Marlborough College Summer School

Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women

Paula Bartley takes issue with those historians who depict the suffragettes of the Pankhursts' Women's Social and Political Union as elitists concerned only with upper- and middle-class women.

Students of early twentieth-century social history sometimes have a tendency to believe that the women's suffrage movement was divided into two major camps: the peaceful, law-abiding suffragists and the militant and law-breaking suffragettes. Until the ground-breaking research of Jill Liddington and Jill Norris it was commonly assumed that both branches of the women's suffrage movement were composed of pedigreed ladies wearing fancy feather hats, long silk gowns, pristine white gloves and pretty hand-bags containing stones to break windows. Their book, One Hand Tied Behind Us, was the first to break both new theoretical and methodological ground. Using local archives, Liddington and Norris constructed a narrative of working-class suffragists active in the cotton towns of northern England. This book, more than any other, weakened the view that the suffrage movement was full of middle- and upper-class women. Yet, although they have reinstated the suffragists in the story of votes for women, they remain dismissive of the suffragettes. In fact, the suffragists of the National Union of Women Suffragists, formed in 1897 by Millicent Fawcett, are considered the principled wing of the suffrage movement, whereas the suffragettes of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst, are regarded contemptuously.

Liddington and Norris are not alone in condemning the suffragettes. The debate about the WSPU abounds with controversy, and in most publications the formidable Pankhurst family have had rather a poor historical press. Christabel Pankhurst, one of the WSPU's leaders and Emmeline Pankhurst's eldest daughter, has been depicted as a 'ruthless despot ... leading a pack of maladjusted, sycophantic followers'. Even historians who view the suffragettes as serious political figures assume that the WSPU was an elitist organisation which campaigned for an elitist vote. Constance Rover has noted that although much of the early activity of the WSPU was amongst textile workers this was lost when the WSPU moved to London in 1906. Martin Pugh is even more critical, arguing that 'the Pankhursts were never more than peripherally involved with the textile operatives. Indeed, it was partly because they saw that they could not lead these women that they went in pursuit of the drawing rooms of London, thereby depriving themselves of a real mass movement'. Yet these are probably unjust statements, as the Pankhursts' move to London coincided with an election year and they went to the capital in order to be near the main political action. Moreover, support declined for women's suffrage amongst the textile workers when the Pankhursts left the North. This article will argue, against the tide of majority opinion, that the WSPU remained committed to working-class women in spite of the fact that women from a wide variety of social backgrounds played leading parts in its development.

Composition of the WSPU

In its early years, the WSPV recruited greater numbers of working-class than middle-class women, for its roots lay in the Labour politics of the north of England rather than the Conservative salons of the south. It was set up specifically for working-class women and between 1903 and 1906 did valuable propaganda work in the textile towns. When the Union moved to London in 1906 working-class women are generally thought to have receded into the background to be replaced by women of an entirely different social class. Indeed, the WSPU is said to have concentrated on attracting middle- and upper-class women into the organisation to the exclusion of working-class women. Admittedly, there is some truth in this assumption. Richer, more influential women did join the WSPU, and in quite large numbers, and the general image of the WSPU was that of a middle- and upper-class movement. The most famous example was the aristocratic and politically Conservative Lady Constance Lytton, whose father had been one of the Viceroys of India and whose mother had been lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. Undoubtedly at leadership level those higher up the social ladder dominated. Suffrage leaders were usually married to wealthy men or belonged to wealthy families and were undeniably middle- or upper-class. In a political movement which relied upon the unpaid work of women, only those who were economically independent or married to men who were financially secure could afford to engage in political action.

We must remember, however, that the class composition of the WSPU was more heterogeneous than popular opinion suggests. Not all leading suffragettes were from such patrician stock – there were a number who had impeccable working-class origins. The most famous of all was Annie Kenney, a cotton worker recruited at a WSPU meeting in Oldham, who became Christabel Pankhurst's confidante. The leading Scottish suffragette, Jessie Stephens, also came from a working-class background and when inter- viewed later on in life insisted there were 'a tremendous number of working-class women' involved in the WSPU. Emma Sproson, a postman's wife from Wolverhampton, was imprisoned in 1907 for trying to force an entrance to the House of Commons in order to deliver a suffrage petition. In 1908 the working-class Mary Leigh entered suffrage legend as the first window smasher when she broke the windows of 10 Downing Street.

When the WSPU's headquarters moved to London there is evidence that it continued to target working-class women. Both Annie Kenney and Sylvia Pankhurst were sent to London to organise the campaign in the capital and spent most of their time in working-class districts: the first London branch of the WSPU was formed at Canning Town in the East 2nd, The membership of' this branch, known as the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), was entirely working-class and it continued to be a part of the WSPU (albeit a problem one) until its official spilt in February 1914. Moreover, even in London, the WSPU’s strength lay with its local branches as much as its headquarters. Until 1908, the WSPU was active in the working-class areas of Woolwich, Lewisham and Greenwich. In the provinces too the WSPU tried to recruit working-class women. At one dinner hour meeting outside a factory in the Black Country one woman was heard to remark ‘Aye, Martha, did ye ever hear the like of it; isn’t it grand! To think of those ladies working for the likes of us’. Furthermore, working class women were amongst the paid workers of the WSPU, thus making it possible for them to remain active in the campaign.

If one examines the pictorial documentation too, there is evidence that working-class women participated in suffrage demonstrations were highly orchestrated events where women were encouraged to dress up: in plain white with sashes of purple, white and green; in the costumes of famous women; in their working clothes; in their national costume or carrying national flags; and as ex-prisoners. One block of the 1910 WSPU demonstration contained ‘boot machinists, box-makers and skirt-makers…hot and toil-worn but unfaltering, “of any section in that vast procession needing enfranchisement the most”’.

Of course, it is difficult to research the participation of working-class women in the illegal activities of the WSPU unless they were leaders or wrote autobiographies. Nonetheless, there is strong evidence to suggest that working-class women were imprisoned for unlawful militant activities. June Purvis has argued that many working-class women were imprisoned, went on hunger strike and were forcibly fed. Once again, this indicates that working-class suffragettes were active in the movement since only through militant action would they have been arrested, tried, sentenced and imprisoned. Moreover, when Lady Constance Lytton disguised herself as a working-class woman it was to make the political point that such women suffered more in prison than those from a higher social class. Lytton had been imprisoned many times but was never forcibly fed, and she believed that the prison authorities treated her well because of her family connections. She disguised herself as a working-class woman, called Jane Whartan, to test the theory. Her fears were proved correct: as 'Jane Wharton', Lytton was forcibly fed and treated scornfully.

Political ideas of the WSPU

It is generally supposed that, whatever its class composition, the WSPU turned away from working-class concerns to focus solely on the vote. Initially, its leadership had close links with the Independent Labour Party but these were lost in 1907 when both Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel resigned their ILP membership and refused to promote any political party. By 1914 Christabel Pankhurst undoubtedly treated all men as enemies and complained that socialist men – despite their commitment to equality – were little better than the Conservatives and Liberals in their failure to support votes for women. But, once again, this is an interpretation which needs adjusting.

In fact, many suffragettes held left-wing ideals. Most of the women arrested at a demonstration outside the House of Commons in 1906 were connected in some way with the labour movement and stayed politically radical. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, for one, remained committed to social democratic ideas, and both Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst were dedicated socialists. Furthermore, many local groups such as those in Deptford, Greenwich and Lewisham, continued working with the local Labour Party to recruit working-class women. Sylvia Pankhurst's East London Federation of Suffragettes, a branch of the WSPU, remained a working-class organisation and 'regarded itself' as part of the labour movement, for it saw the achievement of equality and emancipation as inseparable from a socialist organisation of society.' In Scotland too the links with working-class women and socialism were strong.

Suffragettes might not identify with working-class men – and given the sexual harassment faced by many at demonstrations and meetings this is perhaps not surprising – but most viewed the vote as a means to the end of social and economic inequality. Women's suffrage, it was believed, would enable the evils of sweated labour and low pay to be overcome. In its way, the WSPU assumed that the unity of women was more important than the division of class. Both Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst wanted to appeal to women of all classes and suggested that the subordination of women to men was at least as significant as class oppression. Indeed, whatever its class composition, the WSPU supported working-class women's issues. Working-class men might well have been regarded as the enemy of the WSPU but working-class women were certainly not thought of in the same way. For instance, when women chain-makers and barmaids had their livelihoods threatened, they each received support from the WSPU. Though the WSPU objected to protective legislation for working-class women, this was because such laws deprived them of jobs. As Lady Aberconway (the wife of a Liberal peer) argued in the suffragette newspaper, Votes for Women, on August 11th 1911:

'Working women stand today with a sea of destitution all around them; their power to labour is like a little strip of sand, on which they crowd together, working with incessant toil for a bare life. And every now and then man's laws sweep away first one hit and then another, while the women crowd closer and work harder. What will become of them? No one knows or cares. More legislation is threatened, which may involve thousands of women in disaster.'  

In particular, the WSPU, concerned about the loss of female jobs, championed the cause of women workers who were employed on the surface of coal mines. These were the pit-brow women.

The WSPU and pit-brow women

'Because they have not the vote, women's right to live is in danger' – so began Christabel Pankhurst in a leading article for Votes for Women. It was written in response to the Liberal Government's proposal to prohibit women from working on the pit-brow. On 2 August 1911 a House of Commons Select Committee, debating the Coal Mines Bill, agreed that 'No girl or woman other than those employed on or before the first day of January 1911 shall be permitted to be employed above ground on any mine, provided always that this section shall not apply to any woman who is engaged in the cleaning of colliery offices or for any other like purposes'. If the Bill became law it would mean the loss of approximately 6,000 female jobs. As a consequence, the WSPU led a campaign in support of pit-brow women workers.

The WSPU and pit-brow women together challenged the masculine political establishment which they believed was conspiring to return women to domesticity. At first glance, the amendment to curtail women's employment on the pit-brow appeared to be a humane gesture on the par t of a group of enlightened men within the Select Committee. Working-class men and their socially conscious supporters were allied against the reactionary politics of the right: six Labour MPs, eight Liberals and one Conservative voted in favour, whereas nine Conservatives and four Liberals voted against. Superficially, this type of' protective legislation appears to be a progressive measure against the inhumane conditions operating on the pit brow, especially when all the male supporters of the amendment had impeccable political credentials. For example, all six of the Labour MPs had held official posts in the Miners' Federation, and the Conservative who voted in favour had been a member of the Slave Trade Commission. In contrast, those who opposed protection undoubtedly belonged to the established right wing.

According to those who supported the exclusion of women, the work was arduous and wholly unfitted for the weaker sex. Concern was expressed for the health of pit-brow women who worked in dusty, damp and unhygienic conditions, pushing and pulling heavy tubs and lifting heavy lumps of coal which allegedly were far beyond their strength. There was anxiety that women were virtually unsheltered from the harsh winter elements because the pit heads were not protected from the weather. The Amendment, rather than insisting that working conditions be improved, prohibited women from working on the pit brow. It was one measure amongst a whole series of reforms proposed by the Liberal Government, elected in 1906 with a landslide victory. It lay alongside other Acts, such as the Miners' Eight Hour Day (1908), which were passed in order to ameliorate the conditions of the working class. On the other hand, the Tories, acting true to their political affiliations, blocked any progressive action in the same away as the predominantly Conservative House of Lords had attempted to stop Liberal reforms such as the Budget of 1909.

However, this humanitarian gesture must be placed within the context of the gender assumptions of the period. Some members of the 1911 Select Committee believed that pit bank work was not a proper place for women as 'the proper place for a miner's daughter is at home ... to assist the mother in the home; to be educated and trained for their future life as a wife and mother'. Moreover miners feared that women unfairly competed for jobs which were the preserve of vulnerable ex-miners – pit-brow work was the refuge of men who were too old or injured to work underground. And because fit and healthy women earned considerably less than their male colleagues it made them an attractively cheap labour force. If women were 'protected' then employers would have little choice but to employ the more expensive men.

The campaign

Both the suffragettes and pit-brow women disagreed with the left-wing male alliance and called for Parliament to reject the amendment to the Coal Mines Bill. Annie Kenney, an indomitable woman and charismatic speaker, was sent to Wigan to help pit-brow women organise their opposition to the proposed legislation. Throughout the campaign the WSPU's paper Votes for Women carried double-page feature articles about their plight and placed their campaigning expertise at the disposal of pit-brow women by organising deputations, and meetings.

The WSPU protested at the ways in which working-class women were about to be denied the opportunity to work and rejected the sentiment that pit-brow work was detrimental to women's health or unsuitable to their physical capabilities. 'During the 25 years in question they have not been called upon to deal with any case of hernia, strain, internal trouble of any kind affecting the bladder, bowels, womb or other internal organs'. Christabel Pankhurst believed that women working in their own home ran a much greater risk of internal strain than pit-brow women. Not surprisingly, she criticised the fact that an all-male Parliament, elected solely by men, had the right to prohibit women from pit-brow work. It was, she alleged, a male conspiracy to stop women's right to work.

The Wigan press certainly believed that the actions of the WSPLI were important in the pit-brow struggle. Credit was given to the WSPU, and to the organisational capabilities of Annie Kenney in particular, in helping towards the success. Sympathetic articles supporting Annie Kenney appeared in Wigan newspapers. When the Miners' Federation criticised the WSPU for interfering in the pit-brow struggle they unwittingly revealed its importance. The suffragettes were viewed as political agitators who stirred up trouble amongst working-class women in order to advertise women's suffrage. At the Miners' Federation Conference, Robert Smillie, a miner's leader, argued that the pit brow campaign was

'largely a bogus agitation got up by the employers in order to prevent this becoming law. But we have another body of ladies called suffragettes, who are anxious that the ladies of this country should have a vote, who find that they have a grievance in the threat to do away with further employment of women on pit banks. They have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the agitation against the abolition of the employment of women on pit banks.'

Later that year, a deputation, consisting of 45 pit-brow women from various collieries, petitioned the Home Secretary and eventually succeeded in getting the amendment overthrown. Pit-brow women kept their jobs: the last female worker ceased work in 1972.


Most of the press, sensing headline news, preferred to report the more violently militant acts of the WSPU (thought to be performed largely, but not exclusively, by middle- and upper-class women) such as window-breaking, destroying works of art, burning golf-courses with acid, heckling MPs and arson attacks – all of which led to imprisonment and hunger-strikes. As a result, they tended to ignore the mundane work of the suffragettes, like leafleting, holding meetings and demonstrating, much of which involved working-class women in larger numbers. This headline-catching interpretation of the WSPU's activities has been one in which historians have shared. As a consequence, the WSPU has been accused of an irresponsible approach to suffrage politics and of far too great an emphasis on the recruitment of elite women. Yet the struggle in support of pit-brow women makes it clear that the WSPU, rather than focusing entirely on middle- and upper- class women, maintained a strong working-class integrity.

Not only did women from all social classes campaign for the vote but many suffragettes continued to ally themselves with radical politics and involve themselves in working-class struggles. The pit-brow workers were not the only women to be defended by the WSPU, since it also gave support to other working-class women. Most importantly, the franchise was only ever seen as a means to the end of greater social and economic justice for all women, regardless of their status in the community. As Emmeline Pankhurst argued in 1914: 'you get an 8 hour day for the miner but you get nothing for women. Why? ... because the miner has a vote. You see what the vote will do. You see what political power will do.'