From the outbreak of war, the suffragette movement took an active interest in the conflict and women’s part in it. Jus Suffragi, the monthly paper of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, published regular updates on the work of the Scottish Women’s Hospital Unit and the Milicent Fawcett Units for Refugees in Russia, as well as features on female contributions to the war effort in Italy, Bavaria, and Russia.
But suffragettes were divided in their views of the conflict. Was it a worthy cause to which they should dedicate themselves, putting the fight for women’s votes on hold? Or was it, like all wars, driven by an objectionable masculine impulse which women should oppose?
The activities of both the National Union of Women’s Suffragette Societies (NUWSS) and the more radical Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) were officially put on hold so that their members could concentrate on the war effort. The decision was controversial; most of the Executive and many members of the NUWSS resigned and took up work with peace organisations.
To Christabel Pankhurst, the leader of the WSPU, the war was a conflict to protect the freedoms that suffragettes were fighting to gain. Her view, however, was also tactical: she predicted that if women played a major part in the war, Parliament would find it difficult to ignore their roles and be compelled to grant them the vote. She and her mother Emmeline believed that by encouraging women to contribute to the war effort they were furthering the suffragette cause.
Exhibiting traditional patriotic fervour, the Pankhursts and other suffragette leaders handed white feathers (symbolising cowardice) to men of fighting age not in uniform and changed the name of their newspaper Suffragette to Britannia. They campaigned to get women into munitions work, producing shells and explosives, even if they earned less than their male counterparts. In Glasgow, suffragettes also led white-collar workers from the Georgeton munitions factory in patriotic rallies, crying ‘No Compromise Peace’.
Others took a very different view. Suffragettes like Helen Crawfurd, a Glaswegian WSPU member and Communist activist, had fought for the right to vote in order to stop things like war. They campaigned for peace, seeing war as a masculine impulse and believing that women were more inclined towards pacifism. Crawfurd herself was involved in the Women’s Peace Crusade, the peace organisation with the largest working class involvement. Over 200 women from 16 organisations attended its launch on June 10, 1916 and by the end of the war there were over 100 branches. Members held street meetings and public protests, including a demonstration at Glasgow Green at which around 14,000 people gathered. Jus Suffragi published reports on German women’s fight for social and political rights, reflecting the international movement’s appreciation of their common struggle in spite of the war.
‘Whether we like it or not, war is here.’ –Mrs Chapman Catt, President of the National American Women’s Suffrage League
Most suffragettes, like Chapman Catt, did not rush either to condone or condemn the war, but tried simply to mitigate its effects. The Scottish Federation of Suffragettes and its affiliates diverted their efforts to provide support to women and children struggling from the loss of their main breadwinners. The Dundee Women’s Suffrage Society offered its office and the services of its members and staff to municipal relief schemes. The Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage visited and cared for the wives and dependants of soldiers in Leith. Since these activities were organised within the existing groups’ structures, suffragettes were ready to take up campaigning again as soon as the war was over.
‘Women have shown themselves capable of successfully replacing the stronger sex in practically every calling.’ — Adjutant-General, ‘Report on Women’s War Work in Maintaining the Industries and Export Trade of the United Kingdom’
Was Christabel Pankhurst right? Was the suffragette cause advanced by women’s wartime opportunities to showcase their abilities and eagerness for national service? Perhaps, or perhaps not.
Women certainly provided abundant evidence of their capabilities in 1914-18. Over a million women took on men’s roles, increasing the percentage of women in work from 24% to 37%.
Yet the Representation of the People Act of 1918, which extended the vote to all men over 21, only granted the vote to women over 30 – and only those with husbands who owned property – so many women who had contributed much to the war effort were excluded, particularly from the working class. Some historians even argue that the government gave the vote to this particular group of women to counter the radical influence of newly enfranchised men.
It was not until 1928 that all women over 21 were extended the right to vote.
Words by Iona Baker