Updated: Dec 2, 2021
On November 18th, 1910, three hundred female protesters marched to the Houses of Parliament as part of their campaign to secure voting rights for women. What happened next saw the women met with violence from the police and male bystanders. The shocking nature of the violence led to the day being christened ‘Black Friday’.
Genesis of the Suffragettes The demonstration was one of many orchestrated by the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), the organisation formed in 1903 by the political activist Emmeline Pankhurst. After the failure of a private member's bill to introduce the vote for women, the WSPU increasingly began to use militant direct action to campaign for women's suffrage . The first such act was in October 1905 when, during a Liberal rally at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney interrupted a political meeting attended by Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey to shout: ‘Will the Liberal government give votes to women?’ After unfurling a banner declaring ‘Votes for Women’ and shouting, they were thrown out of the meeting and arrested for causing an obstruction. Pankhurst was taken into custody for a technical assault on a police officer after she spat at him to provoke an arrest. Refusing to pay the fines levied against them, they were sent to prison .
According to the historian Caroline Morrell, from 1905 the ‘basic pattern of WSPU activities over the next few years had been established - pre-planned militant tactics, imprisonment claimed as martyrdom, publicity and increased membership and funds’ . By 1906 WSPU members adopted the name ‘suffragettes’ to differentiate themselves from the ‘suffragists’ of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, who employed constitutional methods in their campaign for the vote. Interestingly, the label of suffragette was first used in an article by Daily Mail journalist by Charles E. Hands. According to Elizabeth Crawford, a researcher and author on the women's suffrage movement, the intention of the ‘ette’ suffix was ‘to belittle and to show that they were less than the proper kind of suffrage worker…but they took up the name and were very proud of it’ .
During the January 1910 general election campaign the Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, H. H. Asquith, promised to introduce a Conciliation Bill to allow a measure of women's suffrage in national elections. When returned to power he went so far as to form a committee of pro-women's suffrage MPs from several political parties. The committee proposed legislation that would have added a million women to the franchise. Unsurprisingly, the suffrage movement supported the legislation. Although MPs backed the bill and passed its first and second readings, Asquith refused to grant it further parliamentary time. On November 18th, following a breakdown in relations between the House of Commons and House of Lords over the 1910 budget, Asquith called another general election, and said that parliament would be dissolved on November 28th.
Betrayal The WSPU saw the move as a betrayal and organised a protest march to parliament from Caxton Hall in Westminster. Lines of police and crowds of male bystanders met three hundred female protestors outside the Houses of Parliament; the women were attacked for the next six hours. Many women complained about the sexual nature of the assaults. Police arrested four men and 115 women, although the following day all charges were dropped. The conciliation committee were angered by the accounts, and undertook interviews with 135 demonstrators, nearly all of whom described acts of violence against the women; 29 of the statements included details of sexual assault. Calls for a public inquiry, however, were rejected by the Home Secretary Winston Churchill.
The demonstration led to a change in approach. Many members of the WSPU were unwilling to risk similar violence, so they resumed their previous forms of direct action, such as stone-throwing and window-breaking, which afforded time to escape. The police also changed their tactics; during future demonstrations they tried not to arrest too soon or too late.
At a demonstration in October 1909, at which the WSPU again attempted to rush into parliament, ten demonstrators were taken to hospital. The suffragettes did not complain about the rising level of police violence. Constance Lytton wrote that ‘the word went round that we were to conceal as best we might, our various injuries. It was no part of our policy to get the police into trouble’  The level of violence in suffragette action increased throughout 1909: bricks were thrown at the windows of Liberal Party meetings; Asquith was attacked while leaving church; and roof tiles were thrown at police when another political rally was interrupted. Public opinion turned against the tactics and, according to Morrell, the government capitalised on the shifting public feeling to introduce stronger measures. Thus, in October 1909, Herbert Gladstone, the Home Secretary, instructed that all prisoners on hunger strike should be force fed .
Turning point In 1912 the suffragettes turned to using more militant tactics and began a window-smashing campaign. Some members of the WSPU, including Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and her husband Frederick, disagreed with this strategy but their objections were ignored by Christabel Pankhurst. The Government’s response was to order the arrest of the WSPU leaders. While Christabel Pankhurst escaped to France, the Pethick-Lawrences were arrested, tried and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment. On their release, the Pethick-Lawrences began to speak out publicly against the window-smashing campaign, arguing that it would lose support for the cause. Unsurprisingly, as they were effectively challenging the WSPU’s leadership, the Pethick-Lawrences were expelled from the movement.
The suffragette campaign escalated to target infrastructure, government, churches and the general public. Activists continued smashing windows but now the places frequented by the wealthy (typically men), such as cricket pavilions, horse-racing pavilions, churches, castles and second homes, were targeted for arson attacks. Initially these properties were burnt and destroyed while they were unattended, to lessen the risk to life but, as the WSPU evolved into what is a recognisable terrorist organisation, incendiary attacks were supplemented by a wider bombing campaign. On February 19th, 1913, for example, Pinfold Manor in Surrey, which was being built for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, was targeted with two bombs. While only one device exploded, causing significant damage, in her memoirs, Sylvia Pankhurst said that Emily Davison had carried out the attack .
During the WSPU’s most militant years from 1910 to 1914 , Parliamentary Papers record the use of improvised explosive devices, letter bombs, arson using 'incendiary devices', assassination attempts and other forms of direct action and violence such as postbox burning telegraph cable cutting and artwork destruction (including an axe attack upon a painting of The Duke of Wellington in the National Gallery). In a six-month period in 1913  there were 250 arson or destruction attacks, and in April the newspapers reported ‘What might have been the most serious outrage yet perpetrated by the Suffragettes’:
‘Policemen discovered inside the railings of the Bank of England a bomb timed to explode at midnight. It contained 3oz of powerful explosive, some metal, and a number of hairpins - the last named constituent, no doubt to make known the source of the intended sensation. The bomb was similar to that used in the attempt to blow up Oxted Railway Station. It contained a watch with attachment for explosion, but was clumsily fitted. If it had exploded when the streets were crowded a number of people would probably have been injured.’
At least five people were killed (including one suffragette), and at least 24 were injured (including two suffragettes). Given that the WSPU’s bombing campaign saw devices planted in churches, packed train carriages, halls and stations, it seems incredible that more people were not hurt. Fortunately for the intended victims the home-made bombs tended to fizz, splutter and smoke, unlike modern, refined explosives that detonate instantly, and thus gave people time to get away.
World War One Only at the outbreak of World War One was the escalating militancy of the suffragettes finally curbed. In August 1914, the British Government released all prisoners who had been incarcerated for suffrage activities on an amnesty. Soon after the mainstream suffragette movement, represented by the Pankhurst's WSPU, ended all militant suffrage activities . Those more familiar with the lifecycle of terrorist groups will not be surprised to discover that a more extremist element, represented by Sylvia Pankhurst's Women's Suffrage Federation, split from the WSPU determined to continue the struggle. Regardless, women eagerly volunteered to take on many traditional male roles which would lead ultimately to a new perception of social roles. The suffragettes' focus on war work turned waning public opinion in favour of women’s eventual partial enfranchisement in 1918 .
Suffragette success? It is still debated what impact the activities of the suffrage movements, especially the suffragettes, and the Great War had on women's emancipation. The consensus of historical opinion is that the militant campaign was not effective . In May 1913 an attempt made to vote through a bill in parliament to introduce women's suffrage actually did worse than previous attempts, something which much of the press blamed on the increasingly violent tactics of the suffragettes . Indeed, it seems that the impact of the WSPU's violent attacks drove many members of the general public away from supporting the cause, and some members of the WSPU itself were also alienated by the escalation of violence, which led to splits in the organisation. So, with the suspension of the WSPU’s militant campaign suspended at the outbreak of war in 1914, the aim of gaining votes for women was still unrealised. The WSPU had failed to create the kind of ‘national crisis’ which might have forced the government into concessions .
In contrast, the suffragists of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), who had always employed ‘constitutional’ methods, continued to lobby for women’s right to vote during the war years. In the aftermath of the Great War, millions of soldiers returning home were still not entitled to vote. This simple fact posed a problem for British politicians. How could they be seen to withhold the vote from the very men who had just fought to preserve the British democratic political system? Although it is unlikely the enfranchisement of women was in recognition of their contribution to the war effort, the compromises worked out between the NUWSS and the coalition government  led to the Representation of the People Act 1918, an attempt to solve the dilemma. The Act was passed into law by Royal Assent on February 6th, 1918, enfranchising all adult males over 21 years old who were resident householders. It also gave the right to vote to women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications . Overnight some 8.4 million women were enfranchised . Later that year, in November, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was passed, allowing women to be elected to parliament . Even so, it would take a further ten years before women in Britain finally achieved suffrage on the same terms as men. The Representation of the People Act 1928 finally extended the voting franchise to all women over the age of 21, thereby granting women the vote on the same terms that men had gained ten years earlier.
The terrorism controversy Both the suffragettes themselves and police spoke of a ‘Reign of Terror’ referring to the arson and bomb attacks as ‘terrorism’; a view echoed in newspaper headlines such as the Pall Mall Gazette’s ‘Suffragette Terrorism’ . Indeed, Emmeline Pankhurst called the militancy ‘continued, destructive guerrilla warfare against the Government’ in contemporary suffragette pamphlets. There is no doubt that in her own words, Pankhurst acknowledged the WSPU possessed all the hallmarks of what we would today define as a terrorist group.
Yet there is some indication that in later years the suffragettes made a co-ordinated attempt to remove references to their most violent acts from published memoirs. Cultural historian Dr Fern Riddell has extensively investigated the scrapbook of one suffragette, Kitty Marion (pictured right). The scrapbook contained stories of her hunger strikes, arson attacks, prison escapes, and reports of bombings where the attacker is not identified. Interestingly, while Kitty Marion is frank about her arson attacks, she is coy about the bombs . Significantly, from Riddell’s hours of research a little-known history of the suffragettes began to emerge.
Reportedly, when Riddell first began to speak out publicly about Kitty Marion's violent record, she faced a backlash from some suffragette historians. At least one claimed Riddell’s research was 'shameful' and should 'not continue'. Other historians were more defensive saying that there had been no widescale whitewashing of suffragette memory. Yet in schools we frequently encounter a highly sanitised version of suffragette history ignorant of its very obvious terrorist credentials. Few teachers or their pupils are familiar with the idea of suffragette bombers or even that they were called terrorists at the time.
In the 1930s, the Suffragette Fellowship, responsible for compiling the sources on the movement often used by later historians, decided that they were not going to mention any of the bombings in any of the sources . This is understandable as it would protect former suffragettes from prosecution, but it was also an attempt to step away from the violent rhetoric and to change the cultural memory of the suffragette movement . Yet with the release of many official sources on suffragette violence from the archives, a different interpretation is being revealed.
Modern interpretation Today we are probably less familiar with the suffragists than the suffragettes. Largely this is because the latter’s campaign of ‘Deeds not Words’ epitomises the power of propaganda and media manipulation to maximise the ‘oxygen of publicity’ that radicals, like the suffragettes, need to survive and prosper. So, it is remains controversial, and contrary to the movement’s own account of its history, and the version more recently championed by descendants of the Pankhursts, to contend that the WSPU was not entirely blameless for the violence on Black Friday. Any objective study of the suffragette movement ought to consider the similarities between the WSPU and likeminded activist groups who often evolve towards radicalism and increasingly violent action.
While radicalism poses a threat, extremism, particularly terrorism, is the main concern of governments since it involves active subversion of democratic values and the rule of law . It is easy to see how forceful individuals desiring radical change, like Emeline Pankhurst, can become frustrated with the perceived lack of progress. In general, those who feel left behind and resent injustice are more prone to becoming radicalised. Significantly, the evolution from radical to terrorist thrives in environments characterised by a shared sense of injustice, exclusion and real or perceived humiliation. Kinship, friendship, group dynamics and socialisation all trigger an individual’s association with radicalisation, and all these factors were clearly inherent within the WSPU.
Radicalisation Disaffected individuals in groups such as the WSPU will characteristically follow different paths to different levels of radicalisation. So, understanding the origins of violent radicalisation means recognising that terrorist groups consist of different types of disaffected individuals from a variety of social backgrounds . The decision to use violence, however, characteristically involves a smaller number of radicalised individuals within a specific group. In these terms, it is easy to see parallels displayed by the Pankhurst’s leadership and within the wider suffragette movement.
Acts of terrorism are usually how its perpetrators, lacking mass support, attempt to realise a political or religious objective . Terrorism generally involves a series of punctuated acts of demonstrative public violence, followed by threats of continuation intended to impress, intimidate and/or coerce target audiences. In the case of the suffragettes, the obvious political cause was obtaining votes for women, and the WSPU’s progression from militancy to direct action and of violence have all the hallmarks of an evolution toward terrorism. By any official definition, the WSPU was a terrorist organisation. Sadly the legacy of the suffragette campaign was to inspire the later arson, bombing and terrorist campaigns adopted by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Great Britain.
Positive outcomes Eight years after Black Friday and 1918 proved to be a significant year. In the post-war ‘land fit for heroes’ many of the social barriers that had pervaded Victorian and Edwardian Britain had been irrevocably broken. In this context, and although a small step towards universal suffrage, giving women over the age of 30 the right to vote was most likely symptomatic of changing social mores. A year later the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their sex. Yet in the very same year, the Restoration of Pre-War Practices, meant that men should be given priority in employment. Many women found themselves pushed back into the home, back into caring roles for husbands many bearing the physical and mental scars from the fighting.
The clock could not be turned back entirely, however. Women in Britain, and further afield, had found new independence and had shown themselves and the rest of society that they could do jobs that before the Great War would have been unthinkable. In 1918 women's emancipation had taken its first steps on a long road.
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6. Morrell, C., (1981), 'Black Friday': Violence Against Women in the Suffragette Movement, London: Women's Research and Resources Centre.
7. Atkinson, D., (2018), ‘Rise up, women! : the remarkable lives of the suffragettes’, London: Bloomsbury, pp. 187 - 510.
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12. Webb, S., (2014), ‘The Suffragette Bombers: Britain's Forgotten Terrorists’, Pen and Sword.
13. Rosen, A., (2013), ‘Rise Up, Women!: The Militant Campaign of the Women's Social and Political Union, 1903-1914’, London: Routledge. pp. 242–245.
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15. Fawcett, Millicent Garrett, The Women's Victory – and After, Cambridge University Press, p. 170.
16. Mohan, M., (2018), ‘Kitty Marion: The actress who became a “terrorist”’, BBC News, Available on-line (accessed November 26th, 2021).
17. Riddell, F., (2018), ‘Death in Ten Minutes: The forgotten life of radical suffragette Kitty Marion’, Hodder & Stoughton.
18. "Books interview with Fern Riddell: "Can we call the suffragettes terrorists? Absolutely", HistoryExtra, Available on-line (accessed November 28th, 2021).
19. Reinares, F., (2008), ‘Radicalisation Processes Leading to Acts of Terrorism’, European Commission's Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation.
20. This report, published by the European Commission, analyses empirical facts on violent radicalisation, recent academic literature and the link between external conflicts and violent radicalisation. More research on individuals who join terrorist groups, terrorist recruitment, indoctrination and training, and types and development of current radicalisation processes, would inform future state response strategies.
21. According to the Security Service (MI5) ‘terrorist groups use violence and threats of violence to publicise their causes and as a means to achieve their goals. They often aim to influence or exert pressure on governments and government policies but reject democratic processes, or even democracy itself.’