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The Suffragettes and the Labour Movement

John Simkin

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In his letter to The Guardian today, Ian Flintoff repeats the myth that “Labour backed the suffragettes”. This is completely untrue. Members of the Women’s Social and Political Union were first described as “suffragettes” on 10th January 1906 by the Daily Mail and was a response to women committing acts of violence in an attempt to win the vote. The main objective of the WSPU was votes for women “on the same basis as men.” This meant winning the vote not for all women but for only the small stratum of women who could meet the property qualification. As one critic pointed out, it was "not votes for women", but “votes for ladies.”

The Labour Party at the time, rightly argued that if WSPU policy became law, it would benefit the Conservative Party. It has to be remembered that at this time only about 60% of men had the vote. The demand of Labour and trade union movements was for universal suffrage. As Harry Quelch, pointed out in a debate on the subject in 1905: “Any Women’s Enfranchisement Bill which seeks merely to abolish sex disqualification would increase the power of the propertied classes… Adult Suffrage… is the only Franchise Reform which merits any support from the Labour Members of Parliament.”

It is true that Keir Hardie did support the WSPU in its early days. This brought a great deal of criticism from the labour movement as they knew that the reason for this was his affair with Sylvia Pankhurst, one of the leaders of the WSPU. When Sylvia broke with the WSPU as a result of its arson campaign, Hardie also withdrew his support. Sylvia and Hardie went onto establish the East London Federation of Suffragettes, an organisation that combined socialism with a demand for universal suffrage.

It is no coincidence that the leaders of the WSPU, such as Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst became supporters of the Conservative Party once they got the vote. Other prominent members of the WSPU, such as Mary Allen, Flora Drummond, Mary Richardson and Adela Pankhurst, were active in the fascist movement in the 1930s.



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