Women's Social and Political Union

The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was the leading militant organisation campaigning for Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom. It was the first group whose members were known as "suffragettes".


The WSPU was founded at the Pankhurst family home in Manchester on 10 October 1903 by six women, including Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, who soon emerged as the group's leaders. The WSPU had split from the non-militant National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, disappointed at the lack of success its tactics of persuading politicians through meetings had found.[1]


The founders decided to form a women-only organisation, which would campaign for social reforms, largely in conjunction with the Independent Labour Party. They would also campaign for an extension of women's suffrage, believing that this was central to sexual equality. To illustrate their more militant stance, they adopted the slogan "Deeds, not words".[1] By 1913, the WSPU appointed the fiercely militant feminist Norah Dacre Fox (later known as Norah Elam as General Secretary. Dacre Fox operated as a highly effective progandist delivering rousing speeches at the WSPU weekly meetings and writing many of Christabel Pankhurst's speeches



Early campaigning


In 1905, the group convinced the Member of Parliament Bamford Slack to introduce a women's suffrage Bill they had drawn up. The Bill was ultimately talked out, but the publicity launched the rapid growth of the group.


The disappointment of the failure of the Bill led the WSPU to change tactics. They focused on attacking whichever political party was in government, and refused to support any legislation which did not include their demands for enfranchisement, thus dropping their commitment to other immediate social reforms.[1]


In 1906, the group began a series of demonstrations and lobbies of Parliament, leading to the arrest and imprisonment of growing numbers of their members. An attempt to achieve equal franchise gained national attention when an envoy of three hundred women, representing over one hundred and twenty five thousand suffragettes argued for women's suffrage with the Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. The Prime Minister agreed with their argument but "was obliged to do nothing at all about it" and so urged the women to "go on pestering" and to exercise "the virtue of patience". Some of the women Campbell-Bannerman advised to be patient had been working for women's rights for as many as fifty years: his advice to "go on pestering" would prove quite unwise. His thoughtless words infuriated the protesters and "by those foolish words the militant movement became irrevocably established, and the stage of revolt began." Commenting on the phenomenon, Charles Hands, writing in the Daily Mail, for the first time described the WSPU's members as suffragettes. In 1907, the organisation held the first of several conferences, called "Women's Parliaments".


The Labour Party then voted to support universal suffrage. This split them from the WSPU, which had always accepted the property qualifications which already applied to women's participation in local elections. Under Christabel's direction, the group began to more explicitly organise exclusively among middle class women, and stated their opposition to all political parties. This led a small group of prominent members to leave and form the Women's Freedom League.


Campaigning develops


Portrait badge of Emmeline Pankhurst, c.1909 - Sold in large numbers by the WSPU to raise funds for its cause - Museum of London


Immediately following the WSPU/WFL split, in autumn 1907, Frederick and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence founded the WSPU's own newspaper, Votes for Women. The Pethick Lawrences, who were part of the leadership of the WSPU until 1912, edited the newspaper and supported it financially in the early years.


In 1908 the WSPU adopted purple, white, and green as its official colours. These colours were chosen by Emmeline Pethick Lawrence because "Purple...stands for the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette...white stands for purity in private and public life...green is the colour of hope and the emblem of spring".[4] June 1908 saw the first major public use of these colours when the WSPU held a 300,000-strong "Women's Sunday" rally in Hyde Park.


In February 1907 the WSPU founded the Woman's Press, which oversaw publishing and propaganda for the organisation, and marketed a range of products from 1908 featuring the WSPU's name or colours. From 1908 WSPU branches around the country, and from 1910 the Woman's Press in London, operated a chain of shops as part of the campaign.



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