Militancy and Humor – Women’s Social Political Union founded October 10, 1903

Wyatt and Jonah at the gates of UK Parliament

Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), militant wing of the British woman suffrage movement. WSPU was founded in Manchester on October 10, 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst The WSPU sought votes for women in a country that had expressly denied women suffrage in 1832.

Initially the WSPU’s tactics were to cause disruption and some civil disobedience, such as the ‘rush’ on Parliament in October 1908 when it encouraged the public to join them in an attempt to invade the House of Commons. 60,000 people gathered.

Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel were known for arson, window smashing and picture slashing, but less is know about their use of humor. The exploration of humour within the WSPU’s work reveals some of the links between humour and social protest in the early twentieth century, and considers the extent to which its use in public political behaviour might be gendered. Socialist women carried this sense of possibility into the WSPU.

As the Union expanded into a national organization its membership broadened and imported other new cultural trends. There was a strong cohort of artistic, bohemian women in its ranks. The WSPU also attracted numbers of intelligent working-class girls who had taken advantage of the expansion of educational opportunities in the 1890s, often as pupil teachers then through University scholarships and extension schemes.4 The potent combination of such individuals in its ranks working amidst expanding definitions of femininity made the Union a unique presence in early twentieth-century politics in its aims, member- ship, organisation and particularly through its campaigning methods which challenged and expanded contemporary understandings of the political.

In an age when women were considered inferior to men, an inferiority underlined by their subordinate legal position, many suffragettes found that provoking laughter at the expense of their opponents created a powerful and subversive weapon which they put to good use in their campaigns. Suffragettes most obviously used humour reactively to diffuse threaten- ing situations. It was not unusual for them to meet with hostility from crowds during their propagandizing.

Suffragettes became skilled at dealing with interruptions. Responses born of frustration demonstrate speakers’ abilities to think on their feet and turn insults to their advantage, mirroring Freud’s observations regarding the ability of jokes to transform hearers into co-haters.40 In Somerset Annie Kenney found ‘‘an elderly man kept repeating the same statement ever few minutes ‘if you were my wife I’d give you poison’’’. Eventually, the speaker, ‘‘tired of his repeated interruption, replied ‘yes, and if I were your wife I’d take it

Within the WSPU itself, humour also played a vital but less self-conscious role in uniting women together through difficult circum- stances. All political organizations attract their share of intrigue and personality clashes and the WSPU was no exception. In this way they devised new strategies which were not hampered by women’s lack of access to the formalized political processes of Edwardian Britain, but rather exploited women’s status as outsiders.

As well as being a deliberate campaigning tactic, humour between suffragettes was also vital in keeping women engaged and motivated through the more tiring or dangerous aspects of their work. For many women it was clear that laughter during – and about – their suffrage activities deepened the bonds of friendship they felt with their co-workers and carried them through more difficult times.

Passage of the Representation of the People Act in 1918 didn’t go far enough into establishing the right to vote for all women as it still required them to own property. The Representation of the People Act 1928 did away with the property requirements for women, finally opening the door to all persons 21 years of age or older.

Sources: Britannica ; Guardian; UK Parliament; International Review of Social History

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