Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Marilyn Morgan

Second Advisor

Roberta Wollons

Third Advisor

Olivia Weisser


The Women’s Social and Political Union was a leading suffrage organization in Britain especially renowned for its members’ use of militancy and violence in campaigning for the vote for women in the years leading up to World War I. Founded in 1903, suffragist leader Emmeline Pankhurst established the WSPU due to the lack of progress made by the “constitutional” methods used by suffrage societies of the time, such as lobbying members of Parliament to introduce a women’s suffrage bill. Determined to draw attention to the cause of women’s suffrage and pressure the government into action after decades of ignoring the issue, the WSPU’s leadership resolved to use militant tactics that would range from interrupting political meetings and questioning politicians, to bombing and setting fire to property. The WSPU justified these acts by pointing to instances where men had used violence to gain political ends, including the Chartist movement for male suffrage and parliamentary reform. This justification has not been properly explored in the abundant literature about suffrage militancy. Comparing the goals, rhetoric, and tactics of the WSPU and the Chartists as demonstrates that the WSPU thoughtfully adopted militant tactics that had been previously used by political radicals in Britain, and employed these tactics on a wider scale and in a more organized fashion than they had been in the past. This interpretation lends legitimacy to the suffragettes’ controversial militancy by connecting the movement to the political radicalism of the nineteenth century, and distinguishes it from interpretations of suffrage militancy that have characterized it as an emotionally-driven, historical anomaly.


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