Women's Freedom League

In 1907 some leading members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) began to question the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst. These women objected to the way that the Pankhursts were making decisions without consulting members. They also felt that a small group of wealthy women like Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Clare Mordan and Mary Blathwayt were having too much influence over the organisation.

In a conference in September 1907, Emmeline Pankhurst told members that she intended to run the WSPU without interference. As Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence pointed out: "She called upon those who had faith in her leadership to follow her, and to devote themselves to the sole end of winning the vote. This announcement was met with a dignified protest from Mrs. Despard. These two notable women presented a great contrast, the one aflame with a single idea that had taken complete possession of her, the other upheld by a principle that had actuated a long life spent in the service of the people. Mrs. Despard calmly affirmed her belief in democratic equality and was convinced that it must be maintained at all costs. Mrs. Pankhurst claimed that there was only one meaning to democracy, and that was equal citizenship in a State, which could only be attained by inspired leadership. She challenged all who did not accept the leadership of herself and her daughter to resign from the Union that she had founded, and to form an organisation of their own."

As a result of this speech, Charlotte Despard, Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Anne Cobden Sanderson, Margaret Nevinson and seventy other members of the WSPU left to form the Women's Freedom League (WFL). Like the WSPU, the WFL was a militant organisation that was willing the break the law. As a result, over 100 of their members were sent to prison after being arrested on demonstrations or refusing to pay taxes. However, members of the WFL was a completely non-violent organisation and opposed the WSPU campaign of vandalism against private and commercial property. The WFL were especially critical of the WSPU arson campaign.

Women's Freedom League's touring publicity caravan.
Women's Freedom League's touring publicity caravan.

The Women's Freedom League grew rapidly, and soon had sixty branches throughout Britain with an overall membership of about 4,000 people. The WFL also established its own newspaper, The Vote. Teresa Billington-Greig and Charlotte Despard were both talented writers and were the main people responsible for producing the newspaper. It was used to inform the public of WFL campaigns such as the refusal to pay taxes and to fill in the 1911 Census forms. Another contributor was one of Britain's leading writers, Cicely Hamilton.

Charlotte Despard in front of the Women's Freedom League banner (17th June 1911)
Charlotte Despard in front of the Women's Freedom League banner (17th June 1911)

Most members of the Women's Freedom League, were pacifists, and so when the First World War was declared in 1914 they refused to become involved in the British Army's recruitment campaign. The WFL also disagreed with the decision of the NUWSS and WSPU to call off the women's suffrage campaign while the war was on. Leaders of the WFL such as Charlotte Despard believed that the British government did not do enough to bring an end to the war and between 1914-1918 supported the campaign of the Women's Peace Crusade for a negotiated peace.

Helena Normanton wrote several pamphlets on the issue of women's pay. In Sex Differentiation in Salary (1914) she argued for equal pay for equal work. In another article she wrote: "During and after the war, many soldiers' wives and widows became the breadwinners for families. Should they be paid according to their sex or their work?"

Three members of the Women's Freedom League stood in the 1918 General Election. Charlotte Despard (Battersea), Elizabeth How-Martyn (Hendon) and Emily Phipps (Chelsea) all argued that women should have the vote on equal terms with men; that all trades and professions be opened to women on equal terms and for equal pay and that women should be allowed to serve on all juries. However, in the euphoria of Britain's victory, the women's anti-war views were very unpopular and like all the other pacifist candidates, who stood in the election, they were defeated.

Primary Sources

(1) In her book, The Militant Suffrage Movement, published in 1911, Teresa Billington Greig described the decision of the WSPU to become a militant organisation.

The first militant protest was decided upon by Miss Christabel Pankhurst, and announced by mother or daughter to a small number of the more active members of the Union. The body of members knew nothing of the plans until they heard with the public that it had been carried out… It was at this point that the sense of difference of outlook, of which I had always been conscious in my association with Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughter, became acute. I did not approve the line of protest determined upon. It seemed to me to provide a very inadequate outlet for the expression of our rebellion.

(2) Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, My Part in a Changing World (1938)

The Women's Social and Political Union when it was first formed had adopted a constitution framed on the lines of that of the Labour Party, to which the Pankhursts and all the original members in Manchester belonged.

The first national conference of delegates was due to take place this month, but some months before this date differences of thought and opinion had begun to manifest themselves amongst some of the members. The Union had grown very rapidly since the foundation of the London headquarters in 1906, and to cope with its demands organiser after organiser had been added to the staff. They were appointed because of their great courage and eloquence, and their ability to control and dominate crowds.

As September approached, it became evident that some influential people who had been attracted by the movement wished to frame a constitution that would substitute the principle of democratic control for that of individual leadership. It seemed to them reasonable and right that, following the practice of other organisations, the W.S.P.U. branches should be accorded the power to criticise and, if they could secure a majority, to amend the policies and the programme of the movement.

But there was another aspect of this question, an aspect acutely realised at headquarters. Newcomers were pouring into the Union. Many of them were quite ill-informed as far as the realities of the political situation were concerned. Christabel, who possessed in a high degree a flair for the intricacies of a complex political situation, had conceived the militant campaign as a whole. In her mind it drew its justifications from the frustrations of fifty years. These frustrations, she maintained, were not due to natural causes, but were directly due to the extremely adroit tactics of successive Governments that had enabled them to avoid dealing with the question. If the suffrage movement was ever to rise from the grave where politicians had led it, tactics equally adroit needed to be employed. She never doubted that the tactics she had evolved would succeed in winning a cause which, as far as argument or reason was concerned, was intellectually won already. She dreaded all the old plausible evasions and she feared the ingrained interiority complex in the majority of women. Thus she could not trust her mental offspring to the mercies of politically untrained minds. Moreover, the very fact that militant action involved individual sacrifice imposed heavy responsibilities upon the leaders of the campaign. Individuals who were ready to make the sacrifice that militancy entailed had to be sustained by the assurance of complete unity within the ranks. I agreed with this view of the situation, although I felt that it would be a difficult one to sustain in the conference. The issue to be raised was that of "democracy." It was an irony that this question of principle should come up in a political union which was to win votes for women. It became evident that, young as the militant movement was, it had to meet a crisis the solution of which would influence its future history.

While these clouds had been slowly gathering at headquarters Mrs. Pankhurst was conducting a campaign of meetings in the north. She knew nothing of the difficulties of the position until she returned to London on the eve of the conference. I shall never forget the gesture with which she swept from the board all the "pros and the cons" which had caused us sleepless nights. ''I shall tear up the constitution," she declared. This intrepid woman when apparently hemmed in by difficulties always cut her way through them.

The next day at the conference she asserted her position as founder of the Union, declared that she and her daughter had counted the cost of militancy, and were prepared to take the whole responsibility for it, and that they refused to be interfered with by any kind of constitution. She called upon those who had faith in her leadership to follow her, and to devote themselves to the sole end of winning the vote. This announcement was met with a dignified protest from Mrs. Despard. These two notable women presented a great contrast, the one aflame with a single idea that had taken complete possession of her, the other upheld by a principle that had actuated a long life spent in the service of the people.

Mrs. Despard calmly affirmed her belief in democratic equality and was convinced that it must be maintained at all costs. Mrs. Pankhurst claimed that there was only one meaning to "democracy," and that was equal citizenship in a State, which could only be attained by inspired leadership. She challenged all who did not accept the leadership of herself and her daughter to resign from the Union that she had founded, and to form an organisation of their own.

Thereupon Mrs. Despard, Mrs. How-Martyn and Miss Billington and their followers formed a separate organisation, the Women's Freedom League. The severance was always referred to as "The Split."

(3) In 1907 Teresa Billington-Greig, Charlotte Despard and Elizabeth How-Martin made attempts to make the Women's Political and Social Union more democratic. When Emmeline Pankhurst responded by cancelling the proposed meeting to discuss the constitution, about seventy women left the WSPU and formed the Women's Freedom League. Teresa Billington Greig described her feelings about this conflict in her book The Militant Suffrage Movement.

In September, about a month before the date arranged for the gathering, Mrs. Pankhurst, ignoring the Honorary Secretary, called a Committee meeting, declared the Conference annulled, the Constitution cancelled, and the rights of the members abolished, and proclaimed herself as sole dictator of the movement. She appointed herself secretary, Mrs. Pethick Lawrence treasurer, and Miss Christabel Pankhurst organizing secretary. She chose for herself a committee consisting of paid organisers and two or three women who were willing to lend their names to this purpose.

The clumsy declaration of autocracy broke the spell of many who would willingly have voted away their rights. Those who stuck to the Constitution formed the Women's Freedom League… This reversion to autocracy, this denial of suffrage in their own society to women seeking suffrage in the State, brought to a sudden close to this stage in the progress of militancy.

(4) Frederick Pethick-Lawrence explained in his book, Fate Has Been Kind, the emergence of the Women's Freedom League.

The Pankhursts were not prepared to run the risk of having their carefully thought out policy reversed by newcomers with little political experience, or whittled down by an executive of divided opinions. Mrs. Pankhurst declared herself therefore in sole control of the WSPU and she called on those who believed in her leadership to stand by her. My wife concurred in this decision, and it was accepted by the bulk of the members. The branches became local WSPUs without any control over policy. A minority of women, including Mrs. Despard, Mrs. How Martyn, and Miss Billington, dissented, and formed a democratically controlled body - The Women's Freedom League.

(5) In 1914 the Women's Freedom League refused the call off its campaign for women's suffrage. Charlotte Despard, the leader of the Women's Freedom League was a pacifist who refused to become involved in the war effort. In 1916 she made a speech explaining her views.

The great discovery of the war is that the Government can force upon the capitalistic world the superlative claims of the common cause… The Board of Education has concluded that one in six childhood was so physically and mentally defective as to be unable to derive reasonable benefit from the education, which the State provides… My message to the government is 'take over the milk as you have taken over the munitions'.

(6) In 1919 the Women's Freedom League held a public meeting to celebrate women over thirty obtaining the vote. One of the speeches was made by eighty-three year old Charlotte Despard.

I have seen great days, but this is the greatest. I remember when we started twenty-one years ago, with empty coffers… I never believed that equal votes would come in my lifetime. But when an impossible dream comes true, we must go on to another. The true unity of men and women is one such dream. The end of war, of famine - they are all impossible dreams, but the dream must be dreamed until it takes a spiritual hold.