There was much more to the suffragist movement than the WSPU, which was small, less and less influential in the years before the First World War and, many said even at the time, counter-productive in its actions and attitudes.
Martin Pugh, the well-known historian of popular politics and women's politics (sometimes these overlap and sometimes they are opposites) says this in the first chapter of his Women and the Women's Movement in Britain 1914 - 1959:
The important role traditionally claimed by the Pankhursts has not, so far, recovered from the careful analysis of their organization by Andrew Rosen. Their suffering and sacrifice made an indelible impression that can never be forgotten; but history is an unsentimental business, and it has clearly exploded many of the more extravagant claims made by the suffragettes.Martin Pugh has been accused before of an anti-Pankhurst bias and even inaccuracy but there is a good deal of evidence for what he says here. Lady Knightley, a prominent member of the Primrose League and a Conservative suffragist, certainly thought their methods are counter-productive though she admired Mrs Pankhurst personally.
Pankhurst claims that they had won public opinion to their side scarcely seem consistent with the antagonism towards them amongst working-class women which Jill Liddington has discussed in her valuable study of Lancashire. Nor does it square with the growing hostility of the crowds and the defeat of the Pankhurst-backed candidate at the Bow and Bromley election in 1912.
Always a small organization, the WSPU split repeatedly until it became a mere rump of personal followers of the Pankhurst family. Nor, ultimately, did militant tactics succeed in shaking the resolve of the government on women's suffrage; rather they alienated, if only temporarily, much of the support built up amongst politicians for enfranchising women.
History may be unsentimental but media, the art world and popular mythology all have a great dash of sentiment in their activity and the glorious Pankhursts together with their followers seem to figure prominently in all of them.
In the same way, it is a mistake to suppose that women, whether active or not, were all pacifists during and immediately after the First World War, no matter what we might glean from books by and about Vera Brittain. The National Portrait Gallery has a small but fascinating exhibition of women during the Great War, with nary a mention of either Miss Brittain or her friend Winifred Holtby. There are photographs and life stories of some of the many other women who became nurses, organizers and many other things during that conflict. The stories are fascinating and the conclusion is very sad: though women won many rights while their work was desperately needed, much of that was lost in the immediate period after the war.
Nevertheless, in 1918 a good many men and some women were enfranchised for the first time and there was, naturally enough, a good deal of worry and discussion how these groups would vote. The results were interesting in 1918 and subsequent elections. It seems that very few of the anti-suffrage MPs suffered because of their stance, most of those who stood being re-elected.
Here are some interesting points Martin Pugh makes about the 1918 election, which was somewhat unusual politically but interesting in what it showed in voting patterns.
The inclusion of the wives of workingmen - the bulk of the 8.4 million women - largely satisfied the non-Conservative politicians that there would be no additional advantage for the propertied classes. But the new electorate of women displayed an obvious bias towards age. Only the youngest of the women had been born in the late 1880s and thus reached an impressionable political age in the Edwardian period when Liberal-Labour reformism was at its height. The great majority of women voters are likely to have formed political loyalties in a period when the choice was between Conservative and Liberal, though we must allow for the realignment of some of the most politically active women as a result of the suffrage controversies prior to the war.He then turns to some of the details of the voting patterns.
Although most women electors had not voted even in a local government election before, the low turnout of 58.9 per cent in 1918 should almost certainly not be attributed to female abstention since the 12.9 million males included 3.9 million naval and military voters of whom it was reported that two thirds failed to take the chance of voting by post or by proxy.
Modern studies confirm that young voters are consistently the least likely to participate, and it thus seems very likely that abstention in 1918 was due to male behaviour rather than to the more mature female electorate. This is corroborated by many contemporary accounts which refer to the women as undemonstrative but determined in turning out to vote.
Dr John Turner has approached the 1918 election by using the evidence provided by the electoral register of 1915 and the number of men included in the 1918 register to estimate the total number of new male electors. He then examined the performance of the Labour Party's candidates and found that there was an inverse relationship between the size of the Labour poll and the proportion of new voters. In fact the greater the proportion of new male voters the less well Labour did and the greater proportion of women voters the less well Labour did.Accounts of the newly enfranchised women voters' behaviour at meetings confirm this view and there is a great deal of interesting material available on the differences between the servicemen and those who had stayed at home in their various attitudes towards the peace negotiations. It would have been interesting to know how many of the more bloodthirsty women had 'done their bit' during the war itself.
Yet a statistical relationship is one thing: explaining it is another. This can be done at two levels. From a long-term perspective the emergence of an organised Labour Party can be seen to have been linked to the relatively prosperous, unionised and politically aware working-class communities who were already enfranchised to a great extent. Consequently the incorporation of the whole of the male working class weakened Labour's position in the short run. Similarly, women as a group were as yet relatively uninvolved in the social and institutional networks that fostered support for Labour, and their enfranchisement was unlikely, without further changes, to prove advantageous.
More immediately women appear to have reacted to the 1918 campaign in a rather striking way, as contemporaries observed. It is easy to be misled by the prominence of a small group of women activists i n the anti-war cause. To those politicians who had hoped or feared that women would want to vote for international peace and conciliation the Coupon Election came as a shock. Anti-war candidates such as Ramsay MacDonald experienced heavy defeats in their constituencies, in his case at West Leicester where the women voters were reported to be 'bloodthirsty, cursing their hate', and as posing a physical threat to pacifist politicians.
Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence first became aware of this in 1917 when helping a peace-by-negotiation candidate at Aberdeen; the women there 'were even more embittered than the men', she wrote. Subsequently as a Labour candidate herself in Manchester in 1918 she commented:
I realised at once that my supporters were not the women - this election was their chance of 'doing their bit' and the were all for 'going over the top' to avenge their husbands and their sons. My supporters were the soldiers themselves.