Resistance through Deeds: Militancy for Suffrage

Emmeline Pankhurst

A postcard of Emmeline Pankhurst. Upon leaving the Labour Party in 1903, Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union, whose central aim was to achieve the vote for women "on the same terms as men," property requirement and all, rather than universal suffrage.

Beyond the words of her articles and speeches, Isabel Sieveking was also active in the Suffragist Movement during her time in Hastings, a relatively unknown rural hotbed of militancy during the time. She also explicitly supported suffragette tactics. The local newspaper quotes her support of the burning of Levetleigh, a temporarily unlived in governor's house in the countryside on April 26, 1913: "the Union fully agreed with all the protests made as they only affected property and never endangered human life" (Epsom and Ewell History Explorer).  

Although the movement is largely remembered as occurring mainly in London, suffragettes such as Sieveking bring to light the national, and ultimately international, reach of the Women's Social and Political Union's platform and militant strategies. Militancy, a loose, somewhat misleading term, largely referred to self-defense against police brutality and the destruction of property, rather than the destruction of human lives. The WSPU created a secret society of about twenty-five women known as the Bodyguard to provide security against hostile crowds and violent law enforcement officials at Suffragette meetings. These "Amazons" or "Jujitsuffragettes," as the media called them, traveled to rallies across the UK to protect activists with their martial arts training and with "Indian clubs" which they hid in the bustles of their dresses until needed. However, militant suffragettes often instigated the destruction of property, throwing stones through shop windows and blowing up post office mailboxes, as well.

While Sieveking's support of these tactics might seem irreconcilable with her faith, she easily justifies them in her political writings as acts of Civil War necessary in the unfair fight against evil and moral degradation, in the form of the state-sanctioned rape and sale of women through the prostitution industry and marriage alike. In her famous "Freedom or Death" speech delivered across the Atlantic in 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst likewise introduces herself as a soldier in a revolutionary war:

“If I were a man and I said to you, '"I come from a country which professes to have representative institutions and yet denies me, a taxpayer, an inhabitant of the country, representative rights,'" you would at once understand that that human being, being a man, was justified in the adoption of revolutionary methods to get representative institutions. But since I am a woman it is necessary in the twentieth century to explain why women have adopted revolutionary methods in order to win the rights of citizenship.”

Rather than as renegade criminals and lawbreakers engaged in the wanton destruction of property, these women consider themselves, and ask to be considered, as engaged in a battle for their human and civil rights that is every bit as morally justified as any democratic revolutionary war recorded in history.  

Resistance through Deeds: Militancy for Suffrage