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. (1)
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." (2)
Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst sent out a letter to all branches of the WSPU stating that this was not in any way a democratic group. "We are not playing experiments with representative government. We are not a school for teaching women how to use the vote. We are a militant movement... It is not a school for teaching women how to use the vote. We are militant movement... It is after all a voluntary militant movement: those who cannot follow the general must drop out of the ranks." As Simon Webb has pointed out: "This is quite unambiguous. Members must not expect to influence policy or question the leader, the role is limited to obeying orders." (3)
As a result of this speech, Charlotte Despard, Teresa Billington-Greig, Edith How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Anne Cobden Sanderson, Emma Sproson, Margaret Nevinson, Henria Williams, Violet Tillard and seventy other members of the WSPU left to form the Women's Freedom League (WFL). Most of its members were socialists who wanted to work closely with the Labour Party who "regarded it as hypocritical for a movement for women's democracy to deny democracy to its own members." (4)
The Women's Freedom League grew rapidly, and soon had sixty branches throughout Britain with an overall membership of about 4,000 people. This was over twice the size of the WSPU. The WFL also established its own newspaper, The Vote. The first edition was published on 30th October 1909. It claimed: "We hope and believe that through its pages the public will come to understand what the Parliamentary Franchise means to us women. Now it will be both a symbol of citizenship and the key to a door opening out on such service to the community as we have never yet been allowed to render, and therefore it is our earnest hope that our paper will keep its place in the hearts of men and women long after the first victory has been won." (4a)
Two of the Women's Freedom League leaders, 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. One of Britain's leading writers, Cicely Hamilton, became editor of the newspaper. (5)
The Vote never rivalled either The Common Cause or Votes for Women, but members of the WFL did recognise the importance of their own paper in keeping members informed and in generating a sense of a united organisation. After the early difficulties the NEC took over more direct control of the newspaper, especially after Charlotte Despard became the editor. (5a)
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. The Vote attacked Christabel Pankhurst and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, for condemning the women's peace conference. (6)
In November 1914 two Independent Labour Party (ILP) members, Lilla Brockway and Fenner Brockway, established the No-Conscription Fellowship in its campaign against conscription. Several members of the WFL became involved in the organisation. Violet Tillard, Assistant Organising Secretary of the WFL, was appointed General Secretary of the organisation. (7) In May 1918 she was arrested was fined £100 and costs for refusing to furnishing the name and address of the publisher of a leaflet which was circulated by the NCF. (8) When she refused to pay the fine she was sentenced to 61 days' imprisonment. (9)
The WFL continuted the campaign on women's rights. 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?" (10)
The Qualification of Women Act was passed. The Manchester Guardian reported: "The Representation of the People Bill, which doubles the electorate, giving the Parliamentary vote to about six million women and placing soldiers and sailors over 19 on the register (with a proxy vote for those on service abroad), simplifies the registration system, greatly reduces the cost of elections, and provides that they shall all take place on one day, and by a redistribution of seats tends to give a vote the same value everywhere, passed both Houses yesterday and received the Royal assent." (11)
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. (12)
After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act in 1918 the Women's Social and Political Union disbanded. However, the Women's Freedom League continued the fight for all women to have the vote. As Melanie Phillips pointed out: "Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel, it turned out, would have no part to play in the long agitation ahead for equality of franchise, pay, opportunity, divorce and inheritance." (13)
In 1924 Lilian Lenton was employed as a travelling organizer and speaker for the Women's Freedom League (WFL). During this period she often stayed with Alice Schofield in Middlesbrough. Both women were vegetarians and worked for animal welfare charities. Lenton also wrote for the WFL newsparer, The Vote and toured the country making speeches in favour of all women getting the vote. She was also editor of the WFL's The Women's Bulletin for eleven years. (14)
In July 1925, Lenton spoke at a meeting in Clyde. "Many of the questions the speaker (Lilian Lenton) is asked: several are irrelevant, many simply argumentative, whilst others show a real desire for information and understanding. We have the young men who fear the competition of women in the labour market, alleging that because of it they are unemployed – on what the woman is to live they neither know nor care; and others openly evince apprehension lest, when a woman can earn a decent living, her desire for the ties of matrimony may diminish, and loudly answer in the affirmative when asked if they like the idea that a woman is dependent upon them. Not few in number are the youths of about 16 who assert our "mental and physical" inferiority to the male sex." (15)
Stanley Baldwin, wanted to change the image of the Conservative Party to make it appear a less right-wing organisation. In March 1927 He suggested to his Cabinet that the government should propose legislation for the enfranchisement of nearly five million women between the ages of twenty-one and thirty. This measure meant that women would constitute almost 53% of the British electorate. The Daily Mail complained that these impressionable young females would be easily manipulated by the Labour Party. (16)
Winston Churchill, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was totally opposed to the move and argued that the affairs of the country ought not be put into the hands of a female majority. In order to avoid giving the vote to all adults he proposed that the vote be taken away from all men between twenty-one and thirty. He lost the argument and in Cabinet and asked for a formal note of dissent to be entered in the minutes. There was little opposition in Parliament to the bill and it became law on 2nd July 1928. As a result, all women over the age of 21 could now vote in elections. (17)
A bill was introduced in March 1928 to give women the vote on the same terms as men. There was little opposition in Parliament to the bill and it became law on 2nd July 1928. As a result, all women over the age of 21 could now vote in elections. Many of the women who had fought for this right were now dead including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy, Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pankhurst.
Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the NUWSS during the campaign for the vote, was still alive and had the pleasure of attending Parliament to see the vote take place. That night she wrote in her diary: "It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20th, 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning." (18)
The Women's Freedom League and The Vote newspaper continued with its fight for women's equality. As the newspaper pointed out 6th July, 1928: "To have won equal voting rights for women and men is a great victory, but it will be an infinitely greater achievement when we have succeeded in abolishing for ever the 'woman's sphere', 'woman's work', and a 'woman's wage', and have decided that the whole wide world and all its opportunities is just as much the sphere of women, as of men." (19)
The sales of the newspaper fell dramatically and only continued because it was subsidized by Elizabeth Knight and Helena Normanton. The Women's Freedom League supported the Six Point Group of Great Britain, which focused on what she regarded as the six key issues for women: The six original specific aims were: (i) Satisfactory legislation on child assault; (ii) Satisfactory legislation for the widowed mother; (iii) Satisfactory legislation for the unmarried mother and her child; (iv) Equal rights of guardianship for married parents; (v) Equal pay for teachers; (vi) Equal opportunities for men and women in the civil service. (20)
On 15th October 1933, Elizabeth Knight was knocked down by a car as she was crossing Dyke Road in Brighton. She told a police officer: "It was my fault. I crossed the road without looking." (21) At first she declined to go to hospital, "remarking that she was not much hurt, but he persuaded her to accompany him to hospital." (22) After treatment she was taken to the home of Minnie Turner. On 28th October, pleurisy developed and death occurred on Sunday from heart failure as a result of the effects of the accident. (23)
Knight left most of her considerable fortune to her neice: "Dr Elizabeth Knight, the women's suffrage pioneer, who lived at Gainsborough Gardens, Hampstead, and who died last October from injuries received when knocked down by a motar-car at Brighton, has left £248,467." (24) As a result the The Vote had to stop publication. (25)
We hope and believe that through its pages the public will come to understand what the Parliamentary Franchise means to us women. Now it will be both a symbol of citizenship and the key to a door opening out on such service to the community as we have never yet been allowed to render, and therefore it is our earnest hope that our paper will keep its place in the hearts of men and women long after the first victory has been won.
The position in Wolverhampton in regard to tax resistance is certainly of interest to the supporters of militancy.
We do meet occasionally in the Suffrage movement, the woman with the pitiful tale: I should like to help you, but I dare not; my husband is against me. But it is, indeed, a revelation to meet an enthusiastic supporter with an equally sympathetic husband, who finds herself hampered, through the decisions of magistrates who hold the husband liable for the deeds of his wife.
Ever since I began to take a serious interest in politics I have believed in sex equality, and have never denied my wife the freedom that I myself claim, and, as I shall endeavour to show, it [is] because of this that I was convicted.
The humiliating position of the married woman, especially the working woman, is admitted by all Suffragists; but I never realised that she was such an abject slave so clearly as when I stood in the Wolverhampton Police Court, side by side with my wife, charged with aiding and abetting her to keep a dog without a license. The only evidence submitted by the prosecution (the police) that I actually did anything was that I presided at two meetings in support of the "No Vote, No Tax" policy of the Women's Freedom League. That I said anything that was not fair comment on the general policy of militancy there was no evidence to show; if, then, on this point I was liable, then all supporters of militancy are equally so. But I do not believe it was on this evidence that I was convicted. No. The dog was at my house, and cared for by my children during my wife's absence. In the eyes of the law, I was lord and master, so that my offence, therefore, was not that I did anything, but rather that I did not do anything.
I did not assert my authority, I did not force my wife into subjection, and however legal the magistrate's decision may have been, it certainly was not just.
It was the spirit of rebellion against injustice displayed by Mrs. Emma Sproson that first won for her my admiration. This admiration is far too deep rooted to be suppressed by the decision of magistrates.
I admire the rebel against injustice, man or woman, because I know that it is to them that all real progress is due. A friend once said to me, when criticising my wife, "But what would happen if all other women did as she is doing?" I replied: "They would get the vote to-morrow"; and he saw it. The pity is that others do not.
Many of the questions the speaker (Lilian Lenton) is asked: several are irrelevant, many simply argumentative, whilst others show a real desire for information and understanding. We have the young men who fear the competition of women in the labour market, alleging that because of it they are unemployed – on what the woman is to live they neither know nor care; and others openly evince apprehension lest, when a woman can earn a decent living, her desire for the ties of matrimony may diminish, and loudly answer in the affirmative when asked if they like the idea that a woman is dependent upon them. Not few in number are the youths of about 16 who assert our "mental and physical" inferiority to the male sex; and one of the meetings we held in the rain was greatly enlivened by the arrival of a wild-eyed young enthusiast, supported by a little band of men and women, and armed with a copy of the New Testament from which he read appropriate extracts, and did his best to turn our meeting into a religious discussion.
After strenuous appeals, sales slowly increased and by December 1910 issues 53 to 59 sold in total 8450 copies nationwide. While it never rivalled either Common Cause or Votes for Women, many members of the WFL did recognise the importance of their own paper in keeping members informed and in generating a sense of a united organisation. After the early difficulties the NEC took over more direct control of The Vote, especially after Charlotte Despard became the editor.
In 1913 and 1914 a number of blanked out spaces appeared in The Vote's pages, but this apparent censorship never reached the scale applied by publishers to the WSPU's The Suffragette, which first appeared in October 1912. After the outbreak of the war in August 1914, The Vote's commitment to keeping members informed continued, although the number of pages was reduced. Despite its smaller form The Vote was faithfully published every week throughout the 1920s, interpreting the turbulent changes in the status and experiences of women and of the women's movement itself.
In the 1920s the Vote, whose readership had contracted sharply during the war, focused more on international issues and also more generally covered issues deemed to be of interest to women - from female swimmers of the English channel to "Women of the Empire".