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Rise Up Women!

The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes


Diane Atkinson


London: Bloomsbury, 2018

Hardcover. xvi+672 p. ISBN 978-1408844045. £30


Reviewed by Krista Cowman

University of Lincoln





On 10th October 1903, a small group of women gathered in the comfortable front room of 62 Nelson Street, a modest terraced house in Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester. Members of the socialist Independent Labour Party, they had come together at the home of Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst who wished to found a new organisation to push the party to deliver on its commitment to giving parliamentary votes to women. They called their new group the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). From this unprepossessing beginning, the WSPU grew rapidly to become the largest political organisation of women in Britain with impressive, large headquarters in central London and a network of branches that reached from Aberdeen to Cornwall and from Liverpool to Hull. Its members were known as suffragettes – a term originally coined as an insult by the Daily Mail but keenly adopted by women who distinguished themselves from the other large group of franchise campaigners, the suffragists, by their commitment to direct action. ‘Deeds not words’ was the WSPU’s motto and suffragettes carried out innumerable deeds from marching to arson attacks in pursuit of their demand for the vote.

How the WSPU made the shift from being a small group of Manchester women to running a national political campaign capable of bringing hundreds of thousands of women onto London’s streets for its main demonstrations is a story that has received surprisingly little historical attention up to now. Two excellent but very different accounts of the campaign were published in the 1970s. Andrew Rosen’s Rise Up Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974) used the lens of traditional political history to assess the WSPU while Antonia Raeburn’s The Militant Suffragettes (Michael Joseph, 1973) was more concerned with the experiences of the surviving participants she managed to speak with. Both books are long out of print, and difficult to access outside of academic libraries. In their wake have come a number of valuable studies focussing on either key individuals in the campaign on particular aspects or episodes such as the work of paid organisers or the 1911 Census boycott, or on the work of the WSPU in specific geographical locations.*

Published to coincide with the centenary of the Representation of the People Act that gave votes to some British women in February 1918, Diane Atkinson’s fascinating and accessible book thus breaks with recent historiographical tradition to tell the story of the entire WSPU’s campaign. Unlike Rosen’s book, however, this is not an organisational history, but an account crafted from the many voices of the women whose actions made up the militant suffrage movement.  One of the advantages of including a range of voices is that it emphasises the diversity of actions that were classed as militant by Edwardian society. Much of this saw women acting inappropriately. When Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney became the first suffragettes to be arrested in October 1905 for persistently asking, at a public political meeting, whether a Liberal government would be prepared to give votes to women, their actions and subsequent imprisonment set the Edwardian press on fire. Yet while many column inches were devoted to the young women’s behaviour, described by the magistrate as more akin to ‘that of women from the slums’, there was little discussion of how they had been manhandled and thrown out of the hall by stewards furious at their interruption. Similar reports followed the numerous militant demonstrations organised by the WSPU in London between 1907 and 1911. Known as ‘Women’s Parliaments’ they would end in small groups of women attempting to carry resolutions or petitions to Westminster (implicitly now seen as the ‘Man’s Parliament) where they would be brutally beaten back by police. Atkinson’s book goes behind the headline complaints of riotous women to tell another story of the high price of suffragette activism; Edith Rigby, a quiet doctor’s wife from Preston who had her ‘wrists sprained and her thumbs bent back’; women from Lancashire and Yorkshire ‘trampled under horses’ hooves’; Mary Blathwayt, a timid bespectacled young women from Bath who is ‘hit with potatoes, stones, turf and dust’ for helping at one of the WSPUs numerous public meetings; schoolgirl Winifred Starbuck who led her classmates in a ‘term of disorder’ when one of their teachers was dismissed for her suffragette activities.

In their short biography of the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison published to mark the seventieth anniversary of her death, Liz Stanley and Ann Morley were the first scholars to describe suffragette violence as ‘reactive’, arguing that the WSPU’s tactics increased in violence in response to the violence meted out to its members. The multi-voiced focus of Atkinson’s text reminds us of how widespread this violence was, even when the only militancy in view was that of a woman daring to speak in public. Hence it does not appear surprising when women who were seeking arrest as a considered political tactic started to throw stones through windows to speed up the process of being taken into custody. More astonishing is the determined way that suffragettes continued their resistance once in prison. Marion Wallace Dunlop first adopted the hunger strike after her arrest in July 1909 in support of suffragettes’ demands to be afforded the privileges of first division prisoners. Government was initially uncertain of how to respond, fearing, in the words of Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone, that it would offer ‘a new and picturesque grievance’ that suffragettes would turn to their advantage in the media. Attitudes hardened as the numbers of hunger-strikers grew, and in September forcible feeding of suffragettes was given official approval. The practice continued in the face of strong medical opposition, and Atkinson does not spare readers the graphic details of its effects on prisoners such as William Ball, a male sympathiser who suffered a complete mental breakdown after being fed through a nasal tube twice daily for five and a half weeks; Lilian Lenton who was discharged with pneumonia and pleurisy after intubation passed liquid food directly into her lungs by mistake and Kitty Marion, reported to have been fed 232 times in her three months in Holloway.

Atkinson’s work makes full use of the wealth of the recently digitised materials that have proved indispensible to family and suffrage historians alike. In previous decades, suffrage historians had no alternative to searching microfilmed census returns by hand, making information virtually inaccessible when no addresses were available. Today they can be searched by name online, putting much more detail onto the names of arrested suffragettes or branch activists gleaned from the suffrage press. This approach strengthens the argument of recent research for the need to recognise a greater eclecticism in the composition of suffrage campaigns. The most obvious lens for viewing this is class. Middle-class women are part of this book alongside the titled Lady Constance Lytton, but so too are innumerable servants and seamstresses, reminding readers that the campaign drew in women from all ranks of life.  More unusual is the use of divorce records, only recently made publicly available so not previously used in suffrage history. In this way we learn some of the bitter experiences in suffragettes’ own histories that made them personally aware of the gendered imbalance of Edwardian society. Maggie Symons, a rare female divorce petitioner divorced her husband after his adultery with a music teacher while Caprina Fahey, a masseuse, divorced the man who abandoned her with a young baby. Kitty Marshall, who was in a happy and supportive marriage during her suffragette years, had earlier divorced her first husband after he infected her with venereal disease. Divorce before the First World War was a costly and scandalous business, especially for women, and suffragettes who had been through the process would have had first hand knowledge of the difficulties inherent in navigating an entirely male system which drove them to fight for political equality. Digitised newspapers are another recently available source which are used to great effect here. The small but fascinating details of features such as the Daily Mirror’s piece on ‘Suffragists’ (sic) Dress’ during a high-profile trial of WSPU leaders in 1912 remind us of the fascination the movement held for its contemporary audience and of its prominence in pre-First World War political life.

The numerous voices in the book and its wonderful ‘bottom-up’ approach mean that Rise Up Women! is probably not the best starting point for anyone seeking a quick chronology of the campaign. But for anyone interested in wider questions of social history such as who the suffragettes were, what they did, why they did it and how this impacted on them, it will surely be essential reading. The final chapter offers some tantalising glimpses into the ‘afterlives’ of activists, revealing these to be every bit as diverse as those who took part in the campaign. Many remained active in different campaigns on the left and right of politics as well as in a variety of pressure groups. The suffrage campaign and the first victory of partial enfranchisement was very much a first step for many who witnessed its passing.


* Biographies include Phoebe Hesketh, My Aunt Edith (Peter Davies, 1966); Lyndsey Jenkins, Lady Constance Lytton, Aristocrat, Suffragette, Martyr (Biteback Publishing, 2015); June Purvis, Emmeline Pankhurst (Routledge, 2002) and Christabel Pankhurst (Routledge, 2018); Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts (Penguin, 2002); Sandra Stanley Holton Suffrage Days: Stories from the Women’s Suffrage Movement (Routledge, 1996).

Work that concentrates on aspects or episodes of the campaign includes Krista Cowman, Women of the Right Spirit : Paid Organisers in the WSPU (Manchester University Press, 2007); Jill Liddington Vanishing for the Vote (Manchester University Press, 2014); Lisa Tickner, The Spectacle of Women (Chatto & Windus, 1987).

There is now a vast number of geographical studies including Joy Bounds, A Song of their Own : The Fight for Women’s Suffrage in Ipswich (History Press, 2014); Lucienne Boyce, The Bristol Suffragettes (Silver Wood Books, 2013); Colin Cartwright, Burning for the Vote : The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Central Buckinghamshire (University of Buckingham Press, 2013); Krista Cowman, Mrs Brown is a Man and a Brother! Women in Merseyside’s Political Organisations (Liverpool University Press, 2004) and The Militant Suffrage Movement in York (Borthwick Press, 2007); Iris Dove, Yours in the Cause : Suffragettes in Lewisham, Greenwich and Woolwich (Lewisham Library Services, 1988); Leah Leneman, A Guid Cause : The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland (Aberdeen University Press, 1991) Laura Probert, A Study of Women’s Suffrage in Kent (Millicent Press, 2008); Richard Whitmore, Suffragettes in the Heart of England (privately published, 2018).



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