The Guardian columnist Zoe Williams had an interesting angle on the Tory budget. She noted that Phillip Hammond had set aside a small sum of money for commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Act of Parliament enfranchising women (well, more than 70% of them) which will be upon us in Early 2018. She wrote a searing critique of the impact on ordinary women of the cuts that the Tory budget entailed: She asked what would the suffragette leader and activist Emmeline Pankhurst say about women in Theresa May’s Britain continuing to suffer such economic hardship so long after winning the vote.
Good question, but to my mind Williams invokes the wrong Pankhurst. It was Emmeline’s middle daughter, Sylvia, who led and inspired a much more sustained attack on the economic injustices afflicting working class women, through her work alongside her sisters in the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS).
When Rudyard Kipling wrote “East is East and West is West” he may as well have pre-figured the political, economic and geographical chasm that separated these two vibrant sections of the Suffragette movement in London. The West End suffragettes were dominated by educated, very well to do, immaculately dressed women, a significant number of whom were willing to engage in individual, often dangerous, acts of serious trouble-making that risked imprisonment. And they were prepared to endure the horrors of doctors and prison staff attempting to force-feed them while they engaged in hunger strikes. They did not fear prison, though, since there would be no shortage of people to look after their children, and a good income would continue to flow into the household while they were getting some respite from round the clock activism behind bars (though a number of them found ways to continue to resist while imprisoned).
It was of course very different for the ELFS, whose typical members were factory workers, laundry workers, bar-maids, cleaners and others working long exhausting hours for low pay in sweated industries. A number of them would have been the sole breadwinners in their households. A prison sentence for something they could have avoided being caught up in would have been (and was) an unmitigated disaster for their families.
Their different circumstances coloured their attitudes towards the very demand they were both fighting for. Emmeline Pankhurst may have been satisfied to ask that women be granted the vote “on the same basis as men”. But at that time barely 60% of men had the vote, and it was on a property basis. If an equivalent franchise extended to women, many working class women would still be excluded. The ELFS, though, saw themselves in the business of securing the vote for working class women and men. They campaigned for Universal Suffrage, and they were not content to reduce their efforts to a single issue campaign.
They supported local women’s workplace struggles to form trade unions, and built strong relationships of solidarity and struggle with male trade unionists, especially gas workers, railway workers and dockers. It was an ELFS delegation of working class women, describing their appalling daily economic realities, that shook Prime Minister Asquith from his complacency in June 1914. He finally agreed to meet them only after Sylvia had threatened a hunger strike on the steps of Parliament. Having been an opponent of women’s votes, but edging towards a partial suffrage, he was forced to acknowledge at the end of their meeting, “If the change has got to come we must face it boldly and make it thoroughly democratic in its basis.” But before he could start to put the machinery in place to act on it the war began, and womenb’s votes remained on the backburner.
Emmeline’s mainstream suffragettes “patriotically” wound down much of their activity during World War 1. They changed the name of their newspaper to Britannia, and concentrated on recruiting women for munitions factories. Meanwhile, Sylvia and the ELFS were marching to Trafalgar Square alongside local trade unions, demanding no taxation on food and caps on food prices, an end to sweating, and equal pay and equal opportunities for women in their workplaces during the war, where they were increasingly taking on roles which had previously been reserved for men.
I am sure that Zoe Williams is very familiar with Emmeline Pankhurst’s forthright and courageous political campaigning in the early years of the suffragette struggle. I wonder how much she knows of Emmeline’s later trajectory. Emmeline Pankhurst’s last political act was to put herself for a Conservative candidacy. In 1926, she was adopted as the Conservative – yes, Conservative – candidate for Whitechapel, though she died before she could contest the election. Emmeline had made her peace with the system that Sylvia was still battling against with every fibre of her body for all women’s economic as well as political rights.