Suffragette Militancy

Movie portrayals of working-class struggle are always welcome and they provide a boon to ongoing attempts to organise against attacks upon our class. Recent stand-out films include Pride (2014) and Made in Dagenham (2010). The latter of which documented the female-led strike at the Ford Dagenham plant which paved the way for the Equal Pay Act (1970).

This week’s release of Suffragette should therefore be welcomed, but not uncritically so. This is because the film does little to breakdown longstanding stereotypes about the diverse nature of suffrage movement, and the vigorous disagreements in tactics that arose between working-class women and the less democratic middle-class elements, best exemplified by the Pankhurst family.

Considering Sylvia Pankhurst’s unswerving commitment to working-class struggle, her socialist activism was the exception to the rule with regard to her Pankhurst kin.

It was precisely their lack of faith in the ability of normal working-class women to organise effectively that led the other Pankhurst’s to advocate a type of militancy that alienated many poor workers from their movement. So it is unfortunate that Sylvia’s brief cameo role in the movie revolves a scene in which she is shown rejecting suffragette militancy, as if violent sabotage were the only means of militant struggle available to women.

It is not too surprising that that it was generally the well-to-do who adopted elitist tactics in their fight for the vote. When Blaby station was burned down in July 1914 the never caught culprits included the actress Kitty Marion, and Elizabeth Frisby, an ex-pupil of Wyggeston Girls who later went on to become a Conservative councillor and Leicester’s first female Lord Mayor (July 12, 2014, Mercury).

Blaby station around 1900
Blaby station around 1900

Nevertheless it was Sylvia who was invited to Leicester by local suffragette Alice Hawkins to address the women’s meeting which led to the formation of a local branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (October 17, Mercury).

And while the film, Suffragette, is told through the eyes of a fictional laundry worker from the East End, it is significant that it was there, where in 1913 Sylvia broke with the WSPU to form the East London Federation of Suffragettes, in order to better represent the needs of working-class women.

With the launch of World War One, Sylvia joined with other socialist feminists in opposing the needless bloodbath. Not so for the other Pankhursts, whose politics moved further rightwards in their jingoistic support of this capitalist War.

Within the Mercury (October 17), Peter Barratt, who is the great-grandson of Alice Hawkins, speculates on how women won the vote. Was it because of the suffragettes like Alice? Or as Peter’s grandfather believed, because of “the role of women in the First World War, going into factories”?

It may be that neither are true. More likely, it was the rise of revolutionary struggle across Europe, in the wake of the Russian Revolution and the end of the War that forced the hand of British elites. In 1918 they thus sought to placate organised workers by extending suffrage to propertied women, and to working-class men.

Sylvia herself had even briefly joined the Communist Party, and it was the lead provided by Russian women taking strike action on International Women’s Day in February 1917 that provided the initial spark for the Russian Revolution in the first place.

This letter was emailed to the Leicester Mercury on 18th October.

Suffragette premiere Interrupted by protesters opposing Tory cuts to vital public services for women
Suffragette premiere Interrupted by protesters opposing Tory cuts to vital public services for women
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