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Start of the suffragette movement

The Pankhurst family is closely associated with the militant campaign for the vote. In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst and others, frustrated by the lack of progress, decided more direct action was required and founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) with the motto 'Deeds not words'.

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) became involved in women's suffrage in 1880. She was a founding member of the WSPU in 1903 and led it until it disbanded in 1918. Under her leadership the WSPU was a highly organised group and like other members she was imprisoned and went on hunger strike protests.

Women only

Membership of the WSPU was limited to women only. Emmeline Pankhurst's daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, were committed members.

WPSU members were determined to obtain the right to vote for women by any means and campaigned tirelessly and sometimes violently to achieve this aim.  They felt that the impact of peaceful tactics seemed to have been exhausted and a different, more radical approach was needed.

Militant action

Initially the WSPU's tactics were to cause disruption and some civil disobedience, such as the 'rush' on Parliament in October 1908 when it encouraged the public to join them in an attempt to invade the House of Commons. 60,000 people gathered but the police cordon held fast.

However the lack of Government action led the WSPU to undertake more violent acts, including attacks on property and law-breaking, which resulted in imprisonment and hunger strikes.

These tactics attracted a great deal of attention to the campaign for votes for women.

Legal and constitutional support

Not all those campaigning for women's right to vote favoured militant action.

Moderate women's organisations, such as the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett, were instrumental in building up the legal and constitutional support for the enfranchisement of women, but their contributions were often overshadowed by the high profile actions of the suffragettes.


You can access biographies of

Emmeline Pankhurst
Christabel Pankhurst
Sylvia Pankhurst
Adela Pankhurst
Teresa Billington-Greig
Charlotte Despard
Millicent Fawcett

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.

Also within Living Heritage