Suffragettes should be pardoned, say campaigners

The fight for women’s suffrage was led by women made famous by their daring stunts, law-breaking and non-violent forms of protest.

Some 100 years since the Representation of the People Act passed on February 6 1918, which allowed women over 30 with certain property qualifications to vote, here are some of the famous and lesser-known women who championed the cause.

Emmeline Pankhurst

One of the best-known founding members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), she oversaw the group from its non-violent beginnings but later advocated for direct action as a tactic for gaining the vote.

She was arrested several times and after being convicted of conspiracy to commit property damage, she used a common suffragist prison tactic – a hunger strike – to secure better conditions for her fellow suffragettes.

When the First World War began, Pankhurst refocused the WSPU’s efforts on supporting the war, causing a split in the group and within her own family. Her daughters Sylvia and Adela were pacifists.

Sophia Duleep Singh

The daughter of a deposed Indian Maharaja whose kingdom was annexed by the British before he was exiled to England, Sophia was Queen Victoria’s goddaughter as well as being a committed suffragette.

The queen even gave her lodgings at Hampton Court Palace, where she was often seen distributing suffragette newspapers, but despite these royal connections she was a member of the Women’s Tax Resistance League.

Her connections proved useful for the movement. In 1911, she was among women protesting at Downing Street as then-prime minister Herbert Asquith left for the king’s speech to parliament. Waving a suffragette poster and suffragist slogans, she threw herself at his car as he left, but was released without charge to avoid embarrassment for the royals.

Sylvia Pankhurst

One of Emmeline Pankhurst’s three daughters, she worked full time for the WSPU, which was founded by her sister Christabel and her mother. She was a trained artist and designed many of the group’s posters, leaflets and logos.

But unlike her mother and sister, she maintained a political affiliation, which for many years was restricted by the WSPU. After being expelled from the group for her part in labour movement causes and socialist beliefs, she founded her own group, the East London Federation for Suffragettes.

Sylvia was horrified that Emmeline and her favourite daughter Christabel joined the white feather movement, which aimed to shame men into enlisting in the army, and instead opposed the Great War, continuing to campaign for suffrage when the WSPU changed direction during the war years.

Emily Davison

Best known as the suffragette who was fatally injured at Epsom racecourse by the king’s horse, Davison had a reputation as one of the most daring champions of direct action in the WSPU.

She was arrested and force-fed dozens of times, admitted setting fire to postboxes, and hid within the Palace of Westminster several times, perhaps most famously in a cupboard on the night of the 1911 census in an attempt to boycott it.

Tony Benn MP later placed a plaque in the cupboard himself to commemorate her act.

Flora Drummond

The Manchester-born WSPU member was known for dramatic stunts, a militant attitude to suffrage, and rallying speeches.

Her exploits included sneaking in through the front door of 10 Downing Street as her colleagues distracted police, and sailing a boat up to the Houses of Parliament so she could address MPs on the terrace.

Charlotte Despard

After years of writing romance novels, Despard turned her hand to charity and suffrage when her husband died.

Although she was twice put in Holloway prison, she advocated non-violent means of protest such as withholding taxes and census boycotts.

One of the oldest prominent WSPU members, she was in her 60s when she left the group after her pacifist ideas contradicted their changed approach when war broke out.