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Deeds Not Words: How militancy defined the Suffragettes of Britain

Barely a couple of centuries ago, Modern Feminism was far from the force-to-be-reckoned-with as we have come to see it today. It was barely starting to take form in the midst of the 18th century where a woman who so much as saw herself as an expression of anything but the daughter of her father, the wife of her husband or the mother of her child was seen as maniacal and deluded. At the dawn of the 20th Century however, the movement was revolutionized under the umbrella of the British Women’s Suffrage.

Women had been petitioning for the vote in England since the mid-1800s. They were called suffragists, and had a non-confrontational strategy of persuasion and education to convince legislators to give women the right to vote. The campaign had been going on for a while but to no avail—Between 1867 and 1913 there were no less than 40 attempts to pass bills and resolutions in the House of Commons in favour of women's suffrage but surely enough, they were all either defeated, given insufficient parliamentary time, ignored or blocked by the government. Only a government-sponsored bill stood a realistic chance of becoming the law. However, to convince the government to introduce such a bill for the suffragists, the answer was to continue to argue their case through patient lobbying, petitions, marches and other law-abiding campaigns until they had convinced the government that the majority of women wanted the right to vote and would use it responsibly.

But in 1903, a new branch emerged: the militant suffragists, whose motto was Deeds Not Words. Frustrated by the lack of progress they began seeking attention by disrupting men’s political meetings with loud heckling and getting arrested for things like spitting on policemen. Prompting one newspaper in 1906 to call the noisy disruptors “suffragettes.” A name meant to diminish or mock the new militant activists as hysterical and childish. But once they embraced, even changing the name of their newspaper, Votes for Women, to The Suffragette. For the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by the fearless Emmeline Pankhurst, the answer was a campaign of deeds not words. A campaign that would be oh-so-impossible for the government to ignore. A campaign that would not meekly ask the government for the vote but demand it, rightfully so, through political action. The movement became much more energetic and militant 1912 onwards.

The WSPU launched a campaign of militancy. They avoided harming citizens but committed numerous crimes in order to attract attention to their demands and to exert pressure on the government. British suffragettes were masters of spectacle. Their demonstrations were tightly-choreographed events, full of matching outfits and signs. But it was their radical actions that made them notorious. They smashed windows. Destroyed fine art. And set fire to the houses of their political opponents. All in the name of keeping their fight on the front page of the paper, and in the minds of the public.

The radical activities of the suffragettes filled the media, but many proponents of the suffrage cause felt that they were counterproductive. Popular enthusiasm for women's suffrage diminished even though many people deplored the manner in which suffragettes were tortured in jail. Prominent politician Lloyd George, a champion of women's votes, felt the actions of the insurgents were ruinous to their cause. Members of Parliament declared that militant actions proved that women are psychotic, hysteric and not to be trusted with the vote. Historians remain split about whether the cause of women's suffrage was supported by the military. Some claim that the success owes much to the non-militant wing of the suffragette cause headed by Millicent Fawcett. However, it is undeniable that without the militant movement of the suffragette, it was very unlikely that the status quo would even budge. Perhaps, only a Suffragette Icon could sum it up best, “The true militant suffragette is an epitome of the determination of women to possess their own souls'' – Emily Davison.


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