Deeds, Not Words: 38 Photos That Show The Militant Side Of The Suffrage Movement

Published May 25, 2017
Deeds Not Words 1908
St Catherines Church Hatcham
Black Friday Struggle
Black Friday Ada Wright
Deeds, Not Words: 38 Photos That Show The Militant Side Of The Suffrage Movement
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Women didn’t win the vote by holding up signs and waiting for men to give them permission. They took the fight to the streets – and, though history usually brushes over the dirty details, it was sometimes violent. Some of the more militant suffragettes smashed windows, set buildings on fire, and once even tried to assassinate Britain's Prime Minister.

These women largely came from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), one of the leading organizations advocating for women's suffrage in the United Kingdom in the early 1900s.

For decades beforehand, women had generally tried to win their rights peacefully, but in 1903, that changed. That year, Emmeline Pankhurst formed the WSPU under the motto "deeds, not words.”

At first, most of the suffragettes’ “deeds” consisted of holding rallies and heckling politicians. Only a few were truly militant – like Mary Leigh, who started smashing store windows as a form of protest.

Leigh ended up in prison after one particular vicious day. She hurled an ax at Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, missing his head but wounding another man in his carriage. Leigh fled before they could find her, but was caught later in the day trying to burn a theater to the ground.

The suffragettes went guerilla in 1910, after a day that went down in history as “Black Friday”. When Asquith delayed passing the Conciliation Bill, which would have given property-owning women the right to vote, a group of 300 women tried to storm the House of Commons in protest. The police became violent, brutally beating the women and arresting 119 people.

From that day on, the suffragettes became increasingly violent. They took up Mary Leigh’s window-smashing campaign, walking through the streets with hammers and breaking every shop window they saw. They burned buildings to the ground, usually targeting the homes of politicians or clubs that only allowed men. Until they got the right to vote, they would make life for men hell.

Hundreds of women were arrested. In prison, many went on hunger strikes. Prison guards started force-feeding them to keep them alive, often having to jam tubes painfully up their noses to do it. Eventually, authorities passed the “Cat and Mouse Act,” a law that allowed them to set hunger-striking suffragettes free and arrest them the second they’d eaten a morsel of food.

Ultimately, World War I brought an end to the violence. The suffragettes called for a peace treaty during the war and, shortly after, women won the right to vote.

Time passed, and the memory of those militant days started to fade. Today, most of the stories we hear and photos we see of their movement are of women holding signs or handing out petitions – but it took much more than that to win the right to vote. It took a revolution – with hammers, axes, and fire.

Next, check out these photographs of the suffragettes who defended women's rights with jujutsu. Then, check out the vintage propaganda posters that people once used to try to stop women from gaining the right to vote.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Oliver, Mark. "Deeds, Not Words: 38 Photos That Show The Militant Side Of The Suffrage Movement.", May 25, 2017, Accessed June 25, 2024.