Traditional roles for women?

Helen Pankhurst: don't shun traditional roles

Download Perspecs

Could some of the militant suffragettes be classed as terrorists?

By Daniel J. McLaughlin

2018 is the centenary year of when some women were granted the vote. The Representation of the People Act 1918, known as the Fourth Reform Act, extended the right to vote for all men over 21 and to women over 30 who met a property qualification. All women over 21 did not get the vote until a decade later.

It had been a long time coming, after exhausting and fraught campaigns from the suffragette movement. While they fought for representation in a democracy, some of the actions they took were not through democratic means. Militant elements of the suffragette movement caused destruction and havoc, using bombs and fire as their tools.

Could some of these militant suffragettes be classed as terrorists?

Historian Fern Riddell says "absolutely" when asked by the BBC History Magazine. In just one month in May 1913, she notes, out of the 53 attacks carried out by suffragettes across the country, the majority involved bombs or arson. "Anywhere in British society that you could find a woman, you could find a suffragette bomb," she observes. The suffragettes planted bombs in churches, theatres, railway stations and train carriages. They set fire to post boxes and MPs' houses. They also cut down telegraph wires between London and Glasgow - the equivalent of wiping out the internet today.

Simon Webb also agrees with this assessment, telling Sky News that the bombing campaign for the suffragettes could have hindered their campaign. The historians writes that the suffragettes conducted a "ferocious and prolonged" bombing campaign across the UK, planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in places such as Westminster Abbey, St Paul's Cathedral, the Bank of England, and the National Gallery. They also invented the letter bomb, designed to kill or maim those who disagree with the movement.

"Far from hastening the granting of votes for women," Webb writes, "the suffragettes impeded the political progress towards this aim by their dangerous actions, causing most people to reject them as violent fanatics. Had it not been for the bombings, there is every chance that the vote would have been given to women before, rather than after, the First World War."

Until 1912, the suffragettes largely acted within the law, mainly chaining themselves to railings and disturbing the peace. Their campaigning started to escalate. On the afternoon of March 1, 1912, around 150 women simultaneously took out hammers and stones from their pockets and smashed windows of shop windows and government offices in London's West End.

A year later, Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King's horse at the Derby and died from her injuries.

Targets were not just buildings, the BBC reports. Even artworks were mutilated - the most notable case was Velazquez's famous Rokeby Venus Venus, which was repeatedly slashed with a meat cleaver at the National Gallery in 1914.

According to the Conversation, the militant action was meant to avoid harming people, but committed to draw attention to their demands. It is estimated that their campaign of destruction caused between £1 billion and £2 billion worth of damage to property in 1913-14.

However, if they were intent on avoiding harm to people, this seems to clash with their intentions for the South Eastern District Post Office. A bomb was discovered, containing enough nitroglycerin to blow up the entire building and kill the 200 people who worked there.

Women's history professor Jane Purvis believes that classing the suffragettes as terrorists is "misguided and sensationalist". The suffragettes did not kill or harm anyone, she argues. The only person to die of their actions was Emily Davison, who chose her manner of death (many believe she was probably seeking martyrdom for the cause).

Emmeline Pankhurst, who led the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), emphasised that human life should not be endangered. Purvis cites a former suffragette Mary Leigh, who said in 1975: "Mrs Pankhurst gave us strict orders... there was not a cat or a canary to be killed: no life."

There is often a fine line between terrorists and freedom fighters. The right for representation and the vote for women are obviously vindicated today. Without the suffragette movement, the Representation of the People Act 1918 may not have existed. There were many means that the suffragettes employed to put pressure on the government, some of which were obviously militant.

Download Perspecs
Download Perspecs