• Facebook - Black Circle
  • Twitter - Black Circle

The incompatibility of feminism and Marxism, Part 2: The first feminists to mobilize workers

October 12, 2018

Edited by Nuevo Curso


In the previous issue of this series we followed the birth of feminism as a social movement from its origins to the founding of the "Women's Social and Political Union" (WSPU) by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903. The WSPU was the first important feminist organization to address women workers directly.


Its objective was always the immediate attainment of suffrage "on the same terms" as men. In other words, women's suffrage was restricted to those women who had a certain property threshold, which excluded working-class women. Emmeline Pankhurst's frustrations with the Independent Labour Party (ILP), her daughter Christabel's perceptions of the limitations of the Labour Party on women's rights, were determined by their class interests. Emmeline Pankhurst was frustrated with the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) not because she opposed its petty-bourgeois character, which the WSPU shared, but because she felt that their strategy was not aggressive enough.


In March 1903, the same year that the WSPU was formed, Christabel Pankhurst - the eldest daughter of Emmeline and Richard - wrote to the editor of the "Labour Leader.” Christabel presented in it, as a solution to the disenfranchisement of working-class women... limited suffrage. The Pankhursts wanted to mobilize working women to gain the right to vote for petty-bourgeois women by deploying rhetoric uniting working class women with propertied women.


"What is the Labour representation movement going to do for that large section of the working-class which, by reason of its lack of political power, is unable to secure direct representation?... thousands of workers are disenfranchised merely because they happen to be women…It will be said, perhaps, that the interests of women will be safe in the hands of the men’s Labour Party. Never in the history of the world have the interests of those without power to defend themselves been properly served by others…I hope the women of England will not have to say that neither Liberal, Conservative nor Labour parties are their friends.”[1]




The important thing about this rhetoric is that with it we can speak for the first time of feminism in its political sense. "Women" are defined as a historical and political subject, as a category above classes. There would be no proletariat, but "workers," and the latter could not be represented or share a genuine struggle with someone who was not of their... sex. Therefore, when the WSPU was founded in October 1903 at the home of Emmeline Pankhurst, the membership of the WSPU was reserved exclusively for women.


With the Pankhursts, feminism itself appears: "women" is upheld as a political subject above the classes, the proletariat is negated and now divided into "workers" with differentiated organizations and programs.


Emmeline, at this point, had not left the ILP, but was in conflict with the organization over how to approach women's suffrage. In "My Own Story", her autobiography, she says,

“In the spring of 1904 I went to the annual conference of the Independent Labour Party, determined if possible to induce the members to prepare a suffrage bill to be laid before Parliament in the approaching session. Although I was a member of the National Administrative Council and presumably a person holding some influence in the party, I knew that my plan would be bitterly opposed by a strong minority, who held that the Labour Party should direct all its efforts toward securing universal adult suffrage for both men and women. Theoretically, of course, a Labour Party could not be satisfied with anything less than universal suffrage, but it was clear that no such sweeping reform could be effected at that time, unless indeed the Government made it one of their measures. Besides, while a large majority of members of the House of Commons were pledged to support a bill giving women equal franchise rights with men, it was doubtful whether a majority could be relied upon to support a bill giving adult suffrage, even to men. Such a bill, even if it were a Government measure, would probably be difficult of passage.”[2]


Finally, even though she maintained close links with Labour at the time, she believed that it was better to fight for the interests of propertied women than for the interests of the working class. Although the WSPU stated that restricted suffrage was a necessary stage in obtaining the right to vote for working women, the kind of suffrage that it advocated contradicted that assertion. Its conception of organization and the message with which it tried to capture new militants clearly expressed its incompatibility with any form of class consciousness. From the first issue of its magazine, the limits of their appeal to working women were clear:


“To women, far and wide the trumpet call goes forth. Come and fight with us in our battle for freedom…come and join us, whatever your age, whatever your class, whatever your political inclination…if you have any class feeling you must leave that behind when you come into this movement. For the women who are in our ranks know no barriers of class distinction.”




According to Emmeline Pankhurst, "deeds, not words, was to be our permanent motto.” The first public act in favor of WSPU suffrage took place in October 1905. Two WSPU members, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, were arrested for interrupting a liberal rally in the "Free Trade Hall" on the eve of the general election that brought the liberals back to government. During question time, Christabel hoisted a flag that read "Votes for Women" while Annie Kenney asked the liberals: "If the Liberal Party is returned to power, will they take steps to give votes for women?” Pankhurst and Kenney ended up being kicked out of the courtroom and arrested when they faced police while trying to start a parallel rally. Instead of paying the fine, Annie Kenney decided to serve three days of arrest.


In reality, it was just a small row at a public meeting of a few dozen liberal lords. It was a time in history when labor rallies gathered tens of thousands of people and were often dissolved in blood and fire, leaving an inevitable trail of dead and wounded without causing the slightest scandal. But the workers and public order were one thing, and the "fine people" were another. The Pankhurst and the WPSU, with their moralizing boasts, their clothes costing an average year's salary and their impeccable veils and hats, represented theatrically an inconceivable fracture until then in the traditionally authoritarian bourgeois families. It was both scandalous and harmless to the established order, like a family secret that is made public. The images that their confrontations displayed were intended to provoke social commentary. 


In 1905, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter left the Independent Labour Party. By the end of 1906 the WSPU had already acquired 47 branches. In 1907, they held 5,000 meetings throughout Great Britain and began publishing their own newspaper: "Votes for Women". With a social base of their own, they carried out increasingly spectacular actions. Their strategy was always based on the staging of their confrontation with politicians. At first their actions consisted mainly of interrupting politicians in public events and sending spokespersons to the House of Commons to question or rebuke the Prime Minister. In February 1907, protesting the King's failure to mention women's suffrage at the first "Women's Parliament" at Caxton Hall, they brought a protest resolution to Parliament. Only 400 women marched to the House of Commons, but were received by a massive police cordon. However, their appearance - that is, their class image coupled with their refusal to yield to the police who, on the other hand, wasted no time in beating "the ladies", as well as the suffragettes' decision to serve small sentences instead of paying fines, generated a strong propaganda effect.[3]


The WPSU suffragette strategy was to stage a "family" conflict within the bourgeois classes. The police, who did not beat "the ladies," participated in this representation.




The success of the marches and the arrests would sow the seed of the WSPU strategy of its last years: to make the WSPU militants martyrs of the "heroic cause" of suffrage. The leap from symbolic, theatrical representation to self-harm, suicide attempts, vandalism and a whole crescendo of violence was motivated by the impatience and demoralization caused by the anti-suffrage stance of the Liberal Prime Minister elected in 1907.


The "militant" actions of the WSPU were indelibly connected with the Christian millenarianism inherited from the puritanical tradition of the Cromwellian revolution and British liberalism. Hunger strikes, destruction of property, arson campaigns, Emily Davison's attempt to commit suicide in prison to become a martyr and the WSPU's rhetoric and ideology were inseparable from the WSPU’s strategy of martyrdom and their morality. In Emily Wilding Davison's unpublished "The Price of Freedom", the fetish of martyrdom and millenary morality is fully expressed:


“‘Cannot this cup of anguish be spared me?’ cries the militant aloud in agony, yet immediately, as if in repentance for having so nearly lost the Priceless Pearl [of Freedom], in the words of all striver after progress, she ejaculates: ‘Nevertheless I will pay, even unto this price’; and in her writhing asks what further demand can be extracted from her.

The glorious and inscrutable Spirit of Liberty has but one further penalty within its power, the surrender of Life itself. It is the supreme consummation of sacrifice, than which none can be higher or greater.

To lay down life for friends, that is glorious, selfless inspiring! But to re-enact the tragedy of Calvary for generations yet unborn, that is the last consummate sacrifice of the Militant!

Nor will she shrink from this Nirvana.

She will be faithful ‘unto this last.’[4]




The obsession with Joan of Arc, the emphasis on martyrdom and purity, the promotion of chastity for both men and women, symbolized by the constant use of violet and white, cannot be separated from the general political strategy and worldview of feminism. The age-old battle between good and evil, between the law of God and the "law of men", between the "city of God" and the "earthly city" were an essential part of WSPU's imagination.



Christabel Pankhurst articulated this vision clearly in a rally,


“We have at last got up steam and tasted the joy of battle. Our blood is up. Are we going to stop? Never, never! We will not betray the women in prison…Our methods are morally right…in a struggle for our rights as human beings, things may be done which would not be right in another cause…for the weak to use their little strength against the huge forces of tyranny is divine.”[5]


The millenarian language, the emphasis on martyrdom and purity, the promotion of chastity symbolized in the constant use of violet and white cannot be separated from the continuing worldview of Protestant Puritanism.



- KJ







[1] Andrew Rosen, Rise Up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union 1903-1914 (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 1974), 50


[2] Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story (London: Hearst’s International Library Co., Inc, 1914), 40-41


[3] It's true that two suffragettes died in "Black Friday," another protest that occurred in 1910, but this must be put into perspective. In comparison to the massive workers' rallies that would be met with extreme police violence, the police treated the suffragettes, because they were petty-bourgeois ladies, with kid gloves. Sophia A. van Wingerden, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain, 1866-1928 (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999) 71- 80


[4] Andrew Rosen, Rise Up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union 1903-1914 (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 1974), 230


[5] June Purvis, Christabel Pankhurst: A Biography (Oxon: Routledge, 2018), 197

Please reload