The War of Equality

Suffragists and World War I

By Aimee Terravechia

In April of 1915, Emmeline Pankhurst penned a letter to the Sunday Pictorial, urging women to support the British war efforts. The letter was in response to the meeting of the International Congress of Women, who just weeks earlier had held assembly to convince the women of the world to advocate for peace. Emmeline, disgusted by the idea, wrote “It is unthinkable that English Women should meet German women to discuss terms of peace while the husbands, sons, and brothers of those women are…murdering our men…”  

Emmeline was in a peculiar place to inspire activism — she and her daughter Christabel were hiding out in France after having fled England. Emmeline had been jailed just two years prior for supporting an attempted bombing of the house of a prominent Chancellor. Her relationship with the British government was contentious at best — violent at worst. As a leader and founding member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) — a militant suffragist regime, Emmeline had successfully recruited and inspired countless women to action already. Their goal since their founding in1903 had been votes for women, but now, with World War I looming over the British Empire, Emmeline called for an immediate end to all WSPU activities. Between this call to in-action and her letter to the Sunday Pictorial, she was welcomed back into England along with Christabel.

Emmeline wasn’t just acting in her own self interests when she urged her fellow women to support the war efforts. She was also being politically prudent. In exchange for her support the British government released several jailed suffragists. Her declaration to end suffragist efforts in lieu of war efforts might have seemed like a political retreat at the time — but Emmeline knew it would be advantageous in the long term. What was even more fruitful for the cause than the release of activists was the war itself.

Once back in England, the two held a large WSPU rally to inspire patriotism in a group that had once prided itself on being violently opposed to their patriarchal government. Christabel took to the stage and not only urged participation in the war efforts, but also actively quelled cries from the audience and shouts for “Votes for Women.” “We cannot discuss that now,” she told the crowd, returning to the topic of the great German Peril instead.

Christabel and her mother made the case for women’s participation. They argued that it would create an opportunity for the country’s women to be brought into an “equal partnership as enfranchised citizens of [their] country.”  And although many in the audience disagreed with them, the duo wasn’t wrong.

Christabel didn’t stop in England. She toured the United States, trying to compel more women to divert time and energy away fighting for voting rights and towards patriotism to combat the Germans. Emmeline continued to tour their home country, delivering rousing speeches across England. At the same time, Emmeline and Christabel had resurrected the WSPU paper — originally The Suffragette, but now renamed The Britannia. In an inaugural editorial, Christabel wrote that it was “a thousand times more the duty of militant Suffragettes to fight the Kaiser for the sake of liberty than it was to fight the anti-Suffrage Governments.” 

Despite some opposition to this notion, the redirection of efforts did pay off. Women were beginning to be brought into the folds of government in ways that they never had been before. In the United States, Dr. Anna Shaw, a suffragist, was appointed head of a new advisory committee, the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense. The committee’s purpose was to coordinate war efforts between women volunteers and branches of the government.

Women were also being accepted into the workplace for the first time. With men off fighting, new positions were now available to women, offering them increase financial freedom and personal agency. In response to this newly-diverse workforce, the U.S. Department of Labor created the Women in Industry Service. The Pankhurst’s paper Britannia even started advertising jobs previously only available to male applicants. Everything from drivers to bank clerks was posted, opening up once-impossible opportunities to women in both the United States and England.

Women were also joining active services. In the United States and in England, women served as nurses on the front lines. They witnessed the horrors of war alongside the men. The war was fought by both sexes, hand-in-hand. The burden and the spoils landed equally.

Just as predicted, the war provided a great leveling for women in their respective countries. They had experienced freedom, new responsibilities and independence like never before, and proven themselves capable. The war effort spurred support for the suffragist movement in a way that neither the peaceful protests nor the violent activism had been able to in the past.

In 1919, just one year after the end of the war, both the United States and England passed legislation granting the right to vote to women. Through their extensive involvement in the war effort, the women in both countries were able to win what they had been fighting for during the past two decades.

As a global foray into modern warfare, few good things can be said about World War I. The bloodshed had a lasting impact on both the economies and psyches of the countries involved. But the war also provided the perfect environment for the suffragist movement, discrediting any and all arguments against equal privileges under the law.

Published April 1st, 2016

Aimee Terravechia is a writer, teacher, and grilled cheese connoisseur. She is currently working on her second novel Memes Anonymous . She has written for The Powder RoomScary Mommy, and The Cubic Lane. Her fiction has been published in Apocrypha and Abstractions. When not writing she can be found teaching college composition and creative writing, herding cats, or wrangling her toddler.