The new film, ‘Suffragette’, released last month, puts the unsung women of the early women’s movement in the spotlight. It highlights the work of ordinary working-class women and the sacrifices they made to secure the vote, the lack of which grouped them with the insane and the poorest men in society in terms of voting rights.
By the turn of the 20th century, women’s suffrage societies had been campaigning for the vote for over 50 years. Frustrated by the lack of progress, Emmeline Pankhurst and her followers broke away from the suffrage establishment to form a new organisation committed to pushing for reform through direct action. The group began a programme of civil disobedience, creating a stir wherever possible to grab the public’s attention and gain publicity for the cause.
Here are 8 places that played their part in the suffragette story.
1. Pankhurst Centre, 60-62 Nelson Street, Manchester Grade II
In October 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, invited a group of working-class women to their home in Manchester where they set up the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). This new organisation with the motto, ‘deeds not words,’ would change the nature of the campaign for votes for women. The building now houses the Pankhurst Centre, which includes a museum of the suffrage movement.
2. Free Trade Hall, Manchester, Grade II*
The WSPU’s first act of civil disobedience came in October 1905 at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney disrupted a Liberal party meeting and were taken to Strangeways prison after refusing to pay fines. On release, women’s suffrage was an issue of national debate. “Twenty years of peaceful propaganda had not produced such an effect,” wrote WSPU member Hannah Mitchell. A new phase in the fight had begun.
3. Downing Street, London Grade I
In June 1908, Edith New and Mary Leigh smashed windows in 10 Downing Street in protest against the way fellow demonstrators had been assaulted in Parliament Square earlier in the month. It was the first time the suffragettes had smashed windows in the name of the cause. “It will be a bomb next time,” Leigh was reported to have said when the women were arrested.
5. Holloway Prison, London
In July 1909, WSPU member Marion Dunlop Wallace was the first suffragette to go on hunger strike after being sent to Holloway for stamping slogans on the walls at parliament. After this, many imprisoned suffragettes followed her lead and desperate not to create martyrs, the authorities began force-feeding them. Reports of this scandalised the Edwardian public and caused outrage, helping create sympathy for the cause.
6. Houses of Parliament, London Grade I
The following year, the Houses of Parliament were the backdrop for the most violent scene in the suffragette story. A deputation of 300 peaceful women was sent to the House of Commons on 18th November and on arrival, were assaulted during a 6 hours struggle with police. The day came to be known as Black Friday; sparking a campaign of destruction across the country. Suffragettes smashed windows in government offices and shops, set fire to letter boxes and attacked properties. Hundreds were arrested. Mrs Pankhurst would later declare that: ‘the argument of the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics’.
7. Epsom Downs Racecourse, Surrey
The most famous incident in the suffragette struggle came in the summer of 1913. On 4 June, Emily Wilding Davison ran in front of the king’s horse at the Derby at Epsom. Davison never regained consciousness and died four days later. The WSPU organised a heroine’s funeral attended by thousands of mourners with ten bands accompanying her coffin from Victoria station to King’s Cross. The nation was transfixed; just as the government was attempting to stop hunger-striking suffragettes from dying in prison through the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act, Davison had provided the suffrage movement with its first martyr.
8. National Gallery, London Grade I
In a symbolic act of destruction, in March 1914, Mary Richardson took a meat cleaver to a Velázquez painting in the National Gallery in London. She later explained that she had “tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history”.
The struggle for suffrage was halted during the First World War but on 6 February 1918, the Government introduced votes for women over 30. All women over the age of 21 were finally given the right to vote in June 1928.
Read more about the struggle for women’s suffrage
Find out about buildings that celebrate Victorian and Edwardian working women
Read about Eagle House, a refuge for suffragettes between 1909 and 1912, and the suffragette trees.