Working class women thumbnail - showing 4 women at work in a sewing factory

‘Women quite unknown’: working-class women in the suffrage movement

Edwardian Britain was sharply divided by class. Sarah Jackson explores the working class experience within the campaign for women's suffrage.

In 1909 Selina Martin threw an empty ginger beer bottle at the Prime Minister’s car, at a demonstration outside a public meeting in Liverpool. She was arrested with fellow suffragette Leslie Hall and taken to Walton Gaol.

As unconvicted prisoners they should have been offered bail and been allowed to contact their friends, but this didn’t happen. They were left in freezing wet clothes, dragged along the floor, force fed almost immediately, shackled and held in custody for six days.

Custodia Honesta pamphlet

Custodia Honesta pamphlet page 5

Custodia Honesta explored whether militant suffragettes, once arrested, should be treated as common criminals, or as political prisoners. Here the case of Selina Martin and Leslie Hall is used as an example to highlight the conditions and treatment that imprisoned WSPU members were subjected to.

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The rough treatment they received made headlines and caused outrage in the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union). Mary Gawthorpe exclaimed to her friend and fellow suffragette Lady Constance Lytton: ‘Oh, and these are women quite unknown – nobody knows or cares about them except their own friends. They go to prison again and again to be treated like this, until it kills them!’

Selina Martin was one of tens of thousands of working-class women who were part of the suffrage movement. She grew up in Lancaster, one of 10 children. When Selina left school (most likely age 12) she worked as a domestic servant and as a nurse. Compared to the famous, aristocratic Lytton – daughter of the Viceroy of India – Martin was certainly ‘unknown’.

Lytton believed that the difference in their social status explained why Martin and Hall had been treated so badly, while she herself had been released from prison in Newcastle after only two days, and had not been assaulted or force fed.

In 1910 Lytton attended a protest disguised as a seamstress, using the name Jane Warton. She was arrested, and served a 14 day prison sentence of hard labour during which she went on hunger strike and was force fed eight times. On one occasion the doctor slapped her face. Lytton had proved her point: poorer suffragettes, ‘women quite unknown’, were receiving more brutal punishment from police, prison wardens and magistrates.

Women from all walks of life

Edwardian Britain was sharply divided by class. Although Britain was one of the richest countries in the world, millions of people lived in deep poverty despite working long hours, often in dangerous and difficult conditions. The middle class had grown in economic power and political influence during the 19th century, but a great deal of power was still concentrated in the hands of a small number of wealthy aristocrats.

While the campaign for women’s suffrage drew women to it from all walks of life right from the start – the first mass petition in 1866 was signed by women from many different social classes, including dressmakers, shopkeepers and blacksmiths’ wives – class inequality troubled the movement from inside and out.

Moderate and radical suffragists

In 1897 17 suffrage societies combined to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett. The NUWSS became the leading suffragist organisation, with more than 200 branches and over 21,500 members by 1910. It lobbied politicians for the vote, held public meetings, wrote pamphlets and newspaper articles and organised petitions. While almost all the leaders of the NUWSS were from the upper or middle classes, as well as most of the members, working-class women joined too, and many local branches reflected the priorities of women in their community.

NUWSS pamphlets

Why Working Women Want the Vote

In the NUWSS’s aim to win over working-class women, they set out to persuade them that they needed the vote to protect their interests as wives, mothers and workers.

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Votes and Wages pamphlet

Votes and wages pamphlet by Agnes Maude Royden. The large illustration in the middle of the page depicts a working class woman in a shawl

The NUWSS also published pamphlets arguing that women's suffrage could improve working conditions, such as better wages.

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Alongside this growing women’s suffrage movement was a women’s labour movement which included groups like the Women's Protective and Provident League, the Women’s Cooperative Guild, the Women's Trade Union Association and women in the young Independent Labour Party. There was a much overlap between the two, especially in the North of England.

These ‘radical suffragists’ – including Sarah Reddish, Ada Nield Chew, Helen Silcock and Selina Cooper – mobilized women through union meetings, by giving speeches at the factory gates, through the women’s pages in popular socialist newspaper The Clarion, and even by touring towns and villages in a horse-drawn Clarion van, giving speeches about socialism, suffrage and other issues. They built a powerful mass movement, especially among women working in Lancashire’s cotton mills, almost 30,000 of whom signed a suffrage petition which was presented to Parliament by Selina Cooper and others in 1901.

Womanhood suffrage

Since its beginnings in 1866 the NUWSS had called for women to have the vote on the same terms as men. After the 1884 Representation of the People Act, the poorest 40% of men still didn’t have the right to vote. This meant that, as Ada Nield Chew put it in a letter to The Clarion in 1904, if the NUWSS’ request had been granted in 1884, ‘the entire class of wealthy women would be enfranchised’ – but, crucially, ‘the great body of working women, married or single, would be voteless still’.

Because of this, many of the radical suffragists began to move away from the NUWSS. In 1903 Sarah Reddish, Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth established the Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile and Other Workers’ Representation Committee, which called for ‘womanhood suffrage’: a vote for every adult woman, regardless of whether she owned property.

The Women’s Social and Political Union

In the same year the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed in Manchester by Emmeline Pankhurst. To begin with the WSPU worked closely with the Independent Labour Party and its membership was largely working class, although the Pankhursts and other leaders were middle class. The new group attracted local working-class women who were also active in the labour movement, like Hannah Mitchell and Annie Kenney, and many others who were frustrated at the slow progress of the NUWSS.

The first London branch of the WSPU was formed by the docks in Canning Town by Annie Kenney and local activist Minnie Baldock, along with Sylvia Pankhurst and Dora Montefiore. More branches soon opened in Poplar, Bow, Stepney and Limehouse. Most of the huge marches and demonstrations in London which put the WSPU in the headlines over the next few years were populated by working-class women from the East End, many of whom routinely gave up their only free day in the week to walk to Westminster and back.

Maud Arncliffe Sennett's scrapbook, volume 1

Maud Arncliffe's scrapbook vol 1. Page 2

'Women demand the right to vote, the pledge of citizenship and basis of all liberty': Member's card for the Women's Social and Political Union.

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‘One hand tied behind us’

As well as working long hours in a factory, laundry, or shop, or as a maid or cook, most working women in the suffrage movement had a ‘second shift’ of unpaid housework and childcare alongside their activism. As Hannah Mitchell put it in her memoirs: ‘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.’

As the WSPU’s actions became more focused on civil disobedience and violence, some working-class women were dismayed. While many like Selina Martin, Adelaide Knight and Dora Thewlis were prepared to risk arrest, assault and brutal force feeding, many others felt the price was too high. Often they had children to care for, and as breadwinners a spell in prison could mean that they lost their job. Without rent their family could easily lose their home.

Photograph of the arrest of Dora Thewlis

Photograph of the arrest of Dora Thewlis, 1907

This photograph documents the arrest of 16-year-old Dora Thewlis, when she and other members of the WSPU attempted to break into the Houses of Parliament in March 1907. 

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After 1907 the WSPU’s leadership became increasingly undemocratic and dominated by a group of wealthy women. It narrowed its focus from wider social reform to winning the vote on equal terms with men, and abandoned its links with the labour movement. This shift caused many members to leave, as they felt that the WSPU’s approach was more about 'Votes For Ladies' than 'Votes For Women'. Some, like Hannah Mitchell, went on to join the socialist, pacifist Women’s Freedom League. Adelaide Knight also left, saying, ‘they have broken their promises to working women.’

The East London Federation of the Suffragettes

Years later in 1912 Sylvia Pankhurst returned to East London, determined to recruit working-class women back into the WSPU. After a shaky start (they were pelted with fish heads at least once), by 1914 the new East London WSPU branches had become a powerful, democratic campaigning force with thousands of members and strong local support from men as well as women.

Photographs of the East London Federation of Suffragettes and their work

Stalls of the East London Federation of the Suffragetes in Roman Road with the announcement of the procession and meeting in Canning Town on July twelfth.

This photograph shows members of the ELFS campaigning for suffrage on Roman Road, Bow in London.

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Held by © Paul Isolani-Smyth

Like the radical suffragists, the East London Federation of the WSPU saw the importance of linking the struggle for the vote with the struggle for better working and living conditions. By expanding the fight for equality beyond the vote, they relieved the pressure on many politically active working-class women to choose between their gender and their class.

As well as using militant tactics to fight for all women to have the vote, the East London Federation adopted a broad campaigning programme and formed alliances with other groups. They lobbied and protested for a living wage, decent housing, equal pay, old age pensions, home rule for Ireland and many other issues. This helped them build a large support base and show that if women won the vote it would bring more power to the whole community. They even recruited a small ‘People’s Army’ of supporters to defend them from police brutality.

‘The weakest portion of the sex’

In 1914, however, the East London Federation was expelled from the WSPU by Christabel Pankhurst, who claimed that they were too independent and ‘mixed up’ with other causes. According to Sylvia, she added that ‘a working women’s movement was of no value: working women were the weakest portion of the sex… Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest.’

After everything that working-class women had done to advance the suffrage cause, both in the WSPU and before it, it seems hard to believe that Christabel could think their contribution had no value. But class prejudice was widespread at the time, and she was certainly not alone in her views.

Yet the new, independent East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS) flourished. While a few upper- and middle-class women occupied leadership positions, local working-class activists like Julia Scurr, Melvina Walker, Minnie Lansbury, Daisy Parsons, Jessie Payne and Nellie Cressall took up key roles and shaped the new organisation, free from the WSPU’s rules.

Changing strategies

The ELFS moved away from violent acts, imprisonment and hunger strikes, adopting new tactics which offered greater safety and strength in numbers for their members as well as opportunities to involve and support the wider community. They marched through East London, published their own weekly newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, took delegations of working women to Westminster to lobby politicians, held huge public meetings and opened a social centre called the Women’s Hall.

Each year they held concerts, festivals and parties, including a public Christmas party with games, entertainment and even a ‘Santa’ who gave out small presents for children. Like the radical suffragists providing tea and cake at their meetings, the ELFS tried to find ways to address the material needs of their supporters as they built their movement. They grounded their campaign in the everyday reality of working women's lives.

This approach was put to the test when the First World War broke out in August 1914. Factories across East London closed and food prices spiralled, pushing many poor families to the brink of starvation. The ELFS organised ‘milk depots’ where families with very young children could get free milk.

Photographs of the East London Federation of Suffragettes and their work

Distribution of milk at Rail Way Street. Schlette in charge.

The ELFS adopted values to support the community. Here, children gather to recieve free milk from organised 'milk depots'.  

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Next they opened a series of volunteer-run canteens serving nutritious food at ‘cost price’, twice a day. They also opened their own cooperative toy factory, which paid a living wage to its women workers and included a crèche, which became so popular that the following year they opened a nursery in a former pub over the road.

Photographs of the East London Federation of Suffragettes and their work

Four women working on sewing machines in the ELFS cooperative factory

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As well as lobbying politicians for food price controls and equal pay, the ELFS continued campaigning for the vote throughout the war – unlike the WSPU and NUWSS, who suspended their campaigns.

Votes for some women

In February 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed, which gave all men the vote at 21 and women (who owned some property) the vote at 30. Although this added 8.5 million women to the electoral register, it represented less than half of the adult women in the UK.

Many former suffragettes and suffragists got to work immediately on the campaign to extend the vote to women under 30 and those over 30 who had been excluded, many of whom were domestic servants. They found victory at last in 1928 when the Equal Franchise Act finally awarded women the vote on equal terms to men, at age 21.

Hidden stories

Unfortunately many working-class suffragists and suffragettes are still 'unknown' today, as their voices and stories are usually harder to find than those of women with higher social status. Most working women did not have the time, the opportunity, or the resources to write memoirs. They were less likely to leave their letters to an archive, or to be interviewed in old age, or to see their name in a news report. We should tell their stories when we can, to honour the sacrifices and the huge contribution that working-class women made to winning the vote.

  • Sarah Jackson
  • Sarah Jackson is an independent scholar and co-author of 'Voices From History: East London Suffragettes' with Rosemary Taylor, published by the History Press in 2014. In the same year she organised a free public history festival celebrating the women's suffrage movement in east London, and in 2015 co-founded the East End Women's Museum with Sara Huws.

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