Was violent feminism in pre-1914 Britain as seen in the Suffragettes' movement "right" or "wrong"? Which means were successful and why?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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It can certainly be said that the violence committed prior to 1914 by the British women's feminist movement called the Suffragettes can be called "wrong" in so much as it failed to accomplish their goals and even caused more harm than good. England's feminist movement actually began peacefully. The movement was first initiated by Millicent Fawcett who founded the National Union of Women's Suffrage. Fawcett believed in only "peaceful protest," thinking that "any violence or trouble would persuade men that women could not be trusted to have the right to vote" ("The Suffragettes"). The later actions of the Suffragettes did indeed prove her to be correct.

In rebellion against the slow progression of Fawcett's movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, along with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, founded the Women's Social and Political Union whose members became known as Suffragettes. The Pankhursts first catalyzed the use of violence by Suffragettes when Christabel and Annie Kenney "interrupted a political meeting in Manchester" to ask the liberal politicians Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey what their stance was on women's rights to vote. When they didn't receive an answer, they raised a banner and began shouting at the two politicians. The women were thrown out of the meeting and arrested. As the Suffragettes saw it, they had been treated violently themselves by being physically thrown out of a meeting and decided to repay violence with violence. Such violent acts soon included burning down churches, vandalizing every store window along Oxford Street, chaining themselves to Buckingham Palace, and shouting abuses at Parliament from boats in the Thames. More importantly, their violence did exactly what Fawcett said it would--it made men disrespect them even more. Their violence led to prison terms, and when the women in prison went on hunger strikes in hopes of martyring the movement, England enacted the Cat and Mouse Act, making it legal not to force-feed the women, but to instead release them when they  were too weak to fight any more, resulting in the death of many Suffragettes; however, the government took no responsibility for their deaths so long as they died outside of prison ("The Suffragettes"). Hence, all in all, the Suffragette's violence campaign accomplished absolutely nothing beyond more suffering and more negative opinions of women thereby making their violence "wrong."

Instead, the only thing that did advance the women's suffragist movement was the fateful occurrence of World War I. When World War I began, women set aside their violence campaign to support the country in the war efforts. More importantly, as more and more men were sent off to the front lines, women were needed to fill the men's job positions in "fields and armament factories" (Casciani, "The History of the Suffragettes"). However, while this was an achievement, it was a small achievement because men began ousting the women from their positions once they returned home as disabled vets or even once the war was fully over. Regardless, the small achievement in gaining women's rights to work led to the enactment of the Representation of the People Act in 1918, which allowed women to vote who were over the age of 30, and progress continued from there. Hence, violence proved not to work in gaining equal status and the right to vote; instead, being civilized and working in civilized positions proved to help them succeed much more in their cause.

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