radical as the ELFS, the Women’s Freedom League warned that one of its leading members Charlotte Despard strong pacifist views were not their own. They were however concerned that their members would abandon the struggle for suffrage because of the war, and tried to encourage their members to continue. Their activities were limited by the war and like other women’s suffrage organisations they focused on a number of voluntary activities such as setting up the Women’s Police Volunteers and Woman’s Suffrage National Aid Corps.

Partial women’s suffrage was achieved in 1918, allowing women over the age of 30 who met certain criteria to vote. The fight for women’s suffrage would not be achieved until 1928, when women received equal voting rights with men. The contribution of women during the war has often been given as a reason for women finally being granted the vote. Many women who did volunteer or worked during the war were those who did not gain the vote as they were under 30 and failed to meet the conditions of being married to, or being a member of the Local Government Register or being the owner of property. Around 22% of women over the age of 30 therefore were exempt. Therefore it can be argued that the work of women and the contribution during the war from the women’s suffrage organisations did not achieve them the vote. These contributions however are important to remember not just in the history of the First World War but in the history of women’s suffrage. Such contributions could be seen as the women’s suffrage campaign’s reply to their detractors. However it also illustrates the differences between the women’s movements. It highlights that the women’s suffrage movement was by no means a monolithic movement, neither was it a neat split between those who believed in militant action and those who did not. It shows that some involved in the movement were solely preoccupied with gaining suffrage for themselves; some believed women’s suffrage was instrumental for ending war and violence and others saw women’s suffrage as part of an ideological belief of bettering society and creating equality. Thus the actions of suffragists and suffragettes during the First World War are an important element in the study of women’s suffrage in the UK.

Biography:

Bartley, P., Votes For Women (London, 2007).

Smith, H. L., The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign 1866-1928 (Harlow, 2010).

 

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