Women's Social and Political Union

From Academic Kids

The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was the leading organisation campaigning for women's suffrage in the United Kingdom. It was the first group whose members were known as "suffragettes".

The WSPU was founded in Manchester on October 10, 1903 by six women, including Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, who soon became the leader. They had split from the non-militant National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, disappointed at the lack of success its tactics of persuading politicians through meetings had found.

The founders decided to form a women-only organisation, which would campaign for social reforms, largely in conjunction with the Independent Labour Party. They would also campaign for an extension of women's suffrage, believing that this was central to sexual equality. To illustrate their more militant stance, they adopted the slogan "Deeds not Words".

In 1905, the group convinced the member of Parliament Bamford Slack to introduce a women's suffrage bill they had drawn up. The bill was ultimately talked out, but the publicity launched the rapid growth of the group.

The disappointment of the failure of the bill led the WSPU to change tactics. They focused on attacking whichever political party was in government, and refused to support and legislation which did not include their demands for enfranchisement, thus dropping their commitment to other immediate social reforms.

In 1906, the group began a series of demonstrations and lobbies of Parliament, leading to the arrest and imprisonment of growing numbers of their members. Commenting on the phenomenon, Charles Hands writing in the Daily Mail for the first time described the WSPU's members as suffragettes. In 1907, the group launched a monthly journal, Votes for Women, and held the first of several conferences, called "Women's Parliaments".

The Labour Party then voted to support universal suffrage. This split them from the WSPU, which had always accepted the property qualifications which already applied to women's participation in local elections. Under Christabel's direction, the group began to more explicitly organise exclusively among middle class women, and stated their opposition to all political parties. This led a small group of prominent members to leave and form the Women's Freedom League.

In 1908 the WSPU adopted purple, white and green as its official colours, and held a 500,000-strong rally in Hyde Park. They also opened a chain of shops to raise money.

In opposition to the continuing and repeated imprisonment of many of their members, they introduced the prison hunger strike to Britain, and the authorities' policy of force feeding won the suffragettes great sympathy from the public. The Government later passed the Cat and Mouse Act in an attempt to avoid force feeding.

A new suffrage bill was introduced in 1910, but growing impatient, the WSPU launched a campaign of non-violent protest in 1912, initially smashing shop windows, but ultimately burning stately homes and bombing public buildings including Westminster Abbey. It also famously led to the death of Emily Davison as she was trampled by the King's horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

The group also suffered some splits. The editors of Votes for Women were expelled in 1912, and the group launched a new journal, The Suffragette. The East London Federation of mostly working class women and led by Sylvia Pankhurst was expelled in 1914.

Christabel moved to Paris, where she could run the organisation without fear of arrest. This also reduced the level of democracy in the group, and enabled her to declare on the outbreak of World War I that the WSPU should abandon its campaigns in favour of supporting the British government in the war. They stopped publishing The Suffragette, and in April 1915 launched a new journal, Britannia. The group faded from public attention, and was dissolved in 1917, with Christabel and Emmeline founding the Women's Party.

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