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Civil disobedience in a corset: the hard truth behind England’s suffragettes

If you’ve been following pandemic pop culture, then you’ve probably watched Netflix’s Enola Holmes. You might also be curious about the mysterious gathering of women who have fight clubs and use coded language in the movie. However, it’s not the first time that England’s suffragettes have made the big screen. Casting aside Hollywood dramatics, the suffragettes of the Victorian period were not comprised of shadowy, secret gatherings, but rather an open, public organization for women’s equality. 

The Victorian era was characterized by domesticity and family. Queen Victoria acted as a mother-figure to her country and, like FX’s Mrs. America, railed against the women’s suffrage movement, calling it a “mad, wicked folly.” But England’s suffrage movement goes as far back as the 1830s with various organizations, such as the Sheffield Female Political Association and the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. While those organizations failed in their movement, the turn of the century presented new possibilities. 

Enter scene: The Women’s Social and Political Union, and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. 

Keep in mind, there is an important distinction. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, also known as “suffragists,” was founded in 1897. They were considered a “moderate” organization, focused on writing letters, organizing petitions, distributing literature, and working through legal methods of protest. So does this mean that the militant actions of Enola Holmes’ suffragettes are entirely fiction?

Not at all! In fact, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), whose members were called “suffragettes,” weren’t shy about taking serious, dramatic action. But rather than working in the shadows and behind closed doors, the real suffragettes of England were open about their actions in order to garner public attention. This included the disruption of public events, committing arson, breaking windows, and destroying property. Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder and the leader of the WSPU, was repeatedly arrested and went on widely publicized hunger strikes in prison. Many of the suffragettes, including Pankhurst’s daughters, followed suit. Among the most famous suffragettes is Emily Davidson, who threw herself under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby and died a few days later.

“Men got the vote because they were and would be violent. The women did not get it because they were constitutional and law-abiding,” Pankhurst said in her speech at Madison Square Garden. “The 20th-century women began to say to themselves, ‘Is it not time, since our methods have failed and the men’s have succeeded, that we should take a leaf out of their political book?’”

However, it was not until 1918’s Representation of the People Act that some women were finally given the right to vote; specifically, women over the age of 30 and who, either own property themselves, or were married to someone who owned property. Although not overtly stated, this tended to exclude working-class women and, by extension, women of color.

In fact, Pankhursts’ daughters argued over the inclusion of the working class. Sylvia Pankhurst was determined to recruit and include working-class women in the East London branch of the WSPU. However, according to Sylvia Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst rejected them, stating “a working women’s movement was of no value: working women were the weakest portion of the sex… Their lives were too hard, their education too meager to equip them for the contest.”

Instead, the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS) campaigned on its own. They moved away from some of their former militant actions to maintain the safety of their working-class activists who were not as protected as the upper-class women of the WSPU. They maintained their presence in public life by hosting concerts, festivals, parties, and kept campaigning through World War I when WSPU was put on hold.

Still, took another ten years in 1928 for all women, over the age of 21, to be included in the Equal Franchise ActAdmittedly, England’s suffragettes were not as mysterious as films like Enola Holmes make them out to be. But they were every bit as dramatic and important to British history. 

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