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The Suffrage Movement Radicalized
(c. 1906-07)
Emmeline Pankhurst

In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, the women's movement emerged in Western Europe and the United States. In reality, there were two distinct and contradictory movements. On the one hand, middle-class women pushed for an enhancement of their civil rights, including the right to vote. On the other hand, female socialists typically subsumed the cause of working women's rights to the broader objectives of the establishment of a socialist society in which, by definition, the oppression of women would cease to be an issue. Notably, the leadership of the socialist parties was almost exclusively male. In the bourgeois suffrage movement, frustration at the unwillingness of male-dominated governments to consider reform resulted in a radicalization of the movement, which alienated some women. In this excerpt from her memoirs, the radical British feminist Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) describes a changed suffrage movement. The new tactics included acts of vandalism (breaking windows and arson), invading Parliament, and even such drastic measures as throwing themselves under oncoming carriages. Such radical tactics often evoked harsh repression.

Questions to Consider
  • By what criterion did the radical suffragists evaluate their tactics? How does this compare with other radical movements of the era?

  • How can one explain the commitment which Pankhurst's memoirs describe?

The contention of the old-fashioned suffragists, and of the politicians as well, has always been that an educated public opinion will ultimately give votes to women without any great force being exerted in behalf of the reform. In the year 1906 there was an immensely large public opinion in favor of woman suffrage. But what good did that do the cause?

From the very first we made the public aware of the woman suffrage movement as it had never been before. We threw away all our conventional notions of what was "ladylike" and "good form," and we applied to our methods the one test question, Will it help? Just as the [Salvation Army] took religion to the street crowds in such fashion that the church people were horrified, so we took suffrage to the general public in a manner that amazed and scandalised the other suffragists.

Women have concealed themselves for thirty-six hours in dangerous positions, under the platforms, in the organs, wherever they could get a vantage point. They waited starving in the cold, sometimes on the roof exposed to a winter's night, just to get a chance of saying in the course of a Cabinet Minister's speech, "When is the Liberal Government going to put its promises into practice?"

Source: Emmeline Pankhurst, Mrs. Pankhurst's Own Story (New York: Hearst's International Library, 1914), 61, 62, 235.