Pankhurst: The white feather betrayal of history

This article and accompanying video were produced in support of a protest taking place in London in November 2012. Stay tuned for an update.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n modern culture, the story we are given is a simple one—in the past men had the vote and women did not. For example, on the topic of “Women and the Vote”, the UK Parliament website states simply and without qualification[1], “Before 1918 only men were allowed to vote in parliamentary elections.” Indeed, the picture we are generally presented with (such as this poignant example from the BBC) is a very distorted one. According to this popular narrative, the suffragettes led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst fought a noble campaign for female suffrage and, after a valiant struggle, were ultimately successful. And curiously, the campaign of intimidation, violence and arson they waged largely goes without criticism.

The reality was much more complex, however, and many important historical perspectives have been airbrushed from of our collective memory. For example, the simple fact was that at the start of the 20th century, most men also did not have the right to a parliamentary vote. But this is rarely mentioned.

Only wealthy property owning men could vote in parliamentary elections, and prior to the 1832 Reform Act, only 2% of men in the UK had such a vote[2]. As of 1903, this had risen to one third[3], but the fact remains that, whilst Mrs. Pankhurst and her supporters were fighting for their right to vote, the overwhelming majority of young men sent to the trenches in 1914 lacked any political franchise. Unlike the suffragettes, however, they were fighting for the their lives rather than the vote.

The suffragettes, fronted by the organisation founded by Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughters—the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)—weren’t the only group of the period campaigning for suffrage. While other groups supported universal adult suffrage, such as the Labour movement, the suffragettes advocated a separate bill for wealthy women with property, i.e. women such as themselves. It is somewhat perverse, therefore, that the suffragettes have become synonymous with universal suffrage when this simply wasn’t the case at all.

The following extract from the Socialist Standard[4] in 1908 makes clear its opposition to their proposals.

“Men vote at present under the £10 franchise. The suffrage is thus upon a property basis with plural voting for the wealthy. Therefore, according to the proposals of the women Suffragists, only those women having the necessary property qualifications are to be allowed to vote. This excludes not only all those single working women unable to qualify because of their poverty, but it also bars practically the whole of the married women of the working class who have no property qualifications apart from their husbands’. Further, it increases enormously the voting power of the well-to-do, since the head of the wealthy household can always impart the necessary qualifications to all the women of his house, while the working-man, through his poverty, is entirely unable to do so.”

John Bruce Glasier, chairmen of the Independent Labour Party, wrote in his diary after a meeting with Emmeline and her daughter Christabel that they were guilty of “miserable individualist sexism”, and that he could not support their organisation.

Throughout the first decade of the 20th century, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst waged a campaign of intimidation, violence, vandalism and arson. Shortly after the outbreak of war, however, they agreed to cease their militant activities and the WSPU was promptly awarded a grant from the government[5] for the sum of £2,000 (not an insignificant amount back then).

Emmeline Pankhurst also declared her support for the war effort and began to demand military conscription for men (which was not introduced until 1916).

Furthermore, the suffragettes were among those who handed white feathers to males not in uniform, including teenage boys as young as 16. Sylvia Pankhurst wrote in her chronicle, “The Suffragette Movement”…

“Mrs. Pankhurst toured the country, making recruiting speeches. Her supporters handed the white feather to every young man they encountered wearing civilian dress, and bobbed up at Hyde Park meetings with placards: “Intern Them All.”

Being both socialized to serve their country and subject to such stigmatizing female coercion, many males felt no option but to enlist in a war that would killed millions of them. A poignant example of this is given by the following incidental comment found in a book of the period about the lice and fleas that afflicted soldiers living in squalid trenches[6].

…the half-hysterical ladies who offer white feathers to youths whose hearts are breaking because medical officer after medical officer has refused them the desire of their young hearts to serve their country.

While her suffragettes carried placards demanding the “right to serve” by undertaking war work, Mrs. Pankhurst proclaimed that “The least that men can do is that every man of fighting age should prepare himself to redeem his word to women…”

Some 8.7 million British men redeemed themselves in the trenches of the First World War. For them, it wasn’t a right, but an obligation. Some 704,803 men from the UK were killed and a further 2.2 million wounded[7], with many losing limbs. The overwhelming majority of these never had the vote, but they were expected to lay down their lives nevertheless. There are few references to the average age of the British soldier and, in any case, many teenage boys lied about their age in order to enlist. However, of those executed for failing their obligation to redeem their word, as Mrs. Pankhurst put it, the average age was in the mid-twenties8.

Contrary to popular perception today, the suffragettes did not have widespread support at the time, especially given their proposal for limited female suffrage and advocacy of violence. Nevertheless, Emmeline Pankhurst wielded considerable influence amongst society’s political elite and from 1914 onward the government, being primarily concerned with the war effort, considered that the WSPU would be useful in helping to breakdown union resistance to women filling the roles left by men in the workplace.

It certainly cannot be denied that, in times past, society placed gender specific burdens and expectations on men and women. Many argue that given the brutal hardship of life, far from being detrimental to women, such distinctions were largely beneficial. However, with the advent of industrialisation throughout the 19th century, society was changing rapidly and things also had to change as far as society’s roles for men and women were concerned. But did the WSPU campaign of intimidation and destruction hasten female suffrage, or delay it? Speaking in 1913, Prime Minister Lloyd George, exclaimed…

Haven’t the Suffragettes the sense to see that the very worst way of campaigning for the vote is to try and intimidate a man into giving them what he would gladly give otherwise?

At the conclusion of the war, women over the age of 30 became eligible to vote in parliamentary elections. Rightly or wrongly, it was argued at the time that the age restriction was necessary to avoid a gender imbalance in voting given that so many young males had lost their lives. By 1928, however, universal suffrage for both men and women over the age of 21 became a reality.

Today, next to the Houses of Parliament in London, stands a bronze statue of Emmeline Pankhurst. Located at the right-hand side of the half-rotunda extending from the base, there’s a dedication to her daughter Christabel. In fact, Emmeline had two other daughters—Sylvia and Adela, both of whom were equally instrumental in the formation the WSPU. However, you will find no reference to either Sylvia or Adela at Emmeline’s statue, and on gaining an insight to the Pankhurst family life, it’s hard not to feel a degree of compassion for them…

In real life, Emmeline was an abusively controlling mother and her children were born into an emotionally toxic environment. Sylvia wrote in her chronicle of Adela…

The desire was a reaction from the knowledge that though a brilliant speaker and one of the hardest workers in the movement, she was often regarded with more disapproval than approbation by Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel, and was the subject of a sharper criticism than the other organisers had to face.

Clearly, Christabel was Emmeline’s protégée and nothing Sylvia or Adela could do would have ever met with their mother’s approval. After their father’s death in 1898, Adela gave a similarly desolate account of family life…

Mother was now involved in public work. We had no friends, we played no games and went nowhere… she took no interest in our affairs. Christabel seemed at a distance, Sylvia hopelessly depressed… Public life was a relief to her…

Emmeline and Christabel were enthusiastic advocates of violence but, as female members of the upper-class, they were relatively immune from harm themselves. With the increasing and widespread use of arson by the WSPU, both Sylvia and Adela distanced themselves from such tactics and rejected their mother’s politics, eventually becoming estranged from her. Fearing Adela would criticise the WSPU in public, Emmeline had Adela sent to Australia in 1914 on a one-way ticket. She never saw her again.

The forced feeding of suffragettes in prison is widely held up today as an example of their bravery. Although Emmeline and Christabel urged others to do so, neither of them were willing to submit to it themselves (only Sylvia had the courage to do so). Tended by servants and chauffeured to rallies in a motorcar, Emmeline Pankhurst’s life was one of privilege—she never had to face the horrors which she readily advocated for others. It is a travesty that this women is so idolised by our modern political establishment, and her ideology so misrepresented in our culture.

This article first appeared on Stayed tuned for an update about the protest!


Male narration by “Trauma Fried Brains”. Female narration provided by “Girl Writes What” (used with permission).


1. UK Parliament website, Women and the Vote. Link:
2. Steve Moxon, The Woman Racket (“True Sufferers for Suffrage”).
3. Spartacus Educational, Emmeline Pankhurst. Link:
4. Socialist Standard, No. 46 June 1908 (“Suffragette Humbug
“). Link:
5. Spartacus Educational, Emmeline Pankhurst. Link:
6. The Minor Horrors of War, 1915. Link:
7. Chris Baker. The Long, Long Trail, The British Army in the Great War. Link:
8. Wikipedia, The British Army during World War I. Link:

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