On an autumn evening in 1905, on the eve of a general election, members of the British Liberal government were addressing a large gathering at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, a city in northwest England.
As the party’s principal speaker Sir Edward Grey invited questions from the audience, two young women spoke up in turn.
“Will the Liberal Government, if returned to power, give votes to women?”
The question was met initially with shocked silence.
But Christabel Pankhurst, daughter of famed suffragist Emmeline and co-founder of the Women’s Political and Social Union (WPSU), and Annie Kenny, a working-class suffragette and co-founder of the WPSU’s first branch in London, were undeterred.
Again, they called out the question.
This time, while the speaker continued to ignore them, the hall erupted into angry cries and scoffing.
The women were then seized by male stewards, dragged from the room and flung out onto the street.
Gathering themselves together, Pankhurst and Kenny began addressing the crowd outside who had witnessed their expulsion. But within minutes, they were arrested on charges of obstruction.
The First Suffragettes in Prison
The next day, the two suffragettes were sentenced to pay a fine or spend a week in Strangeways Prison. They opted for prison.
The case caused a media sensation in Edwardian Britain. And it was a turning point for the WPSU.
While it would be the first of many staged political obstructions, it was also the first moment it became apparent that women were willing to go to prison in their fight to obtain the vote.
And it was specifically the activities of the WPSU that led the way to the prison gates.
The WPSU, as established by Christabel and her mother, was committed totally to the idea of securing female enfranchisement by “deeds, not words.”
No other political agenda nor women members affiliated to political parties were allowed.
The organization was, as Emmeline Pankhurst wrote in her biography, “a suffrage army in the field.” And a volunteer one at that. “Indeed,” Pankhurst stated. “we don’t want anybody to remain in it who does not ardently believe in the policy of the army.”
However, the “policy of the army” was one of aggressive action against the government and state.
And as committed as the WPSU members must have been, it’s also likely that the prospect of prison that such action invited was still terrifying.
Holloway: Home to the Suffragettes
From 1906 onwards, the suffragettes were sent to Holloway Prison, a large imposing castellated structure with battlements and towers. Inside, the walls of the single cells were damp and foul-smelling, the floors bare, containing only a single sleeping mat, a stool, and a toilet bucket.
The treatment of the suffragettes was often horrific. Several women were sent to solitary confinement, others forced to wear handcuffs and straitjackets. And the forcible feeding during hunger-striking caused irreparable physical, mental, and emotional damage to many.
Equally, suffragettes in Edwardian Britain, particularly those who had been to prison, were often ostracised by their families, had their children taken from them, or lost their homes, jobs, and any financial support they may have received.
So why did they do it? Why were they so ready to go to prison?
Suffragettes in Prison Publicized their Cause
In the first place, the march to prison publicized their cause. Many of the women (though not all) who ended up behind bars were from the middle and upper classes. In an era when the conventional expectation was that women should be courteous and compliant, the idea of “respectable ladies” being imprisoned was quite incredible.
The media had generally been indifferent to the fight for female enfranchisement. But following Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenny’s first jail sentence, it went into overdrive around suffrage events.
For sure, some of the stories were sensationalized. And they regularly reported shock and a sneering bewilderment at the women’s behavior.
But as the months and years progressed along with the militant actions of the women and the refusal of the government to even consider female suffrage, many of the newspapers printed thoughtful and supportive articles.
Equally as important, the media reports of just how far these “unladylike” women would go to get their vote encouraged hundreds of thousands of more women to sign up for WPSU membership.
(Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst on their way to a demonstration, dressed as they were clothed when they were in prison.)
Prison Reflected the Unfair Treatment of Women
Emmeline Pankhurst and the thousands of other members of the WPSU were denied legitimate means of contact with their public representatives along with their legal right to protest.
For questioning the government on that fateful night in Manchester, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenny were ousted from the building and received prison time to boot. (Though Pankhurst had earlier determined: “We will get our question answered, or sleep in a prison tonight.”)
Of course, Pankhurst and Kenny were just the first of the suffragettes to be treated so unjustly. Many others followed.
Lawful deputations of women descending on the halls of parliament were pushed back and roughly handled by policemen with batons and horses. Those who attempted to protect themselves were duly arrested and given jail-time.
Still, the government refused to acknowledge the women’s democratic right to campaign.
They were refused entry to the public galleries on many occasions and in 1912 the Liberal Party banned suffragettes from attending their meetings. This ban would later extend to the suffragette’s own gatherings in public spaces.
The astonishing unfairness with which these female citizens were treated by those who held public office may not have been considered as such by the ordinary individual in turn-of-the-century England. After all, the idea of women having the vote was still a controversial topic at this time.
But the notion of throwing women in prison for exercising their right to challenge the government, or even for committing unlawful acts of vandalism such as wilfully breaking a window, was not dismissed so lightly.
To many of the general public, this was a step too far. As more women were hustled from courtrooms to Holloway cells, public sentiment began to sway in favor of what these militants represented.
The physical walls of the women’s prison became symbolic of the intangible chains around “free” women without the vote.
By the second decade of the 20th century, women and supporters were rallying in their tens-of-thousands in the name of the suffrage movement.
Prison Followed Tradition
Much has been written about the violence committed by the Pankhursts and the WPSU, whether it concerns stones smashing through windows or arson campaigns in traditionally male sporting grounds.
But the suffragettes were not the first to walk the path from activism to prison. And though their dedication to vandalism came late in their battle to win the vote, they often spoke of these acts as being a political weapon long used and respected by men.
This tradition was also acknowledged by the government of the day, with the Liberal Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman even encouraging the female challengers to practice patience and ‘keep on pestering’ by whatever means possible.
Of course, the difference was that many times, political violence committed by men did not see them thrown into the slammer. Rather it was typically the very act that forced the government’s hand.
So while prison was not always the goal for the suffragettes, the extreme “deeds, not words” they felt would compel the government to act, inevitably led there.
The Suffragettes Highlighted the Plight of Ordinary Women Prisoners
Most of the suffragettes who went to Holloway belonged to the WPSU. But members of other suffrage organizations such as the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the United Suffragists (US) and the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELF), were also incarcerated.
As they witnessed the way ordinary women prisoners were held and treated, they became determined to mobilize changes here too.
As Caitlin Davies, historian and author of Bad Girls has written, the British public had no way of learning what went on inside Holloway. It was only when the imprisoned suffragettes upon release, starting speaking out to journalists and at public meetings, that the conditions of the prison and the plight of women convicts became known.
Prison for Suffragettes was Prison for All Women
The WPSU were steadfast in their rule that only female suffrage and nothing else should take up the time and energy of its members. But the extraordinary brutality with which hunger-striking suffragettes were held down and forcibly fed, was inextricably linked to the overall treatment of all women prisoners in Holloway and elsewhere.
In addition, Emmeline Pankhurst had been a Poor Law Guardian and had worked in the working-class quarter of Manchester as a registrar of births and deaths, prior to establishing the WPSU.
She had seen first-hand the devastating effects of poverty and laws for men that prevented women from being able to support themselves and their children, and which often led them to the workhouse or a prison cell.
The conditions that all women suffered and which often forced them into prison shackles, regardless of their reason for being there, was one of the motives for setting up the WPSU in the first place.
Prison then, for the suffragettes of the early twentieth century, came to represent much more than the place those in power hoped to shut them up and teach them a lesson. It was a microcosm of all that they were fighting for, and a symbol of just how far each side would go – the suffragettes and the government of the day - to get what they wanted.