How radical British suffragettes influenced America’s campaign for the women’s vote

Emmeline Pankhurst, the British suffragette leader known for her combative — and sometimes violent — activism, took the stage at Madison Square Garden in New York City on the evening of October 21, 1913.

She stood before a raucous crowd of about 3,000 people, many of whom had paid $2.50 for a ticket to hear her speak. For some in the audience, Pankhurst’s notoriety was as much a draw as her message. The Pankhurst family — Emmeline and her daughters — and members of their suffrage organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union, had become infamous for their militant tactics in Britain.

They heckled members of Parliament, shattered windows, burned down politicians’ houses, smashed up post office boxes, and planted bombs in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and near the Bank of England. When they got arrested, and imprisoned, they went on hunger strikes — all in the name of getting women the right to vote.

British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst is arrested outside Buckingham Palace in London on May 21, 1914.
Jimmy Sime/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Onstage at Madison Square Garden, Pankhurst explained why she and other British women activists had set aside peaceful methods of protest in favor of more confrontational action.

“Men got the vote because they were and would be violent. The women did not get it because they were constitutional and law-abiding,” she said. So, she explained, “the twentieth century women began to say to themselves, ‘Is it not time, since our methods have failed and the men’s have succeeded, that we should take a leaf out of their political book?’”

“I want to say here and now that the only justification for violence, the only justification for damage to property, the only justification for risk to the comfort of other human beings is the fact that you have tried all other available means and have failed to secure justice,” she continued. “I tell you that in Great Britain there is no other way.”

In the United States, the suffrage movement had ground on for nearly 70 years, focused on recruiting educated white women who lobbied and petitioned for suffrage, which at the turn of the last century was focused on winning women the vote state by state.

But a new crop of activists in the US felt the movement had stalled and gone stale. Though a handful of states, mostly out West, had enfranchised women, these suffragists began pushing a federal amendment to guarantee women the right to vote — and sought bolder, more attention-grabbing strategies, including a massive procession in Washington, DC, just that winter, to try to reinvigorate the campaign.

Some of those prominent figures, including National Woman’s Party leaders Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, had fought and gotten arrested alongside British suffragettes. So when they wanted to shake things up in America, they looked to the British suffragettes, and the Pankhursts, for a potential playbook. And then they made it all their own.

“The American suffragists were never as radical as the Pankhursts and their followers in the Women’s Social and Political Union in Great Britain,” Jean H. Baker, a historian and professor emeritus at Goucher College, told me. “But nonetheless, there is a clear line of transmission from Great Britain to the United States.”

British police prevent Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters Christabel and Sylvia from entering Buckingham Palace to present a petition to the king.
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The Pankhursts took a few tours of America, where they spoke about the shared struggle for women’s suffrage. Like the event in Madison Square Garden, they drew crowds and an eager press, which was exactly what everyone wanted: to bring attention to the cause of women’s rights, to keep it squarely and relentlessly in the public eye. The militant suffragettes were also a curiosity in the US, so they sold tickets — an effective fundraising tool, especially for the British suffragettes.

“I see it as a mutual interchange,” Baker said. “I think it’s typical that what Americans gave back is money, and what Americans took from Britain are tactics and strategies.”

The suffrage movements on each continent were distinct, shaped by their specific politics and political structures, public mood, and personalities. But there was a “sense of international sisterly solidarity,” said Diane Atkinson, author of Rise Up Women!: The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes.

One hundred years later, on the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women (though not all women) the right to vote, that mutual exchange stands out for how it fashioned the very public fight leading up to ratification, and transformed the act of protest in the United States.

The connections between the British and US suffrage movements

Alice Paul and Lucy Burns met in the Canon Row Police Station in London after both were arrested following a suffragette “deputation” — or delegation — to the House of Commons in 1909 to confront Prime Minister H.H. Asquith. The march ended in scuffles with the police.

“She had a little United States flag of some type on her suit, and so I went up to her to introduce myself — we were the only two Americans there,” Paul told interviewer Amelia R. Fry for an oral history project, of that encounter with Burns in the London police station.

Paul was a Quaker from New Jersey who’d gone to England to study social work; Burns was an Irish-Catholic Brooklynite who’d studied at Vassar and Yale and then went abroad. They both became immersed in the British suffrage movement in the late 1900s and early 1910s, before returning to the United States to lead the suffrage fight there.

Alice Paul and Lucy Burns are among the most notable suffragettes — but far from the only ones — who had personal connections to the Pankhursts, and learned from the suffragettes’ strategies, and borrowed and tweaked them for the suffrage campaign in the United States.

Alice Paul in 1920.
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Lucy Burns in 1917.
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Those strategies made the British suffragettes stand out at home and abroad. They marched; they heckled and confronted politicians. They stormed Parliament and Buckingham Palace.

They engaged in acts of vandalism: smashing windows, slashing paintings, throwing rocks, spitting at police. Eventually, their tactics grew more extreme to include bombing and arson, even burning, or attempting to burn down politicians’ houses. The suffragettes’ motto: “Deeds, not words.”

“If men use explosives and bombs for their own purpose they call it war,” Christabel Pankhurst wrote in 1913, “and the throwing of a bomb that destroys other people is then described as a glorious and heroic deed. Why should a woman not make use of the same weapons as men. It is not only war we have declared. We are fighting for a revolution!”

“Suffragette” itself was a derogatory term coined by the British press to diminish the campaigners as emotional and unstable. But the suffragettes, ever so good at public relations, adopted it for themselves.

Not all of those fighting for suffrage in Britain adhered to Pankhurst and the WSPU’s strategies. Specifically, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Fawcett, thought peaceful advocacy was a much sounder and effective strategy.

But it was the Pankhursts’ revolutionary approach, and their unabashed fight for women’s rights, that drew in Paul and Burns. “They were charismatic,” Atkinson said of the Pankhursts. “They’re offering this great, new world of women in Parliament, women changing and improving women’s lives.”

Paul decided to join the Pankhursts’ WSPU organization, sending in an application and 25 cents. “I was just so extremely happy to really be a part of it,” she recalled in her oral history. “Then I began to go to all their meetings. They had brief meetings every week in a big hall in London. The meetings were all oh, so enthusiastic.”

Paul sold the suffragette newspaper, Votes for Women, on the street, as bystanders taunted her. Burns did the same, also organizing in Edinburgh, Scotland. They both volunteered for WSPU events where they knew they would get arrested — and get arrested they did.

Take a confrontation in November 1909 where Alice Paul and another protester, Amelia Brown, disguised themselves as housekeepers to sneak into a venue for a banquet featuring Prime Minister Asquith. Burns, meanwhile, dressed up and mingled with the distinguished crowd, which happened to include Cabinet minister (and future prime minister) Winston Churchill.

Burns approached Churchill, whipping out a banner and shouting, “How can you dine here while women are starving in prison?” before she was quickly hauled out. Later, when Asquith began to speak, Paul and Brown interrupted him by breaking the windows with their shoes and shouting “Votes for women!” Both were arrested.

Both Paul and Burns were imprisoned during their time in Britain, where they joined other suffragettes on hunger strikes. They were force-fed, prison guards shoving tubes down the women’s throats. Paul was ultimately arrested seven times and jailed three times, at times refusing to wear the standard prison uniforms, which suffragettes objected to because they considered themselves political prisoners.

Suffragettes picket for the release of their imprisoned leader Alice Paul in 1917.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

As an American, Paul’s resistance gained press attention in Britain as well as the United States. Her imprisonment and hunger strikes had taken a physical toll, but when Paul returned to the United States in 1910, she took up the suffrage struggle back home. “She learned everything she needed to know from the Pankhursts, and imported all of these ideas when she finally came back to America,” Tina Cassidy, author of Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait? Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson, and the Fight for the Right to Vote, told me.

American suffragists’ strategies were inspired by the suffragettes

The day before Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration, on March 3, 1913, the suffragists came to Washington, DC. Organized by Paul and Burns, thousands of women (and some men) marched, each representing the history and contributions of women through the decades. They carried a banner: “We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States enfranchising the women of this country.”

The procession was peaceful, but as the women marched along Pennsylvania Avenue they encountered angry mobs, many in town for Wilson’s inauguration. The crowd shouted lewd comments and spat at the women; some women were physically assaulted. The police stood by and let the chaos happen.

Of all the historic marches in DC, this was the first. “There had never been a procession of women for any corner of the world or in Washington, probably; at least nobody had ever seen it,” Paul recalled. “Nobody ever dreamt that women — you were always seeing these Elks and people going around in processions — but they never thought of women doing such a thing.”

This parade became the jolt the American suffrage movement, which leaders like Paul felt had grown stagnant, needed. “There was evidence that the old approach was not working, being polite was not working,” Cassidy said.

“This was at a time when women didn’t even walk down the street unattended. The fact that [Paul] gathered 5,000 to 8,000 women to march, holding banners, demanding the vote, was mind-blowing,” she added. “There had never been a protest like that in Washington, DC, before. It was historic.”

Suffragettes parading in the streets of DC in 1913.
Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Paul wanted to sustain this attention. She also believed strongly that the suffrage movement should pursue a federal amendment. The idea had always percolated, but the suffrage organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), had instead pursued a state-by-state strategy, in part to appease Southern states that feared the enfranchisement of Black women. (Paul and Burns eventually split from NAWSA in 1914, creating their own organization that would become the National Woman’s Party.)

But Paul also acquiesced to the South in her drive for a federal amendment, and the result was the sidelining of Black suffragists. Although the procession in DC was historic, the women visible were almost all white; Paul segregated the parade, forcing them to march in the end. Anti-lynching activist and suffragist Ida B. Wells-Barnett defied those orders, joining her state delegation along the route.

Paul’s march was a radical idea. The federal amendment was a radical idea. But it was painfully far from being inclusive, even as many black, Indigenous, and Latinx suffragettes also transformed the campaign for suffrage, and equal rights.

But march signaled a shift in the suffrage campaign — a more aggressive and confrontational movement. “There were many, many, many other tactics over Woodrow Wilson’s entire two terms — many of which had the flavor of the British suffrage movement,” Cassidy said.

The flavor of the British suffrage movement, but never the degree of violence. Paul’s association with the British suffrage movement bolstered her reputation, said Katherine H. Adams, a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who’s written widely on women’s suffrage. But while Paul touted those connections and the shared struggle, she would also separate herself — and the US suffragists — from their militancy. “The Pankhursts were just so important for her,” Adams said, “for what she was willing to do — and what she was not willing to do.”

Opponents still leveraged Paul’s personal loyalty to the Pankhursts against her, even though she was careful not to endorse their tactics.

“The American press followed what was going on in England very closely, and lots of stories about the violence, the Pankhursts. And they held that up as potentially the direction in which Alice Paul was going,” said Mary Walton, journalist and author of A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot. “So there was that specter of violence. There always was sort of a shadow over Alice Paul.” The press, for example, sometimes referred to the National Woman’s Party as “militant.”

What the suffragists did do still was radical for the time. They engaged in public action — processions, public speeches, road trips, and publicity stunts like dropping leaflets from biplanes — and acts of civil disobedience.

“All of these things were nonviolent; all of them were considered crazy,” Cassidy said. “And I think that ultimately, all of them worked.”

The suffragists’ campaign escalated in Wilson’s second term. In January 1917, suffragists began picketing outside the White House gates. “Silent Sentinels,” as they were called, stood out there six days a week, in all kinds of weather, hoisting banners in one long, unbroken protest.

Picketing had long been a tactic used in US labor movements. “Picketing by women wasn’t new. What was new was a political target taking direct action into politics, right to Woodrow Wilson’s doorstep,” Walton said.

“Silent sentinels” picketing outside the White House in 1917.
FPG/Getty Images

This also borrowed from the British suffragettes. The US suffrage movement previously strove to avoid partisan fights because they thought that might disadvantage their cause. Paul and the National Woman’s Party saw it differently: Only by putting pressure on politicians in power could they be successful in forcing change. Wilson, as the leader of the Democratic Party, mattered most of all: If he could support suffrage, then perhaps members of his party in Congress would follow.

“When she began the Silent Sentinels, carrying the placards against Wilson, that was pretty revolutionary, radical for anybody in the United States,” Goucher College’s Baker told me. “No one had attacked the president in those kinds of terms.”

“And yet,” she added, when you “look at what the Pankhursts were doing, they were much more likely to challenge the prime minister. So what you see is an adaptation, according to the culture of the United States.”

World War I gave the suffragists a new platform

The picketing outside the White House continued as the United States entered World War I. That decision divided the suffragists, with some questioning whether it was unpatriotic to protest during war. (The Pankhursts put their militant tactics on hold in 1914 because of the war effort in Britain.)

Many opponents of the suffragists also saw it as traitorous. “Once they [were seen as] sort of silly objects of curiosity,” Walton said. “Now they were disloyal; maybe they were traitors.” The women often faced angry mobs, including of servicemen, who ripped down the signs or sometimes attacked the women. The police, again, mostly stood by, if they did not join in. The so-called militant women avoided striking back or striking out at the crowds.

But the suffragists also used the conflict to point out Wilson’s hypocrisy, as they saw it. “Mr. President, it is unjust to deny women a voice in their government when the government is conscripting their sons,” one banner read. Later, as Wilson spoke about democracy at the end of the war, the suffragists would burn his speeches.

“These were very aggressive choices, certainly for women — [as] they would have been for men at that time,” Adams said.

The women were frequently arrested, often charged with offenses like obstructing traffic or setting fires. They refused to pay their fines, arguing they had a right to protest, and dozens were jailed, many more than once.

“There were women from all over the United States. Mothers sent their daughters and aunts sent their nieces, and as soon as, you know, so many were arrested, there were more women to take their place,” said Susan Goodier, a lecturer in history at SUNY Oneonta and co-author of Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State. “This was very, very powerful at the time.”

The suffragists were imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, where they went on hunger strikes, as Paul and Burns had in England. And, again, the guards tried to force-feed the women. In November 1917, on what’s known as the “Night of Terror,” the (male) prison guards beat and tortured the women. Guards chained Burns’s hands to prison bars and made her stand all night.

The brutal treatment of the women helped sway public opinion toward the suffragists once again. As historians pointed out, these were white, educated, upper- and middle-class women, who had influence, and got attention. If the war had made the suffragists seem like traitors, their imprisonment helped turned them into martyrs.

A woman protests the imprisonment of British suffragettes who were on a hunger strike.
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Christabel Pankhurst waving to hunger strikers from a house overlooking Holloway Prison in 1909.
Historica Graphica Collection/Getty Images

Paul “knew the impression that it would make, and it did, with all these middle-class women being tortured,” Baker said. “It was an influential part of the reason why Wilson finally supports the amendment.”

Wilson’s position did shift, but even then, women did not cease their efforts. In February 1919, they blamed Wilson for not doing enough to force senators to vote for a federal amendment. So they burned Wilson in effigy: a 2-foot-high, straw-stuffed doll they set alight in Lafayette Park, right in front of the White House.

“Mr. Wilson, as the leader of his party, has forgotten, or else he never knew the spirit of true democracy,” said Sue White of Nashville, Tennessee, who dropped the doll into the flames, as reported by the New York Times. “We feel that there is a need of a determined protest of this sort; a protest which will shock Wilson and his followers into putting into action the principle that those who submit to authority shall have a voice in government.”

100 years later, the complicated legacy of suffrage

The Senate finally did pass the 19th Amendment in June 1919, and the final state, Tennessee, ratified it on August 18, 1920. It was officially certified on August 26, 1920, now Women’s Equality Day. Britain had given many women the right to vote in 1918, though it expanded voting rights further in 1928.

But as Vox’s Anna North details, the 19th Amendment didn’t give all women the right to vote. This makes the true history of the US suffrage movement far more “twisted and tangled,” as Goodier put it. Black women, immigrant women, and Native American women were not fully enfranchised until decades later, after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other reforms.

The suffragists’ radical tactics, like the protests of the president, the picketing, even the hunger strikes, helped solidify what now seems like an American tradition of nonviolence. But it also hit up against another American reality of who gets to protest, and how, and when.

As much as some of the American suffragists looked outward, they had incredible blind spots in their own country, most painfully on race. Some suffragists were outright racist. Sometimes white leaders would use stories, particularly those of Indigenous women to drive interest in the movement, without actually advocating for their rights, as North reported. Black women were largely excluded from prominent suffrage organizations, with leaders afraid they would jeopardize the movement’s efforts in the Jim Crow South.

The Executive Committee of the International Council of Women, an organization dedicated to giving women the right to vote, meets in England in 1899. Susan B. Anthony, one of the council’s founders, is seated third from left.
Corbis/Getty Images

“These women were some of the most politically astute women ever,” Goodier said of the white suffragist leaders. “And unfortunately, the flip side of that was they were willing to demand educated suffrage or suffrage only for white, educated, elite women.”

When African American suffragists wanted to join the infamous March 1913 procession in DC, Paul initially took a squishy position, leaving it up to the individual states on whether Black suffragists would participate, which she also assumed would make their presence less noticeable.

But Black suffragists from a Howard University sorority wanted to join the procession, and so Paul instead, segregated the parade, putting the Black suffragists toward the end.

Twenty-two members of Delta Sigma Theta sorority from Howard University marched together, which included Mary Church Terrell, a Black suffrage leader who also advocate for suffrage and equal rights in abroad. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a journalist and civil rights activist who founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago, joined the parade as the Illinois delegation passed, where she stood up at the front of the delegation. “The southern women have tried to evade the [race] question time and again,” she said, according to Ellen Carol DuBois’s Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote. “If the Illinois women do not take a stand now in this great democratic parade, then the colored women are lost. I shall not march at all unless I can march under the Illinois banner.”

Those racial divisions didn’t end, even after the ratification of the 19th Amendment. “In 1921, a group of Black women sought help from the National Woman’s Party but were told that their disenfranchisement was a ‘race issue’ and not a ‘women’s issue,’” Liette Gidlow, associate professor of history at Wayne State University, told the Wall Street Journal.

But Black suffragists also had ties abroad, particularly to the UK, ones rooted in the abolitionist movement. A bit like the Pankhursts touring America trying to get support for their cause, Black activists saw generating support in Britain as a way help sway public opinion at home.

Sarah Parker Remond, an American women’s rights and anti-slavery crusader, toured Britain and Ireland in the late 1850s, drawing crowds to hear her case against slavery and, later, the Confederacy. In 1866, she signed what’s believed to be the first British petition for women’s suffrage, one of 1,500 signatures.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett with her children Charles, Herman, Ida, and Alfreda in 1909.
Wikipedia

Wells-Barnett also toured Britain in the 1890s, using her speeches to denounce and unabashedly expose racial injustice in the United States. Notably, Wells-Barnett used her platform to call out the leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (maybe best known for Prohibition but who also embraced women’s suffrage) for failing to condemn the lynching of Black men who were falsely accused of rape. That act helped expose the racial divisions in the suffrage movement, both in the US and in Britain.

America’s history of slavery and Jim Crow laws shaped its suffrage movement, but Britain’s history, including that of its empire, also tinged its suffrage campaign. More than white women fought for suffrage alongside the Pankhursts in Britain — Princess Sophia Duleep Singh (who also happened to be the goddaughter of Queen Victoria) and other Indian women fought for suffrage; Singh joined the deputations and ambushed politicians along with her white counterparts.

In a June 1911 procession, Indian women marched alongside those from Australia and New Zealand, an attempt by the white suffragist leaders to show how strong the suffrage movement was throughout the empire.

Indian suffragettes in London, June 17, 1911.
Museum of London/Getty Images

But that also carried with it a sense of paternalism and imperialism. Sumita Mukherjee, a historian from Bristol University and author of Indian Suffragettes: Female Identities and Transnational Networks, told the New Statesman in 2015 that “British suffragettes tried to convince women from other areas of the British Empire that if they got the vote, they could look after Indian women and other women in the other communes of Britain.”

“There’s an implication that white women felt they were more able to speak for Indian women than Indian women themselves,” she added. “So although I’m not sure I’d say it’s overtly racist, it is imperialist.”

The links between the US and British suffrage movements show how a women’s movement can travel and transform and change — but they also show the limitations and prejudices of the moment.

The centennial of the 19th Amendment also comes in an election year in the US, where it is startlingly clear that voting rights remain unequal in America, inequities made worse by the pandemic. To remedy those, and realize now the ideals of suffrage for everyone, it’s worth remembering the British suffragettes’ slogan: “Deeds, not words.”

It was both a strategy and a message: Do not say you want the vote, act it. Do not say you want voting to be free and fair, do something to make it happen. “It’s easy to carry a placard, but it’s much harder to do any more than that,” Atkinson said. “But they did, in a much more hostile environment.”

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