Suffragettes were members of women’s organisations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which advocated the extension to women of the right to vote in public elections. The term suffragette is particularly applied to militant women in the UK such as members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)
The newspaper The Suffragette (cover of 16 July 1915 issue shown above), was the ‘official organ’ of the WSPU and was edited by Christabel Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, who was one of the first two suffragettes to be imprisoned in October 1905. We hold several of the issues of The Suffragette published in 1915 which are contained within the archives of the Women’s Engineering Society held in the IET Archives.
Impact of World War I on the Suffragette Movement
At the start of World War I, the suffragette movement in Britain moved away from suffrage activities and focussed its attentions on the war effort, and as a result, hunger strikes by suffragettes largely stopped. In August 1914, the British Government released all prisoners who had been incarcerated for suffrage activities on an amnesty. It has been suggested that the suffragettes’ focus on war work turned public opinion in favour of their partial enfranchisement in 1918.
The issues of The Suffragette that we hold from 1915 illustrate this focus on the war effort and also show the newspapers’ continuing calls for the extension of the employment of women. For example the 16 July 1915 issue included an article under the title ‘women munition makers’ which said the following;
“As to the special and most urgent task of munition-making, the need is for munition schools for women and munition factories in which they can be employed. We are aware that large numbers of men who are skilled engineers have lately been enrolled, but for those men to do work which women can be trained to do would be a criminal waste of national energy. They should do work which cannot be done except after long training. Work such as women are already doing in France and to some extent in this country ought not to be done by men.”
Continuing Calls for the Training and Employment of Women
The issue of increasing the training and employment of women was brought up again in the 17 September 1915 issue of The Suffragette (cover shown above) in an article titled, ‘women should study science and engineering. Begin now!’ The article text is repeated below.
“Inadequate war material means defeat, the Munitions Minister warns us. Women have known that for a long time and have clamoured, are clamouring and will clamour until they are allowed to help in making war material.
The terrible thing is that women lack the training and experience that would enable them to set to work more or less independently. Young women of means and energy should take engineering courses at the universities. A large number of women should also apply themselves to the study of science. Without knowledge women are helpless – with knowledge there is nothing they cannot do. It is late to begin now the war is a year old, but the future is long and the need of the service of highly educated and trained women is great. Besides, the present state of ignorance and dependence is humiliating especially in war time.”
A subsequent article in the 8 October 1915 issue (cover shown above) discusses the skills of women in the workplace and gives a commentary on an article in The Daily Telegraph. Under the title, ‘women can use heavy machine tools’, the following story appeared.
“Then why it may be asked, continues The Telegraph’s engineering correspondent, have women not been employed on this work in the past [shell making] to a greater extent than has been the case? The answer to this question simply is that engineering employers have been dubious about employing women for work that they considered heavy, as well as extraordinarily responsible. The writer of the article then shows that not only fuse making and light electrical work, but the use of heavy machine tools is quite within woman’s capacity.
The experiment, he says, has been tried in a comparatively small way in one or two factories in the Midlands and on the Clyde and in every case the results have far surpassed all expectations. The women did their work with an exactitude, thoroughness and conscientiousness that could not be excelled. They used their brains as well as their muscles in carrying out the work in the machine shop and were not slow at suggesting detail improvements which might still further increase the output.
In fact, in one factory, where the workers consisted entirely of women, the output from the machines has far surpassed that for which they were designed, and one result of this has been that the owners of the factory have been able to achieve a larger output than they had expected.”
Change of Title
This issue of 8 October 1915 (number 122, volume 4) was the last issue under the title The Suffragette, and the following week, the title was changed to Britannia (number 1, volume 5) – cover shown below.
Celebration of the Suffragettes Today
There is already a memorial dedicated to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, which stands at the entrance to Victoria Tower Gardens at the southwest corner of the Palace of Westminster, but recently several new Pankhurst statues have been announced. A statue of Sylvia Pankhurst is to be installed in Clerkenwell Green at the end of 2018 to mark 100 years since women won the right to vote. There will also be a new Emmeline Pankhurst statue, produced by Hazel Reeves, that will stand in Manchester’s St Peter’s Square and which is due to be unveiled on 8 March 2019 to mark International Women’s Day.
For those interested in finding other newspaper sources referring to the suffragettes, the British Library has a ‘suffragettes in the press’ web page (suffragettes) and it also has a web page about the campaign for women’s suffrage with links to multiple resources (campaign). The BBC also has a series of web pages which discuss the history of the women’s suffrage movement (suffrage).