Women's Freedom League

In 1907 some leading members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) began to question the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst. These women objected to the way that the Pankhursts were making decisions without consulting members. They also felt that a small group of wealthy women like Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Clare Mordan and Mary Blathwayt were having too much influence over the organisation. (1)

In a conference in September 1907, Emmeline Pankhurst told members that she intended to run the WSPU without interference. As Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence pointed out: "She called upon those who had faith in her leadership to follow her, and to devote themselves to the sole end of winning the vote. This announcement was met with a dignified protest from Mrs. Despard. These two notable women presented a great contrast, the one aflame with a single idea that had taken complete possession of her, the other upheld by a principle that had actuated a long life spent in the service of the people. Mrs. Despard calmly affirmed her belief in democratic equality and was convinced that it must be maintained at all costs. Mrs. Pankhurst claimed that there was only one meaning to democracy, and that was equal citizenship in a State, which could only be attained by inspired leadership. She challenged all who did not accept the leadership of herself and her daughter to resign from the Union that she had founded, and to form an organisation of their own." (2)

Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst sent out a letter to all branches of the WSPU stating that this was not in any way a democratic group. "We are not playing experiments with representative government. We are not a school for teaching women how to use the vote. We are a militant movement... It is not a school for teaching women how to use the vote. We are militant movement... It is after all a voluntary militant movement: those who cannot follow the general must drop out of the ranks." As Simon Webb has pointed out: "This is quite unambiguous. Members must not expect to influence policy or question the leader, the role is limited to obeying orders." (3)

As a result of this speech, Charlotte Despard, Teresa Billington-Greig, Edith How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Anne Cobden Sanderson, Emma Sproson, Margaret Nevinson, Henria Williams, Violet Tillard and seventy other members of the WSPU left to form the Women's Freedom League (WFL). Most of its members were socialists who wanted to work closely with the Labour Party who "regarded it as hypocritical for a movement for women's democracy to deny democracy to its own members." (4)

Women's Freedom League's touring publicity caravan.
Charlotte Despard and Alison Neilans inside the caravan.
Irene Tillard and Violet Tillard standing in front of the caravan.

Violet Tillard became Assistant Organising Secretary of the organisation. She was active in promoting women's suffrage in newspapers. In one letter she pointed out the difference between the Women's Freedom League and the Women Social & Political Union. "The Women's Freedom League differs from the Women's Social and Political Union chiefly in the internal organisation, which in democratic; and in the fact that it is not part of its policy at present to interrupt Cabinet Ministers at meetings; but the societies at one in their aim the removal of the sex disability, and in their policy of opposing the Government at bye-elections." (5)

Teresa Billington-Greig became chairman of the WFL Executive Committee and National Honorary Organising Secretary. She admitted that Charlotte Despard and Edith How-Martyn were important figures in the organisation. "I presided at both the conferences of the WFL which decided its future and at those that followed annually until 1911. This was by the express wish of Mrs Despard, who felt that the conduct of big business meetings was not the job for her... The queen-pin of our movement was of course Edith How-Martyn, who, as Honorary Secretary, carried the heaviest burden with a spirit which never faltered and won admiration from us all." (6)

Women's Freedom League's touring publicity caravan.
Women's Freedom League's touring publicity caravan.

Like the WSPU, the WFL was a militant organisation that was willing the break the law. As a result, over 100 of their members were sent to prison after being arrested on demonstrations or refusing to pay taxes. However, members of the WFL was a completely non-violent organisation and opposed the WSPU campaign of vandalism against private and commercial property. Court protests against the trial of women "by man made laws", a favourite idea of Teresa Billington-Greig, were carried out by the WFL. (7)

On 28th October 1908 Muriel Matters organised a WFL demonstration in the House of Commons. Two women chained themselves to the grille in front of the Ladies' Gallery. Meanwhile a group of women demonstrated in St Stephen's Hall. Fourteen of the women were arrested and taken to Cannon Row Police Station. (8) As a result of this several women spent a month in prison. (9)

Violet Tillard Assistant Organising Secretary of the WFL helped establish branches of the League on a caravan tour of the south-east counties of England. Tillard also established WFL branches in Ipswich, Carmarthen and Cardiff. In November, 1908, the caravan visited visited Sussex. On 28th Tillard spoke at a meeting at Upminster addressed by Alice Schofield and Henria Williams. (10)

William Pyne, waterman (1806)
Henria Williams chairing a meeting of the Women's Freedom League
at Upminster with Alice Schofield and Violet Tillard (28th November 1908)

The Women's Freedom League grew rapidly, and soon had sixty branches throughout Britain with an overall membership of about 4,000 people. This was over twice the size of the WSPU. The WFL also established its own newspaper, The Vote. Two of the WFL leaders, Teresa Billington-Greig and Charlotte Despard, were both talented writers and were the main people responsible for producing the newspaper. It was used to inform the public of WFL campaigns such as the refusal to pay taxes and to fill in the 1911 Census forms. One of Britain's leading writers, Cicely Hamilton, became editor of the newspaper. (11)

In 1906 Dora Montefiore refused to pay her taxes until women were granted the vote. Outside her home she placed a banner that read: “Women should vote for the laws they obey and the taxes they pay.” As she explained: "I was doing this because the mass of non-qualified women could not demonstrate in the same way, and I was to that extent their spokeswoman. It was the crude fact of women’s political disability that had to be forced on an ignorant and indifferent public, and it was not for any particular Bill or Measure or restriction that I was putting myself to this loss and inconvenience by refusing year after year to pay income tax, until forced to do so by the powers behind the Law."

This resulted in her Hammersmith home being besieged by bailiffs for six weeks. "Towards the end of June, the time was approaching when, according to information brought in from outside the Crown had the power to break open my front door and seize my goods for distraint. I consulted with friends and we agreed that as this was a case of passive resistance, nothing could be done when that crisis came but allow the goods to be distrained without using violence on our part. When, therefore, at the end of those weeks the bailiff carried out his duties, he again moved what he considered sufficient goods to cover the debt and the sale was once again carried out at auction rooms in Hammersmith. A large number of sympathisers were present, but the force of twenty-two police which the Government considered necessary to protect the auctioneer during the proceedings was never required, because again we agreed that it was useless to resist force majeure when it came to technical violence on the part of, the authorities." (12)

Edith How-Martyn
Edith How-Martyn, Charlotte Despard and Emma Sproson (c.1909)

Montefiore's campaign was supported by Annie Kenney and Teresa Billington-Greig but did not find favour with the leadership of the Women Social & Political Union (WSPU) and "no effort was ever made to organise the refusal by women to accept laws made for women without their consent. This changed in 1909 when the Women's Freedom League (WFL) established the Women's Tax Resistance League (WTRL). (13)

Over the next few years over 220 women took part in this campaign. This included Janie Allan, Charlotte Despard, Beatrice Harraden, Teresa Billington-Greig, Edith How-Martyn, Cicely Hamilton, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Anne Cobden Sanderson, Emma Sproson, Margaret Nevinson, Henria Williams, Violet Tillard, Edith Zangwill, Sophia Duleep Singh and Clemence Housman.

Sylvia Pankhurst, the author of The History of the Women's Suffrage Movement (1931): has argued: "Tax resistance and resistance to enumeration under the Census of that year were mild forms of militancy now in vogue. The Women's Freedom League had hoisted the standard of 'no vote, no tax' in the early days of its formation, and Mrs. Despard and others had suffered a succession of distraints, to the accompaniment of auction sale protest meetings. ... In May, 1911, two women were imprisoned for refusal to take out dog licences. A little later, Clemence Housman, sister of the author-artist, Laurence Housman, was committed to Holloway till she should pay the trifling sum of 4s. 6d., but was released in a week's time, having paid nothing." (14)

It was WFL policy of "no taxation without representation" meant that women often went to prison for keeping a dog without a licence. In 1911 Emma Sproson served two terms of imprisonment in Stafford gaol for this offence. Frank Sproson wrote in The Vote: "The humiliating position of the married woman, especially the working woman, is admitted by all Suffragists; but I never realised that she was such an abject slave so clearly as when I stood in the Wolverhampton Police Court, side by side with my wife, charged with aiding and abetting her to keep a dog without a license. The only evidence submitted by the prosecution (the police) that I actually did anything was that I presided at two meetings in support of the "No Vote, No Tax" policy of the Women's Freedom League. That I said anything that was not fair comment on the general policy of militancy there was no evidence to show; if, then, on this point I was liable, then all supporters of militancy are equally so. But I do not believe it was on this evidence that I was convicted. No. The dog was at my house, and cared for by my children during my wife's absence. In the eyes of the law, I was lord and master, so that my offence, therefore, was not that I did anything, but rather that I did not do anything." (15)

Charlotte Despard in front of the Women's Freedom League banner (17th June 1911)
Charlotte Despard in front of the Women's Freedom League banner (17th June 1911)

Most members of the Women's Freedom League, were pacifists, and so when the First World War was declared in 1914 they refused to become involved in the British Army's recruitment campaign. The WFL also disagreed with the decision of the NUWSS and WSPU to call off the women's suffrage campaign while the war was on. Leaders of the WFL such as Charlotte Despard believed that the British government did not do enough to bring an end to the war and between 1914-1918 supported the campaign of the Women's Peace Crusade for a negotiated peace. The Vote attacked Christabel Pankhurst and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, for condemning the women's peace conference. (16)

In November 1914 two Independent Labour Party (ILP) members, Lilla Brockway and Fenner Brockway, established the No-Conscription Fellowship in its campaign against conscription. Several members of the WFL became involved in the organisation. Violet Tillard, Assistant Organising Secretary of the WFL, was appointed General Secretary of the organisation, (17) In May 1918 she was arrested was fined £100 and costs for refusing to furnishing the name and address of the publisher of a leaflet which was circulated by the NCF. (18) When she refused to pay the fine she was sentenced to 61 days' imprisonment. (19)

The WFL continuted the campaign on women's rights. Helena Normanton wrote several pamphlets on the issue of women's pay. In Sex Differentiation in Salary (1914) she argued for equal pay for equal work. In another article she wrote: "During and after the war, many soldiers' wives and widows became the breadwinners for families. Should they be paid according to their sex or their work?" (20)

Three members of the Women's Freedom League stood in the 1918 General Election. Charlotte Despard (Battersea), Elizabeth How-Martyn (Hendon) and Emily Phipps (Chelsea) all argued that women should have the vote on equal terms with men; that all trades and professions be opened to women on equal terms and for equal pay and that women should be allowed to serve on all juries. However, in the euphoria of Britain's victory, the women's anti-war views were very unpopular and like all the other pacifist candidates, who stood in the election, they were defeated. (21)

Primary Sources

(1) In her book, The Militant Suffrage Movement, published in 1911, Teresa Billington Greig described the decision of the WSPU to become a militant organisation.

The first militant protest was decided upon by Miss Christabel Pankhurst, and announced by mother or daughter to a small number of the more active members of the Union. The body of members knew nothing of the plans until they heard with the public that it had been carried out… It was at this point that the sense of difference of outlook, of which I had always been conscious in my association with Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughter, became acute. I did not approve the line of protest determined upon. It seemed to me to provide a very inadequate outlet for the expression of our rebellion.

(2) Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, My Part in a Changing World (1938)

The Women's Social and Political Union when it was first formed had adopted a constitution framed on the lines of that of the Labour Party, to which the Pankhursts and all the original members in Manchester belonged.

The first national conference of delegates was due to take place this month, but some months before this date differences of thought and opinion had begun to manifest themselves amongst some of the members. The Union had grown very rapidly since the foundation of the London headquarters in 1906, and to cope with its demands organiser after organiser had been added to the staff. They were appointed because of their great courage and eloquence, and their ability to control and dominate crowds.

As September approached, it became evident that some influential people who had been attracted by the movement wished to frame a constitution that would substitute the principle of democratic control for that of individual leadership. It seemed to them reasonable and right that, following the practice of other organisations, the W.S.P.U. branches should be accorded the power to criticise and, if they could secure a majority, to amend the policies and the programme of the movement.

But there was another aspect of this question, an aspect acutely realised at headquarters. Newcomers were pouring into the Union. Many of them were quite ill-informed as far as the realities of the political situation were concerned. Christabel, who possessed in a high degree a flair for the intricacies of a complex political situation, had conceived the militant campaign as a whole. In her mind it drew its justifications from the frustrations of fifty years. These frustrations, she maintained, were not due to natural causes, but were directly due to the extremely adroit tactics of successive Governments that had enabled them to avoid dealing with the question. If the suffrage movement was ever to rise from the grave where politicians had led it, tactics equally adroit needed to be employed. She never doubted that the tactics she had evolved would succeed in winning a cause which, as far as argument or reason was concerned, was intellectually won already. She dreaded all the old plausible evasions and she feared the ingrained interiority complex in the majority of women. Thus she could not trust her mental offspring to the mercies of politically untrained minds. Moreover, the very fact that militant action involved individual sacrifice imposed heavy responsibilities upon the leaders of the campaign. Individuals who were ready to make the sacrifice that militancy entailed had to be sustained by the assurance of complete unity within the ranks. I agreed with this view of the situation, although I felt that it would be a difficult one to sustain in the conference. The issue to be raised was that of "democracy." It was an irony that this question of principle should come up in a political union which was to win votes for women. It became evident that, young as the militant movement was, it had to meet a crisis the solution of which would influence its future history.

While these clouds had been slowly gathering at headquarters Mrs. Pankhurst was conducting a campaign of meetings in the north. She knew nothing of the difficulties of the position until she returned to London on the eve of the conference. I shall never forget the gesture with which she swept from the board all the "pros and the cons" which had caused us sleepless nights. ''I shall tear up the constitution," she declared. This intrepid woman when apparently hemmed in by difficulties always cut her way through them.

The next day at the conference she asserted her position as founder of the Union, declared that she and her daughter had counted the cost of militancy, and were prepared to take the whole responsibility for it, and that they refused to be interfered with by any kind of constitution. She called upon those who had faith in her leadership to follow her, and to devote themselves to the sole end of winning the vote. This announcement was met with a dignified protest from Mrs. Despard. These two notable women presented a great contrast, the one aflame with a single idea that had taken complete possession of her, the other upheld by a principle that had actuated a long life spent in the service of the people.

Mrs. Despard calmly affirmed her belief in democratic equality and was convinced that it must be maintained at all costs. Mrs. Pankhurst claimed that there was only one meaning to "democracy," and that was equal citizenship in a State, which could only be attained by inspired leadership. She challenged all who did not accept the leadership of herself and her daughter to resign from the Union that she had founded, and to form an organisation of their own.

Thereupon Mrs. Despard, Mrs. How-Martyn and Miss Billington and their followers formed a separate organisation, the Women's Freedom League. The severance was always referred to as "The Split."

(3) In 1907 Teresa Billington-Greig, Charlotte Despard and Elizabeth How-Martin made attempts to make the Women's Political and Social Union more democratic. When Emmeline Pankhurst responded by cancelling the proposed meeting to discuss the constitution, about seventy women left the WSPU and formed the Women's Freedom League. Teresa Billington Greig described her feelings about this conflict in her book The Militant Suffrage Movement.

In September, about a month before the date arranged for the gathering, Mrs. Pankhurst, ignoring the Honorary Secretary, called a Committee meeting, declared the Conference annulled, the Constitution cancelled, and the rights of the members abolished, and proclaimed herself as sole dictator of the movement. She appointed herself secretary, Mrs. Pethick Lawrence treasurer, and Miss Christabel Pankhurst organizing secretary. She chose for herself a committee consisting of paid organisers and two or three women who were willing to lend their names to this purpose.

The clumsy declaration of autocracy broke the spell of many who would willingly have voted away their rights. Those who stuck to the Constitution formed the Women's Freedom League… This reversion to autocracy, this denial of suffrage in their own society to women seeking suffrage in the State, brought to a sudden close to this stage in the progress of militancy.

(4) Frederick Pethick-Lawrence explained in his book, Fate Has Been Kind, the emergence of the Women's Freedom League.

The Pankhursts were not prepared to run the risk of having their carefully thought out policy reversed by newcomers with little political experience, or whittled down by an executive of divided opinions. Mrs. Pankhurst declared herself therefore in sole control of the WSPU and she called on those who believed in her leadership to stand by her. My wife concurred in this decision, and it was accepted by the bulk of the members. The branches became local WSPUs without any control over policy. A minority of women, including Mrs. Despard, Mrs. How Martyn, and Miss Billington, dissented, and formed a democratically controlled body - The Women's Freedom League.

(5) In 1914 the Women's Freedom League refused the call off its campaign for women's suffrage. Charlotte Despard, the leader of the Women's Freedom League was a pacifist who refused to become involved in the war effort. In 1916 she made a speech explaining her views.

The great discovery of the war is that the Government can force upon the capitalistic world the superlative claims of the common cause… The Board of Education has concluded that one in six childhood was so physically and mentally defective as to be unable to derive reasonable benefit from the education, which the State provides… My message to the government is 'take over the milk as you have taken over the munitions'.

(6) In 1919 the Women's Freedom League held a public meeting to celebrate women over thirty obtaining the vote. One of the speeches was made by eighty-three year old Charlotte Despard.

I have seen great days, but this is the greatest. I remember when we started twenty-one years ago, with empty coffers… I never believed that equal votes would come in my lifetime. But when an impossible dream comes true, we must go on to another. The true unity of men and women is one such dream. The end of war, of famine - they are all impossible dreams, but the dream must be dreamed until it takes a spiritual hold.

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(1) Diane Atkinson, Rise Up, Women!: The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes (2018) pages 73-75

(2) Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, My Part in a Changing World (1938) page 175-176

(3) Simon Webb, The Suffragette Bombers: Britain's Forgotten Terrorists (2014) page 37

(4) Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts (2001) page 167

(5) Eastern Daily Press (21 August 1909)

(6) Teresa Billington Greig, The Non-Violent Militant: Selected Writings of Teresa Billington-Greig (1987) page 107

(7) Sylvia Pankhurst, The History of the Women's Suffrage Movement (1931) page 265

(8) Exmouth Journal (31 October 1908)

(9) The Vote (10 March 1922)

(10) Upminster's Tragic Link to Black Friday (28th November, 2014)

(11) Maroula Joannou, Cicely Hamilton: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (23rd September 2004)