Photograph of ‘Rokeby Venus’, c1647–51, by Diego Velázquez
‘Rokeby Venus’, c1647–51, by Diego Velázquez, slashed in an attack by Mary Richardson in 1914. © Public Domain, via The National Gallery
‘Rokeby Venus’, c1647–51, by Diego Velázquez, slashed in an attack by Mary Richardson in 1914. © Public Domain, via The National Gallery

The Creativity of Protest

Suffragettes were astute and inventive, creating new forms of protest to keep their campaign in the public eye. The majority of their actions were peaceful. Despite this, they were usually described as acts of militancy by politicians and the press.

Challenging conventions

In Edwardian society, women had to behave in a very particular way in public if they wanted to be considered ‘respectable’. Propriety, passivity, and deference to men were key expectations. The suffragettes constantly challenged the status quo.

They took to the streets to sell the Union’s newspapers Votes for Women and The Suffragette. To avoid being charged with obstruction, they had to stand in the gutter.

They donned sandwich boards to spread the Union’s message. They hired horse-drawn omnibuses which they drove around city streets covered in posters and decked out in the Union’s colours of purple, white and green.

Prisoner parades

Many suffragettes were imprisoned during their campaign. Those who weren’t would parade dressed as convicts to draw attention to their fellow suffragettes’ plight.

When they were released from prison, their fellow activists met them at the gates. The newly freed women were often paraded through the streets in open carriages pulled by others dressed in the suffragette colours.

In the case of high profile prisoners, they repeated the welcome parades in other cities. Patricia Woodlock was paraded in London and Liverpool in June 1909 after serving a three-month sentence. This was the longest sentence passed on a suffragette prisoner at that time.

Direct action

A small number of women attempted different forms of protest that we call direct action.

Human letter

In February 1909 a post office regulation was introduced enabling ‘human letters’ to be sent by an express messenger. This inspired a new form of protest by the WSPU. They ‘posted’ Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street (listed Grade I). The letter, which cost 3d, was refused and returned to the WSPU’s offices.

Chained protest

In October 1908 Muriel Matters and Helen Fox from the Women’s Freedom League chained themselves to a grille in the House of Commons Ladies’ Gallery. The grille was one that kept women out of sight. In order to remove Matters and Fox, the grille had to be cut away.

The following April a number of women from the WSPU handcuffed themselves to statues in St Stephen’s Hall in the Palace of Westminster (listed Grade I).

These protests were aimed at drawing publicity to the suffragettes’ demands by creating a public spectacle that couldn’t be removed quickly.

Most of us still associate those images of women chained to railings with the militant suffrage campaign. In fact, incidents like this were quite rare and often carried out for very specific purposes.

In January 1908 Edith New and Olivia Smith chained themselves to the railings outside 10 Downing Street. While they distracted the police outside, their companion Flora Drummond slipped inside the building to disrupt a cabinet meeting.

Making funds go further

The WSPU attracted donations from wealthy supporters. The Union employed paid organisers in districts across Britain and maintained a full-time team in its London headquarters.

Their campaigns were expensive, so protests had to be low cost and effective. From 1913 the Union began a series of theatre, cinema and restaurant protests where they had captive audiences. Union members would go to selected venues in pairs or small groups and deliver impromptu speeches. In cinemas and theatres they would shower leaflets onto the audience in the stalls from the gallery above.

Protesting could be dangerous for the women involved. Audiences were often angry when their enjoyment was interrupted. Three suffragettes were violently thrown out of Kelly’s Theatre, Liverpool in February 1914, with one woman having her dress badly torn.

Restaurant protests were equally risky. One anonymous suffragette had her speech drowned out by a hissing crowd at Lyons’ Corner House Piccadilly in December 1913. She was then thrown out by the management.

Attacks on art

A handful of high-profile suffragette protests were more violent. In April 1913 Evelyn Manesta and Lillian Forrester attacked paintings in the Manchester Art Gallery (listed Grade II). In 1914 other activists carried out nine similar attacks in galleries in London and Birmingham as well as the Royal Scottish Academy.

In the most famous of these Mary Richardson attacked Valasquez’ painting Venus at her Mirror (also known as the Rokeby Venus). The painting had only recently gone on display having been bought for the nation by public subscription.

Richardson attacked the painting with a hatchet to protest against a recent prison sentence imposed on Emmeline Pankhurst. In court she contrasted the outward beauty of Venus with the inner beauty of Mrs Pankhurst. Other suffragettes were less selective when choosing the art they would target.

After the art attacks many museums and galleries temporarily closed. When they reopened, they refused to admit women carrying bags or wearing large coats. Police issued photographs of suffragette prisoners to gallery owners. These were used to help recognize and refuse entry to women planning further attacks.

Was this page helpful?