What the Suffragettes did for us - Anarchist Federation

Suffragettes march in Bermondsey, south London, 1911
Suffragettes march in Bermondsey, south London, 1911

An anarchist responds to the guilt-tripping of women which occurs every election time about how suffragettes fought for women's' right to vote.

Submitted by Steven. on April 20, 2015

It’s election time again, and anarchist women are once more being lectured on doing our duty to those who died for our vote.

For the record, the suffragettes’ demand was that women should be balloted wherever men were. They weren’t fighting for every woman in perpetuity to be guilt-tripped into supporting any political system that used the ballot box to legitimise itself. They trusted future women to make their own decisions. Sylvia Pankhurst, for one, lived to reject parliamentary democracy as an “out of date machine” and refused to cast a vote or stand for election herself. This election, she’d be angry with every party’s participation in cuts to essential women’s services, not the women who spoil their ballots or stay away.

More than the vote

There was a lot more to the suffragettes than just the vote. They were about women’s solidarity, our ability to work and fight together, to write and speak from our own experience, not just on the vote but on sexual, social and vocational freedoms, like fair pay and reproductive rights. Being denied the vote was an insult to women as intelligent, rational human beings, regardless of how much use the vote itself was. Using the vote was almost beside the point compared to what it would mean for women to have the vote, to not be seen as mere extensions of their husbands.

Getting the vote was a victory largely because of what women achieved through the process of fighting for it. The speeches, publications, smashed windows, battles with police, martial arts training, imprisonments, hunger strikes, resistance to force-feeding and refusal to give in: these did more to raise the status and confidence of women, as public and political people, than the vote itself ever has. Much more than having women MPs or careerists who have cynically used women’s struggles to promote themselves.

Telling us that we have to vote because votes for women were hard won, is condescending, paternalistic shit. Working class men also fought for the right to vote, but are much less criticised if they suggest that there are more effective means of change than the ballot box. For women, voting is turned into an issue of conformity rather than conscience, in direct opposition to who suffragettes were and what they fought for. The suffragettes never intended their campaigning to stop with getting the vote. Many continued fighting when their leaders were co-opted. They weren’t satisfied, and they didn’t intend us to be.


The suffragettes achieved their aims because they were a radical, inspirational and effective direct action movement. They achieved incredible things for themselves and for future generations of women. Yes, they deserve our respect and our gratitude. But more than that, they deserve our study and our effort to comprehend the full enormity and complexity of their struggle. They deserve better than to be reduced to a single-issue sound-bite.

So this polling day, whether you vote or organise or both, consider honouring the suffragettes’ memory by not using them as a stick to beat women with when they treat their vote exactly as the suffragettes did: as their own, to use or not, on their own terms.



9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by commieprincess on April 20, 2015

This is really fantastic :-)


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by ajjohnstone on April 21, 2015

The parliamentarian SPGB being their usual cranky maverick selves stood opposed to the women's suffrage movement. (Strangely they were uninterested in the necessity of gaining support and understanding of 50% plus 1 of the population that some people accuse them of advocating)

At the time the SPGB maintained that the working class possessed quite sufficient votes at their disposal to effect the revolutionary purpose when the class are sufficiently class conscious to make the time opportune. It is a question of education, not of extensions of the franchise ; and since the line of social cleavage is drawn through classes and not through sexes, there is nothing undemocratic in proposing to proceed even with our present limited male suffrage. The WSPU supported votes for women on the same basis as that which obtained for men at the time, i.e. based on a property qualification (it was 1918 when all men over 21 got the vote until then about 40% were excluded. It was 1950 when the rich/intellectuals lost their entitlement to an extra vote at thier university constituencies.)

Whatever its intention, given the situation where most property was held in the name of husbands rather than wives, this would have had the effect of enfranchising only a relatively small number of women, and clearly only rich women. In other words, they were not democrats who were campaigning for votes for all women but people whose policy would have strengthened the political power of the propertied class by increasing the proportion of capitalist voters at the expense of working class voters. No wonder the Socialist Party opposed them.

Sylvia was expelled from the WSPU by her mother and sister. In 1914 she set up the East London Federation of the Suffragettes, with its paper the Woman's Dreadnought, which she edited. The ELFS supported adult suffrage. It was renamed the Workers' Suffrage Federation in 1916 and the following year its paper became the Workers' Dreadnought (in 1948 she joined the Labour Party.)

What we said in 1908

What we said in 1910


8 years 12 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Spikymike on April 22, 2015

Spot on about the WSPU though the spgb's approach to suffrage then and now has hardly been consistent and I still prefer Sylivia's 'anti-parliamentary' communist phase. The recent address by a 'socialist feminist' member of the spgb is certainly an advance of sorts on the spgb's past approach to feminism but unfortunately not to parliament and votes.


8 years 11 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by HypatiaRatkins on May 8, 2015

"Telling us that we have to vote because votes for women were hard won, is condescending, paternalistic sh*t" ~ No, it's spot on; most who don't vote are simply apathetic, it's not about political ideology, & it's why we end up with genuine shite like Cameron with power over us.

If the Suffragettes wern't used to encourage voting they'd be all but forgotten, sadly.

It isn't soley women who are criticised for voting apathy; men are equally targeted wherever I've witnessed it.


8 years 11 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Battlescarred on May 8, 2015

You mean like this comment from someone urging people to vote" If you haven’t voted yet, I urge you to do so – especially you ladies out there, lest we forget the Suffragettes". Patronising? Surely not.

Chilli Sauce

8 years 11 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on May 8, 2015


"Telling us that we have to vote because votes for women were hard won, is condescending, paternalistic sh*t" ~ No, it's spot on; most who don't vote are simply apathetic, it's not about political ideology,

That's probably true, but I think apathy is a fairly rational response to representative politics. Really, most people who do vote only happen to be apathetic one less day every five years.