The National Portrait Gallery has a particularly good collection of small-scale displays dotted round the various rooms at the moment. One of them is a memorial of the fact that a hundred years ago one of the slightly insane followers of the reasonably sane Emmeline Pankhurst attacked one of the portraits in the Gallery about the same time as another member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Mary Richardson, attacked Velasquez's painting in the National Gallery, The Rokeby Venus.

The point is that the WSPU, though it is extraordinarily well known and has had a great deal of attention devoted to it by the journalists, writers and the entertainment industry, was only one of several organizations and not a particularly popular one among suffragists in general. (The word "suffragette" was first coined by the Daily Mail as an insult and has been used as a sort of rough distinction from "suffragists" who wanted to achieve votes for women through peaceful means and rational arguments.)

Looking at the undoubtedly fascinating collection of photographs, some known but mostly not, and documents issued by the police and the Home Office I was reminded that I still have not written sufficiently about Conservative suffragists, which I shall do very soon.

However, it was undoubtedly annoying to see some of the old myths being peddled if only indirectly. The introductory comments explained that the fight for women's suffrage had been going on for almost a century before the WSPU was formed but with no success. Therefore, some of the suffragists, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, especially the lawyer Christabel, decided on ever more violent action. This made the cause well known though divided opinion, added the note. The implication, unstated because it would not be true, that the militant activity of the Pankhursts was successful in the way previous peaceful campaigning had not been.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Women did not get the vote until 1918 and that was the result of their supreme war effort that really destroyed the argument that women cannot be trusted to think about bigger issues than their homes.

It is not unreasonable to suppose that the WSPU and its insanity actually set the cause back considerably, though we shall never know the truth. Lady Knightley of Fawsley, an active Conservative, Primrose League member and veteran Suffragist, certainly thought so though she admired Mrs Pankhurst herself, not least for her oratorial skills.

It does seem to me that the myth of the victorious violent and often left-wing (certainly as far as Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst were concerned) should be laid to rest. Would the National Portrait Gallery consider an exhibition of portraits of Suffragists, many of whom were Conservative?


  1. Demetrius Says:
  2. I have long held the view that had it not been for the Pankhursts etc. and their violence it is possible that the first small steps to women voting would be have been taken during the Campbell Bannerman Liberal government of 1906-1908

  3. Helen Says:
  4. That is not impossible. We shall never know but the Pankhursts and their followers set the cause back and it is time to say so openly instead of glorifying them, courageous women though they were.

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