Case study – Was there suffrage militancy in Paisley?

DOWNLOAD – WHS Suffrage Scotland – Paisley case study

Valerie Wright

In this section you will find information on the following:


  • An account of how to approach research on suffrage militancy in your area
  • What kinds of sources were consulted to find out what happened in Paisley
  • What kinds of sources were available locally and where these were consulted
  • A description of findings about the evidence of militancy in Paisley


Old Paisley (2)

Paisley mill girls
Women workers leaving Clark’s mill at lunchtime c. early 20th C

Early twentieth century Paisley was a town dependent on the thread industry, and the paternalistic capitalism of the Coats and Clarks families, the shipyards and many other manufacturing and food processing firms based in the town. It was a town, like Dundee, known for its ‘mill girls’, where women were a large proportion of the thread mills’ workforce. Also known for its radical politics, it had, at the height of suffrage militancy in the UK, four Co-operative Wholesale Societies. This hints at a socialist undercurrent, although the Liberals held the town throughout this period.


Unfortunately no suffrage organisation records survive in Paisley Heritage Centre, but there are copies of The Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette a weekly broadsheet newspaper which provided local news, numerous advertisements, accounts of sporting events, and marriages, deaths and births. Searches of the newspaper index for ‘suffrage’ and ‘votes for women’ were unsuccessful (a problem arising from how the index was compiled, rather than its coverage as such). But by searching under ‘Paisley’ and ‘Scottish’ a couple of references to suffrage meetings in 1909 were found. Yet the main period of militancy was 1913 and 1914. There were no references to anything suffrage related, which necessitated looking through both years in their entirety.

In 1909 the only suffrage meetings reported in Paisley were organised by the Scottish WSPU. At the first, in April, Dr Marion Gilchrist, demanding ‘Votes for Women’ stated that:

Marion Gilchrist
Marion Gilchrist, 1894

If the militant movement on the part of the women were a movement for evil she should be the last to encourage it, but the women were fighting the greatest battle of modern times. They were fighting against great odds, but she would advise them all, for their own sakes, to join the movement. The women were fighting for equal opportunities for every individual of the human race in this country, in order that they should not be classed with lunatics, criminals and imbeciles. (Applause).


Evelyn Sharp

Miss Conolan, the second speaker, described the vote as ‘simply an instrument by which the women might bring about the industrial and social reforms which were needed in our country today’. Miss Evelyn Sharp, (a London-based journalist, author and suffragette) also considered unemployment suggesting that child labour and the undercutting of women were causes. She stated that ‘Women did not take low wages because they liked it; they took low wages because they were the highest they could get’. Although ‘the vote would not directly make wages go up, it would improve the position of women in every way, and they would be better able to demand higher wages’.


Later in October a larger meeting was held in the town hall. The Gazette notes that for a week or two before the meeting ‘an active open air propaganda had been carried on in the town on behalf of the ‘votes for women’ movement’ and as a result ‘doubtless many were attracted to the meeting on this account’. The ‘free seats in the gallery and area were filled to overflowing’ and ‘a large number were unable to find admission’. Perhaps expecting a commotion, it was stated that ‘the proceedings were of a very orderly nature’ with the exception of the occasional interruption, ‘nothing occurred during the evening to mar the success of the gathering’.  The table on the stage was decorated with suffrage colours (Green, white and violet) and there were advertisements for a publication which the reporter did not name, though this was probably Time and Tide. In the chair, ‘the Hon’ Mrs Haverfield stated that ‘it was the working women that they wanted votes for’ which may have reflected the composition of the audience, though there is no way of knowing for certain. Miss Margaret Cameron stated that she thought women ‘should demand the vote on respectability alone’ and that the ‘ultimate result of their agitation would lead to the dignity of women, the happiness of children, and to the comfort of the home’. Moreover she stated that ‘they had trust in the people. They knew there was a finer sense of justice in the people than there was amongst a few men at Westminster who were now holding a little brief authority, (hear, hear)’. Again such sentiments would indicate that the speakers thought that there may have been working-class women in the audience given the emphasis on respectability and motherhood, and also the focus on ‘the people’ as opposed to politicians is telling too and suggests perhaps a potentially socialist audience.

The final speaker of the night was Miss Adela Pankhurst, the youngest of the Pankhurst sisters, who would be imprisoned and go on hunger strike in Dundee later in the same month, for attempting to smash the roof of a hall where Dundee MP Winston Churchill would be speaking. Later she emigrated to Australia in 1914, after a rift with her family (she would be written out of Emmeline and Christabel’s accounts of the movement). Pankhurst maintained that ‘the women would never give way in the work they had taken up until they got the parliamentary vote’. She went on to discuss force feeding:

suffragette_postcard_003_adeela_pankhurstThe Government could go and put them in prison. They as women had no remedy. They had no power against the Government. The Ministry had even in their treatment of them found out a way of prolonging life. They knew that women kept in prison without food would die, and they had found out a way to prolong life with artificial feeding. It might be that some of the women treated in this manner would die. Well, they were willing to die for their cause. Others would most certainly take their place. The Government must give way or the women must give way, and she could assure the meeting that the women would never give way. (Applause).

Yet, she stated that women would never burn buildings to get the vote the way men had years ago, ‘but they were ‘quite content now and then to throw a stone through a window, just to remind those inside the building that the woman without the votes were outside. (laughter and applause)’. At the end of the meeting thanks were given to the audience for the cordial reception. It would seem that the audience was very much in support of the sentiments of the speakers from the WSPU, even assertions that they were willing to die for the cause and the need for window smashing. However despite the number of people in attendance at this meeting, there does not appear to be any follow-on activity in Paisley.

In 1913 reports tended to focus on the campaign at a national level with discussions of Scottish MPs opinions on the resolution in parliament to grant the vote to women. Summaries of debates in the House of Commons also featured, especially relating to suffragettes on hunger strike and suffragists being betrayed by the Liberals. The ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act was also discussed when passed in April, and by July in an article entitled ‘Militant ‘mouse’ play’ it was suggested that ‘the public are becoming tired of the Government’s methods, or rather lack of them, in dealing with the militant suffragists’ with the act not only failing ‘to supress militancy’ but failing ‘to ensure the perpetrators of outrages’ were being ‘adequately punished’. Suffragette activities in London were also covered in a section entitled ‘The London Letter’, but this concern seemed to focus on events at a national level rather than in Scotland. Perhaps this was a deliberate denial of activities in the area or perhaps there was little militancy in Paisley and the Renfrewshire area. There were also no instances of fires or acts of vandalism being attributed falsely to suffragettes either. In March a woman tried ‘to preach’ at the cross and someone in the crowd shouted ‘a suffragette!’ before she was ‘taken away’, but that is the only reference of this kind. Perhaps it was simply that Home Rule in Ireland, the situation in Ulster and ‘the Land Question’ often proved to be more newsworthy in The Gazette.

Ethel SnowdenNevertheless there were meetings of suffragists in the town, with Mrs Ethel Snowden of the NUWSS (also ILP member) addressing a large meeting ‘almost entirely comprised of ladies’ in October 1913. Mr John Arthur Brown, chairing the meeting suggested that if women had the vote ‘they might fairly anticipate that many subjects which specially concerned the welfare of women would be dealt more promptly, more sympathetically, and more practically than if they had been left to the tender mercies of mere man’. Mrs Snowden emphasised women’s respectable role as mothers and the hazards of childbirth in her speech:

 the special work of women in the world had been in the bearing and rearing of children, and she suggested that children were the women’s special kind of property for whom they had toiled, suffered, agonised, and died. Doctors told them that on average 5000 women each year gave their lives as a result of giving birth to children.

She also questioned why women ‘had been taught that politics for women was unwomanly’. She stated that ‘that was a lie’. Moreover ‘They had been taught that politics would degrade them, but she did not feel a bit degraded. And she would feel prouder still when she could talk politics as a voter’. She also suggested that men should not ‘use an appeal to their affections and enslave womankind. It was mean and un-British’. She also appealed to the audience to:

 not be put off because another suffragist society believed in advocating its cause by the use of primitive methods. She was opposed to the use of crime and violence on behalf of this or any other cause on the simple elementary ground that it was never right, deliberately and of set purpose, to do wrong and cause suffering to innocent people. (applause). Just as fast as they could follow in the tracks of the militants, they were explaining that where there was one who believed she was advancing her cause by the use of crime, there were 10,000 women in the country who knew that was not the way, and who did not want the vote if it came that way. (Applause). She asked the women of the nation to-join their society in the fore knowledge that if they did they would not require to support these methods.

The division between the suffragists and suffragettes was clear in Mrs Snowden’s address to the ‘ladies’ of Paisley. Unfortunately it is impossible to determine whether this audience was substantially different in composition to the ones attending WSPU meetings in 1909.

In the review of the year in January 1914 The Gazette listed the campaign of violence of the militant women which has this year been carried to greater lengths than ever, accompanied by a description of Emily Davidson’s death at the Epsom Derby, an event that had not been reported on at the time. In the same edition of the paper a letter entitled ‘a candid criticism’ from J.W.H. was printed which stated:

 no, we will not give women the vote, they do not seem to realise how well off they are without it. […] Her realm is rather in the home life of the nation, in teaching a moulding the mind of the rising generation by noble aspirations and lofty ideals. The purer the light the purer the reflection, and in like manner will the influence of noble womanhood of today reflect in the manhood of tomorrow, with the best possible results for women themselves. […] No, we cannot give women the vote. It wouldn’t be fair, it wouldn’t be chivalrous. It would only bring woman down from her pedestal of goddess to the mundane level of mere man.’

This was exactly the sort of sentiment that suffragists and suffragettes had been fighting against for years and that women would continue to challenge in the interwar years and beyond, perhaps even today.

Flora Drummond and Annie Kenney being arrested on 9th March 1906
Flora Drummond and Annie Kenney being arrested on 9th March, 1906

The last report of suffrage activity in Paisley prior to the outbreak of the First World War was of a Paisley WSPU meeting in May in the central halls to discuss ‘Votes for Women’, with the subheading ‘‘General’ Drummond on the warpath’. Drummond, a prominent WSPU organiser who had led illegal demonstrations in London, introduced herself as the granddaughter of Paisley ‘Buddies’. It is not clear if there was a separate branch of the WSPU in Paisley although this is intimated. There was a large attendance at the meeting, described as a gathering ‘of a most enthusiastic character’. Speakers also included Mrs Williams of Glasgow, Mrs Russel, Miss Eve Baker and Miss Mary McPhun. Mrs Williams gave the first address stating that:


‘We have tried every constitutional means, and they have failed. We who are of the WSPU [in full] know that militancy is the only practical way to break down this order and obtain justice. Every great reform has been obtained by militancy. The WSPU held 25,000 meetings in one year, and yet they had not the effect of the smashing of one small pane of glass (laughter and applause)

Drummond seemed to contradict Williams, as she:

found that the Government today were more perturbed about the constitutional work than they were about the militant work. Why? Because the women had the knack of speaking the truth on platforms (applause) because they had the bad taste to show the politicians up. It was because they called a spade a spade, and as the politician had been brought up for generations in an atmosphere of pretence he could not stand the limelight of the women’s movement beating down upon him and showing him up.

Some people at the meeting said that they did not like the methods of the Suffragettes and Drummond replied ‘well, we don’t want you to like our methods. Don’t think that we are an entertaining society’. This was met with laughter from the audience. She continued by stating that she would continue the hunger strike until she got unconditional surrender. When a man in the audience asked what women would do to stop emigration if they got the vote she replied ‘Men have votes. You are a man. Go and do some propaganda. Surely you don’t expect the women to do everything for you’. To a lady asking a question (which was not reported) she replied that she ‘had no faith in government but in the pressure behind – the people who put the government in. No Government gave them anything until they forced them to give it’.

While it would appear that there were no acts of militancy in Paisley in the high point of the campaign in 1913 and 1914 there were certainly meetings held by both militant and constitutional organisations. It is not entirely clear whether or not Paisley had its own branch of the WSPU or indeed whether there was a strong presence locally in terms of members. But public meetings held by the WSPU and the NUWSS attracted large audiences and there was clearly public interest. More interestingly there is evidence of working-class interest at these meetings judging by the themes covered by speakers such as wages, child welfare and an emphasis on ‘the people’. Additional research in other local newspapers would hopefully enable more concrete conclusions.

Elspeth King, writing in 1992, stated that ‘Women’s historical consciousness is a fragile and delicate plant which has been choked and overrun by the tares of male prejudice  and the official history curriculum in school and university’. Undoubtedly it was important for her as a feminist historian to write about Scottish women’s demands for the vote on the same terms as men. This was about encouraging equality in the present and the future by looking to the past. She described her early work on suffrage as ‘fragmentary and imperfect’ and it was offered ‘as a beginning’. Leneman and others have added to this body of work.  As this cases study shows, at a local level there remains much to be learned about the actions taken by women to demand equality in terms of the right to vote.

Primary sources

Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette – index and 1913, 1914


Elspeth King, ‘The Scottish Women’s Suffrage Movement’, in E. Breitenbach and E. Gordon (eds.) Out of Bounds: Women in Scottish Society, 1800-1945, Edinburgh: EUP, 1992.

Leah Leneman, A Guid Cause: the women’s suffrage movement in Scotland, Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1995.


Questions for investigation

  • Were there any suffragist or suffragette organisations in your area?
  • Have any records survived?
  • Are there any memoirs or diaries?
  • What was reported and what was omitted in your local newspapers?
  • How was activity reported? What sort of language was used?
  • If there was militancy – who was involved?
  • Are there voices that are missing from the suffrage story in your area? Why do you think this is?
  • Historians have not always agreed about whether greater levels of militancy helped or hindered the campaign for the vote. Based on what you have learned here and in other sections of this pack, what do you think about this issue?



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Valerie Wright

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