Suffrage militancy in Scotland

WHS Suffrage Scotland – Militancy

Valerie Wright

In this section you will find information on the following:


  • The difference between suffragettes and suffragists
  • An account of how the suffrage movement became divided
  • An overview of the organisations and individuals involved in militancy
  • A summary of the militant acts that took place in Scotland (that we know of)
  • The consequences of militant action for some individuals


The term ‘suffragettes’, coined in the early twentieth century, is often used to describe all efforts by individual women and women’s organisations to gain the right to vote in Parliamentary elections on equal terms with men. However there were important distinctions between those organisations which continued to use constitutional methods to affect change, known as suffragists, and those who instead became increasingly militant in using what may be described as ‘direct action’. These were the women who could accurately be described as suffragettes.

This section considers the history of suffrage militancy in Scotland and the women involved. It is followed by a case study of the contribution of local research to understandings of how widespread militancy was in Scotland, both geographically and in terms of the individuals involved.

Scottish women and suffrage militancy

Conventional studies of suffrage militancy always start with the Pankhursts (Emmeline and her daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Formed in 1903 in Manchester this organisation took a new direction, demanding, rather than requesting, ‘votes for women’. It established headquarters in London in 1906. Also around 1906 WSPU branches were established in the four main Scottish cities, and a Scottish HQ was opened in Glasgow in 1908. This was largely the result of the efforts of Teresa Billington-Greig, a young Manchester teacher married to a Scot, and Helen Fraser, an artist who gave up her work to devote herself to the cause.

suffragette_postcard_008_mrs_pankhurst   suffragette_postcard_010_teresa_billington_craig

At first the members of the WSPU were referred to as militant suffragists rather than suffragettes, although it seems that later the terms were used interchangeably in press reporting. Early tactics involved disrupting public meetings and this was considered radical. Opening the Scottish headquarters Dr Marion Gilchrist, the first female graduate from the University of Glasgow, stated that ‘the old school had managed to get over 400 members of Parliament to pledge themselves in favour of the cause, but had they got the vote yet?’. Evidently she was not the only one questioning the methods of suffragist organisations. Yet many women remained faithful to the ‘old school’. In Glasgow the Glasgow and West of Scotland Society for Women’s Suffrage continued to co-exist alongside the WSPU. The membership of the GWSSWS were conventionally middle-class as was the WSPU’s, although the WSPU was more open to working-class women.


Jessie Stephen 1930
Jessie Stephen, 1930

Working-class WSPU militants included Celia Russel and Jessie Stephen. Russel, a pawnbroker’s assistant, acted as one of Mrs Pankhurst’s ‘enforcers’ at  the 1914 St Andrew’s Hall ‘riot’ in Glasgow, where Mrs Pankhurst, released from prison under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ of 1913 (weakened by hungers strike, prisoners were released to recuperate), was smuggled into the hall in a laundry basket. When she started her speech the police rushed the stage to arrest her, the reasoning was that if she was fit to talk in public she was able to return to prison.

Jessie Stephen, organiser of the Domestic Workers’ Union in Glasgow and WSPU member, later recounted her part in acid attacks on Glasgow pillar boxes (envelopes with bottles of acid were posted to destroy the mail):

‘I was able to drop acid into the postal pillar boxes without being suspected, because I walked down from where I was employed in my cap, muslin apron and black frock … nobody would ever suspect me of dropping acid through the box’ .

As WSPU militancy stepped up in 1913, the suffragettes were accused of a ‘campaign of terror’. Acts of destruction in Scotland included cutting or bombing telephone links, smashing a natural history case in the Royal Scottish Museum, defacing the King’s portrait in the National Gallery, an attempt to burn down Kelso racecourse in April 1913, and the burning down the Western Meeting Club at Ayr and of Farington Hall in Dundee in May 1913. However, suffragettes sometimes got the blame of unexplained fires, as Sarah Pedersen has highlighted in her study of Scottish press coverage. In August 1913 two women physically assaulted the Prime Minister at Lossiemouth golf course, he was also attacked in on the course at Dornoch too. In 1914 suffragettes were accused of attempting to blow up the Kibble Palace in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens in Glasgow, burning down the mediaeval White Kirk in East Lothian, and attempting to burn down Burns Cottage in Ayrshire. Such activities were reported in the national and local press in detail, accompanied by photographs of any damage. (For details of damage in Scotland attributed to suffragettes, see the Appendix II on ‘Reports of militant attacks in Scottish newspapers‘).

Arrests were made for some of these attacks (see Appendix II for details). Suffragettes imprisoned in Scotland were subjected to force-feeding later than in England (where it had begun in 1909). Ethel Moorhead was the first woman to be force-fed in a Scottish prison in 1914, at Calton Jail in Edinburgh. Subsequently, all suffragettes on hunger strike were taken to Perth prison. During the royal visit in Perth on 8 July 1914, speeches were made, banners with ‘no forcible feeding’ and ‘votes for women’ were displayed and Rhoda Fleming jumped on the bonnet of the king’s car to try and smash the window.  Moorhead, imprisoned for smashing the case containing William Wallace’s sword in the Wallace Monument, suffered from ill-health arising from the pneumonia she contracted as a result of inhaling the food forced into her throat.

Leah Lenemen has suggested that perhaps increasing numbers of women joined militant societies as a result of the suffering of the suffragettes in prison. It seems likely that the treatment of suffragettes in prison did provoke some sympathy with their cause, but at the same time, as Sarah Pedersen has shown, the increasing violence of the WSPU resulted in uniformly hostile coverage in the Scottish press. Many suffrage supporters were against violent militancy, both constitutionalists and non-violent militants. Furthermore, some WSPU members and branches had difficult relationships with the Pankhursts. Their increasingly heavy-handed leadership resulted in members leaving the WSPU to form the non-violent Women’s Freedom League (WFL). Led by Theresa Billington Greig the WFL was prominent in Scotland with a Suffrage Centre in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. There were also strained relationships between the Pankhursts and Scottish WSPU activists such as Caroline Phillips in Aberdeen and Janie Allan in Glasgow.

Women's Freedom League demonstration on Glasgow Green 1914
Women’s Freedom League demonstration on Glasgow Green 1914 (Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Museums)

While the WSPU directly campaigned against Liberal MPs (the WSPU campaigned at four Scottish by-elections of 1908, in Dundee opposing Winston Churchill), the WFL generally focused on less direct methods such as the non-payment of taxes in order to gain the sympathy of the general public (although Mary Maloney of the WFL followed Churchill round Dundee ringing a bell every time he tried to address crowds).

Mary Maloney disrupting churchill 6 May 1908
Mary Maloney disrupts Churchill, 6 May 1908 (Dundee City Archives)

Their principle was ‘no taxation without representation’ and members also refused to participate in the 1911 census. Prominent organisers included Eunice Murray (who stood unsuccessfully as an independent candidate for Parliament in 1918), responsible for members and branches outwith the main towns, also known as the ‘Scottish scattered’. By 1914 there were also sixty-three constitutional suffragist organisations in Scotland affiliated to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, with five paid organisers and an Edinburgh HQ.  Women thus continued to join constitutional suffragist organisations, distancing themselves from the actions of the suffragettes, although, as Pedersen indicates, the constitutional suffragists were blamed in the press for ‘creating the conditions from which militancy emerged’.

When Helen Fraser left the WSPU in 1908 in protest against the suggestion of the use of violence, Louisa Innes Lumsden of Aberdeen Suffrage Society wrote to her stating that she hoped Fraser’s ‘protest will do good’ but she had a fear that ‘generous sympathy may hurry people into unwise action’.  In Scotland, as elsewhere, opinions over militancy remained divided, and it is difficult to know how widely sympathy for the militant cause was felt. On the one hand, we know that the WSPU had a presence in Scotland, and that regardless of the cause of their militancy; many Scottish women took risks and suffered the consequences of their actions to ensure that women got the vote on the same terms as men. On the other hand, we do not yet have a clear picture of the level of local support and activism. The paid organisers and speakers of the WSPU had a high profile in the press, with the Pankhursts’ presence during by-election campaigns gaining much publicity. But we do not know if support for the WSPU grew or declined as their strategy moved towards increasing violence. Furthermore, suffragette attacks were not necessarily carried out by local activists, and in Scotland the numbers of arrests were relatively small.

Local studies are likely to clarify further the place of militancy in the Scottish movement, particularly since the history of the suffrage movement has often focused on the cities and large towns. The history of Scottish suffragettes has also often focused on middle-class or politically involved women whose letters, diaries and memoirs have survived. We know comparatively little about the actions of working-class women and those that didn’t leave a paper trail (or perhaps more accurately their writings have not survived as they weren’t deemed to be important). What can be unearthed in local newspapers and records? The following section, Case study – Was there suffrage militancy in Paisley? , investigates the presence of militant organisations in the town, and what this tells us about working-class interest in women’s suffrage.



Ajay Close, A Petrol Scented Spring (2015) (based on the force-feeding of Arabella Scott, Fanny Parker, Frances Gordon and Maude Edwards in Perth Prison.

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.

Leah Leneman, The Scottish Suffragettes, Edinburgh: NMS Publishing, 2000.

Sarah Pedersen, The Scottish Suffragettes and the Press, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.


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Valerie Wright

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