6.3 Suffragettes: government attempts to deal with the protest
Protest, law and order in the twentieth century
Suffragettes 1903–14 (Political protest)
6.3 Suffragettes: government attempts
to deal with the protest
By the end of this topic you will be able to:
find out about the increased militancy
adopted by the WSPU
discover how the government tried to cope
with the protests.
The government found it very difﬁcult to deal with the
suffragette protest without upsetting public opinion
and encouraging more support for the suffragettes.
The Liberal government didn’t have one clear view
on votes for women. Some of its members supported
the cause, others opposed it or weren’t decided.
Several times, the government seemed about to
introduce a reform to extend the vote to some
women but, each time, it was withdrawn or altered.
Shutting out peaceful protest
Once the WSPU became more militant, however,
the government decided to take a hard line. When
women disrupted political meetings by heckling or
other forms of peaceful protest, the government
responded by banning all women from Liberal
meetings. This closed off an important avenue of
Use of prisons
WSPU militants started a new tactic of breaking
windows and refusing to pay ﬁnes so they could
be sent to prison. The government refused to treat
them as political prisoners and, instead, they were
treated as ordinary criminals. This included not
being allowed to speak and having to empty their
chamber pots each morning. The government
wanted to frighten and humiliate suffragettes so
that they would stop this tactic. They did not want
to encourage other groups looking for reform to try
the same tactics or to recognise suffragette tactics
as political protest.
Hunger strikes and force-feeding
When the government refused to treat them as
political prisoners, some suffragettes went on
hunger strike. This tactic put a lot of pressure on the
government. If a woman starved herself to death in
prison for a political cause, there would have been a
storm of publicity and criticism of the government’s
handling of the issue. It would have created a martyr,
increasing support for the suffragette cause.
So, the prison authorities began to force-feed these
hunger-striking suffragettes. This meant pushing
a tube down the throat and feeding watery gruel
into the stomach. When a suffragette resisted, the
prison warders sometimes used wedges to force
their mouth open, or pushed a tube down through
their nose. Many protesters vomited as soon as
the tube was withdrawn. Occasionally, the gruel
went into the lungs rather than the stomach.
This caused serious health problems. Many WSPU
prisoners suffered health problems as a result of
their treatment in prison.
Source A: A WSPU poster of 1909, protesting against the
force-feeding of suffragette prisoners on hunger strike.
Source B: A
with a policeman
on ‘Black Friday’,
18 November 1910.
However, once details of the methods used had
been publicised by the WSPU – for instance, in their
paper Votes for Women – there was a public outcry.
The suffragettes had succeeded in making the
prison protests political.
Study Source A.
1 What image or impression was the poster trying
to get across about force-feeding?
2 How did the designer of the poster try to get that
Attempts at compromise
All protests involve a balance of power. If
authorities are powerful enough to squash a
protest, it gets nowhere. If protesters manage to get
media opinion on their side, or if a government is
afraid to use all the power it has against the protest
because of what public reaction would be, then
protesters can sometimes force change.
In 1910 Asquith agreed to work with the WSPU
and the NUWSS to produce a Conciliation Bill,
which would extend the right to vote to women.
The WSPU agreed to a political truce and called
off its violent protests. The two sides had reached
a compromise and it seemed that progress was
being made. However, the Liberals thought that
women would vote for the Conservatives and the
Conciliation Bill was abandoned.
3 Using the sources on these pages, consider
whether you would you agree that the
government’s attitudes to the suffragettes’
protests only helped the suffragette campaign.
by police on women. Twenty-nine women later
complained of indecent assault by the police.
The result was that hundreds of suffragettes were
now prepared to break windows and go to prison.
Emmeline Pankhurst called the WSPU an ‘army’
and the suffragettes ‘warriors’. From 1911, the
suffragettes began a massive window-breaking
campaign, along with the destruction of golﬁng
greens – all designed to generate publicity.
The ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act
In 1913, the government passed the so-called ‘Cat
and Mouse’ Act, which allowed the authorities
to release a hunger-striker before they became
seriously ill, and then re-arrest them once they
had regained strength, in order to complete their
sentence. This showed the government using its
power to make laws to foil the protest and blunt
the hunger-strike weapon.
• The government gave signals that reform was possible,
The police and ‘Black Friday’
The suffragettes were furious and, on Friday,
18 November 1910, over 300 went to parliament to
protest. The government had instructed the police
to frighten and humiliate the suffragettes so that
they would stop their protests. There were many
accusations of violent and even sexual assault
but did nothing, infuriating suffrage groups.
• The government used the police and prison authorities
against militant suffragettes who simply intensified
• Suffragette publicity meant a lot of media attention,
and a lot of pressure on the government.