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Militant Suffragettes: (Autograph Letter Collection)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 106 9/20
Held at: Women's Library
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Full title: Militant Suffragettes: (Autograph Letter Collection)
Date(s): 1890-1956
Level of description: fonds
Extent: 1 A box (1 volume)
Name of creator(s): Various
Detailed catalogue: Click here to view repository detailed catalogue


Administrative/Biographical history:

During the campaigns for women's franchise which had been conducted during the later nineteenth century, the focus of the groups taking part had been on influencing members of Parliament and their parties so that reform could be introduced from within Parliament. However, a series of bills to introduce a vote for women had been defeated as members of the Liberal Party, to which so many suffragists were attached, proved hostile to their cause. Additionally, by the turn of the century the media's interest had been diverted to the Boer War, meaning that publicity for the suffrage movement was rare. In this situation, a new organisation was established in 1903. Emmeline Pankhurst had been a supporter of women's suffrage for many years, but resigned from the Manchester branch of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies in this year and formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her two daughters Christabel and Sylvia. Initially, the group's purpose was to recruit more working class women to the movement, but by 1905, when the new Liberal government began to withdraw active support for women's suffrage, they began to use different 'militant' methods to gain publicity that were soon adopted as a new campaign strategy and would be reused by others both in and outside of their own group. At a meeting on 13 Oct 1905, at which the government minister Sir Edward Grey spoke, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney disrupted the event by shouting, then refused to leave before becoming involved in a struggle. This resulted in their arrest on the charge of assault, they were fined five shillings each, and were sent to prison for refusing to pay. Their methods were in direct contrast to the constitutional methods of other groups such as the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and attracted a number of early adherents such as Charlotte Despard and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. During 1906, the WSPU also began to increase the level of violence used, breaking the windows of government buildings and attacking Asquith's house with stones on the 30 Jun. However, not all agreed with the escalation of militancy or the Pankhurst style of leadership. A number of members left the group in 1907 with Charlotte Despard, Edith How Martyn, Teresa Billington-Greig, Octavia Lewin, and Caroline Hodgeson, to form another militant, but this time non-violent, organisation: the Women's Freedom League, which engaged in acts of civil disobedience. The impact of WSPU arrests increased when, in Jul 1909, hunger strikes began. The prison authorities feared public opinion would turn against them but were unwilling to release the increasing number of suffragettes who adopted this tactic. Consequently, women on hunger strike were force-fed. The violence escalated even further in 1913 when abortive arson attacks on the homes of two anti-suffrage MPs took place, followed by the burning of a series of other buildings. Some members of the WSPU disagreed with this arson campaign and, like Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence in 1912, were expelled or themselves left the group. However, the number of hunger-striking women rose even further and the government introduced the Prisoner's Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act, known as the 'Cat and Mouse Act', by which ill suffragettes were released to be re-arrested on their recovery and sent back to prison to complete their sentence. However, the WSPU's situation changed on 4 Aug 1914 when the First World War broke out. Suffrage organisations across the spectrum of opinion suspended their political activities and transferred their efforts to war work, while the WSPU began negotiating with the government to end their militant activity and begin war work in return for the release of current suffragette prisoners. This occurred and the group began to organise demonstrations in support of the war and encouraging women to replace men in the workplace, bringing the militant stage of the campaign for the vote to an end.


Scope and content/abstract:

The collection contains letters to, from and about women who were in the past traditionally perceived to be 'militant suffragettes' and who were involved in direct action as well as other areas of activity. Including Emmeline Pankhurst (18 letters, 1890-1927), Christabel Pankhurst (17 letters, 1904-1956), Adela Pankhurst (1 letter, 1908), Sylvia Pankhurst (19 letters, 1915-1956), Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (34 letters, 1907-1936), correspondence to, from and related to Myra Sadd-Brown and her imprisonment, including press cuttings, draft letters and propaganda sheet (33 letters, 1911-1927), Charlotte Despard (29 letters, 1907-1928), Teresa Billington Greig (1 letter, 1910), Nina Boyle (1 letter, 1913), MVC Brackenbury(1 letter, 1908), Flora Drummmond (1 letter, 1909), Katherine Gatty (6 letters from prison, 1912), Mary Gawthorpe (2 letters, 1908), Annie Kenney (1 letter, 1907), Jessie Kenney (1 letter, 1961), Nellie Kenney (1 letter, 1908), Eunice Murray (1 summons, 1913), Alison Neilans (3 letters, 1909) and Mary Philips (1 letter, 1968).

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

Arranged in chronological order.

Conditions governing access:

This collection is available for research. Readers are advised to contact The Women's Library in advance of their first visit. Available on microfiche only.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Finding aids:

Abstracts of individual letters in the autograph letters collection were written and held alongside the letters. This work was done from the 1960s by volunteers including Nan Taylor. In 2004 Jean Holder completed a 3 year project to list the letters, copy-type the abstracts, and repackage the letters to meet preservation needs. In 2005 Vicky Wylde and Teresa Doherty proof read and imported the entries to the Special Collections Catalogue.

The original card index of all correspondents, including date of letter & volume reference, is available on the microfiche.

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Allied Materials

Related material:

All collections within The Women's Library Strand 2 relate to women's suffrage. Other Collections within Strand 9 which may be of interest include 9/01 Women's Suffrage, 9/02 General Women's Movement, 9/03 Emancipation of Women, 9/09 Suffrage and Women in Industry. The Women's Library also holds papers of the Women's Freedom League (2WFL), the Women's Tax Resistance League (2WTR), Charlotte Despard (7CFD), Edith How-Martyn (7EHM), Mrs Billington-Greig (7TBG), Vida Goldstein (7VDG), Millicent Garrett Fawcett (7MGF) and Jessie Kenney (7JKE). The papers of other members of the Women's Social and Political Union can also be found at the Women's Library: these include Emily Wilding Davison (7EWD), Kitty Marion (7KMA), Rita May Billinghurst (7RMB), Elsie Duval (7HFD) and Annie Lacon (7LAC). The Museum of London holds the minutes (1906-7) for the Canning Town branch of the Women's Social and Political Union (Ref. 50.82/1183) and the papers of the Suffragette Fellowship. Christabel Pankhurst's correspondence with FW Pethick-Lawrence (1881-1958) is held at Cambridge University's Trinity College Library while that with Arthur James Balfour (1907-11) is in the British Library, Manuscript Collections (refer. ADD MSS 49793 Passim). Papers and letters of Emmeline Pankhurst (1885-1902) are held at the International Institute of Social History (as are the papers of her daughter Estelle Sylvia) while her correspondence with the Independent Labour Party (1898-1912) are in the London University's British Library of Political and Economic Science (ref. BLPES/ILP/Section 4 passim); her letters to Adelaide Johnson are in the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. Manchester University's John Rylands Library holds a particularly rich collection of Pankhurst papers; letters from Christabel (13) and Emmeline (13) to CP Scott (1909-11) are held in the Guardian archives. Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst's correspondence with William Gillies (1935-37) is held by Manchester University's Labour History Archive and Study Centre (ref. WG/ITA 170-81, 239-41, 257, 409-10). Correspondence and papers of Frederick William Pethick-Lawrence can be found in Cambridge University: Trinity College Library (ref. Pethick-Lawrence MSS). His letters to the Independent Labour Party (1906-28) are in London University's British Library of Political and Economic Science (ref. BLPES/ILP/Section 4 passim) and those to Sylvia Pankhurst (c1929-49) are in the International Institute of Social History (ref. 11). His correspondence with Marie Stopes (ref. Add MS 58555) and with the Society of Authors (ref. Add MS 56777) are both in the British Library, Manuscript Collections. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence's correspondence with her husband is held with her husband's papers at Cambridge University Trinity College Library and her letters to Sylvia Pankhurst (c1929-49) are in the International Institute of Social History (ref. 11). Papers of Charlotte Despard (1913-35) are also held in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (ref. D2479).

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Finding aid created by export from CALM v7.2.14 Archives Hub EAD2002. Edited for AIM25 by Sarah Drewery.

Rules or conventions:
In compliance with ISAD (G): General International Standard Archival Description - 2nd Edition (1999); UNESCO Thesaurus, December 2001; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:

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