David Rosenberg writes:
Teresa Billington was a self-motivated rebel born in Blackburn in 1877. She ran away from her very strict Catholic working-class family. While apprenticed as a milliner, she went to night school, after long days at work, to train as a teacher.
She worked at a school in Crumpsall, Manchester, but was hauled up in front of the local education committee and faced the sack, because she had refused to teach religious instruction. One of her responses to her own strict religious upbringing was to become an agnostic. One outspoken member of the education committee was really impressed by Billington’s spirit and arranged for her to be transferred to a Jewish school where she would not herself be obliged to teach religion. That committee member was Emmeline Pankhurst.
They became firm friends and before long Billington joined Pankhurst in two political bodies that she had become involved in consecutively — the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), later known, of course, as the suffragettes.
Pankhurst founded the suffragettes in Manchester in 1903, with close family and political friends, as a new kind of suffrage movement in Britain, unafraid to take on the authorities with militant methods of civil disobedience.
When Pankhurst wanted to spread the organisation beyond Manchester and make it national, she sent Billington down to London with another fiery working-class activist, Annie Kenney.
A bit later Billington was chosen to replicate this work in Glasgow. There she met and married local socialist Frederick Greig. Her feminist principles were expressed in their pre-nuptial agreement which bound them to take each other’s surnames rather than replace her identity with his surname. They both became Billington-Greigs.
Her close political and personal friendship with Pankhurst reached breaking point, though, at a delegate conference of the WSPU in 1907.
The movement was four years old. It had established a recognised style with its purple green and white sashes and flags, had launched its own newspaper, Votes for Women, which was later renamed The Suffragette, and forced its way into the headlines of the mainstream press.
It was growing rapidly but still had no rules governing how it ran its own affairs. Billington was pleased to have been asked by Pankhurst to draw up a constitution for the WSPU that would be discussed and voted on at this delegate conference. What followed on the day profoundly shocked her.
In her own words, “The meeting where this was to be discussed was dramatically and unexpectedly turned from its intended purpose by Mrs [Emmeline] Pankhurst who … announced that there was not to be a constitution or any voting membership, but that she … had assumed dictatorship and would direct-govern … through her selected colleagues or subordinates.”
Pankhurst then physically tore up the draft document, theatrically trampled it underfoot, announcing that the WSPU “was not a society but a volunteer army enrolled by her and her officers for one purpose only and that no interference from the ranks could be contemplated.”
In notes held at the Women’s Library collection at LSE, Billington-Greig describes “stunned surprise and confusion … the meeting broke up in disorder,” with delegates wondering how they could “claim the right to vote as citizens of the country and agree to be voteless in the management of our own society.”
Seventy of the 350 delegates walked out of the meeting and many of them became founder members of a splinter group of suffragettes, the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). In sharp contrast with the WSPU this splinter group democratically elected its officers at an annual conference and made policy decisions by majority vote. It built its own independent suffragette campaigns — for example, around tax resistance — and published its own newspaper, The Vote.
The WFL had charismatic leading figures too, its most prominent being a vegetarian, anti-vivisectionist socialist-feminist called Charlotte Despard, who lived in Battersea, but Despard and her colleagues were democratically elected to their positions on a regular basis.
The WSPU, dominated by Pankhurst and the eldest of her three daughters, Christabel, is credited by history with conducting the most militant suffragette campaigns, which involved many courageous confrontations with the police, window smashing and arson attacks, but militancy should not be confused with political radicalism.
Rather than being collective actions by what had originally been a movement rooted much more among working-class women, many militant actions were carried out by well-to-do individuals who could risk imprisonment knowing there would still be many nannies to look after their children and an income still coming into their households.
Christabel Pankhurst consciously pushed working-class suffragettes to the margins, by insisting that actions be taken by “picked women.” She wrote: “No militant could go to prison merely for her own sake … It is for the sake of other people more helpless and more unhappy than themselves that the militant women are prepared to pay a heavy price.”
The WFL, however, remained a cross-class movement committed to collective action. Its critique of the WSPU was not just about the democratic deficit in its own internal workings. It was also a critique of the limited framework of their political demands.
Emmeline Pankhurst popularised the slogan “Votes for Women,” but the full sentence read “… on the same basis as men” and this was at a time when barely 60 per cent of men had the vote, on a property basis that privileged the most wealthy.
The WFL saw this “on the same basis” demand as a bare minimum and increasingly spoke of “universal suffrage." Teresa Billington-Greig argued: “The vote cannot secure of itself any single woman’s emancipation.
“It is a tool and the kind of work that can be done with it depends first upon the nature of the tool and, second, upon the capacity of the person who uses it. Large areas in which emancipation is needed lie entirely outside the scope of the vote … a slave woman with a vote will still be essentially a slave.”
The WFL articulated a wider feminist agenda — “equal rights, equal opportunities, equal reward for our work, equal justice.” These principles were also at the heart of the work of another democratically organised section of the WSPU that was forced out of the movement in early 1914, its East London Federation.
East End suffragettes were typically factory workers, laundry workers, cleaners, barmaids and shopworkers. They had a handful of middle-class members, though one who was very influential was Emmeline Pankhurst’s middle daughter Sylvia who settled in the East End in 1912.
The East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) developed their own newspaper, Woman’s Dreadnought, after being expelled from the movement and, like the WFL, they maintained close connections between suffragette vote-oriented struggles and women’s industrial struggles for better pay and equal opportunities.
The clearest example of the cleavages within the movement came as Britain went to war in 1914. The WSPU dramatically scaled down its operations to demonstrate that it was patriotically behind the war effort and the government responded by releasing suffragette prisoners. The WSPU even changed the name of its newspaper from The Suffragette to Britannia in wartime.
In contrast, the WFL and the ELFS — both led by opponents of the war — stepped up their activities, focusing especially on trying to enforce a cap on rocketing food prices and supporting women’s employment struggles. Many factories closed down in the early period of the war.
Later in the war, women were recruited to fill posts that had generally been reserved for men but were given just a third to a half of the wages. Both the ELFS and the WFL campaigned and marched to Westminster for equal pay and equal opportunities.
The suffragette struggle as a whole was undoubtedly a very successful rebel movement, but it was the success of an incredibly determined but divided movement.
In all the coverage I have seen in the build-up to February 6, the 100th anniversary of Royal Assent for the Representation of the People Act, which overnight granted the vote to more than eight million women, Emmeline Pankhurst has featured very prominently.
The Act gave the vote to all men who had reached the age of 21, save those incarcerated in prisons and mental health institutions, and to married women over 30 who met a very minimal property qualifications, as well as university graduates.
Militant suffragette Lilian Lenton, who had taken part in widow-smashing and arson activities, said: “Personally, I didn’t vote for a long time because I hadn’t either a husband or furniture, although I was over 30.”
In Victoria Gardens, next to Parliament, there is a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, which was unveiled in 1930 in a ceremony where, unbelievably, the Metropolitan Police’s marching band had enthusiastically played Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women.
Emmeline died in 1928, just weeks before the further Act that would enfranchise all women and bring full political equality with men. Had she lived until 1929, she would have stood for Parliament. She had been adopted as the candidate in an East End constituency by the Conservative Party.
In the 1950s, the statue was moved closer to the main road and side sections were added which celebrated, by then, Dame Christabel Pankhurst, and also acknowledged the women who went to prison in the suffragette cause, with a representation of the brooch/medal that the movement gave to prisoners on the morning they were released. It doesn’t credit the artist who designed that medal though. It was Sylvia Pankhurst. And there is no mention either of the Women’s Freedom League on the statue.
In the wake of Parliament’s decision on February 6 1918, the WSPU declared its job done and began to formally close down. It knew that full political equality was just a matter of time. It took another 10 years.
But the ELFS, with Sylvia Pankhurst still playing a pivotal role, continued its work into the 1920s. By then it had transmuted into the Workers Suffragette Federation, then the Workers Socialist Federation.
The WFL, though, outlived them all, not closing down until 1961, having fought and won many battles on its wider women’s equality agenda. The cudgels would soon be taken up by the new generation of “second-wave feminists.”
Billington was still alive in 1961 (she died in 1964), and spoke at the winding-down ceremony of the Women’s Freedom League. She said that the campaign for votes for women was “only the first stage of political emancipation.”
She praised the WFL for the way it had conducted itself internally as well as externally, “rejecting dictatorship as a false means to a good end.”
She added: “I feel its death as a tragedy. It was born of the spirit of democracy and rebellion.” That rebellion in London had included a rebellion within the suffragette movement. It is time that all of those rebels got the recognition they deserve too.