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East End suffragettes in the First World War


In popular accounts of the outbreak of the First World War in Britain, mention is sometimes made of the fact that the Women’s Social and Political Union suspended their militant campaign for the vote to take up an intensely nationalist, pro-war agenda. Sylvia Pankhurst and the radical East London Federation of the Suffragettes – where they are mentioned at all – are simply said to have opposed the war. But this obscures a complex and fascinating period in their history, and also in the suffrage movement as a whole.

In 1916 the Federation adopted an openly anti-war stance, and suffered the consequences in the form of violent attacks, censorship, police raids and imprisonment. But in the early years of the war the Federation adopted flexible, practical strategies to support their community in crisis, and also used it to continue and extend their campaign for the vote.

The East End at war

Within a few weeks of the outbreak of war many East End factories had closed and unemployment rose sharply. At the same time that many found themselves suddenly out of work, prices for food, cloth and other goods began to spiral, due to panic buying and, Pankhurst believed, war profiteering.

As men on the army reserves list were called up and others enlisted, many women were suddenly left alone to provide for their family, sometimes with just a few hours’ notice. While separation allowances and pensions to provide for soldiers' wives and children were introduced, they were inadequate, were often paid late and could be suspended for weeks at a time. Marriage and birth certificates requested as proof cost money to acquire, and were frequently lost by the administration.

Within weeks of the outbreak of war many families in the East End were facing starvation. People began calling at the suffragettes’ Women’s Hall at 400 Old Ford Road seeking help.

The Federation in wartime

Despite Pankhurst’s deeply held anti-militarism and her belief that the war was set to be an imperialist bloodbath, the Federation didn’t openly oppose the war from the start. This was primarily because virtually everyone in the community had a husband, son, brother or father who had enlisted.

At a special committee meeting, Sylvia proposed three options: to go on as if nothing had changed, to try and alleviate the suffering of those affected by the war, or to make political capital out of it. The committee chose the second option, and over the next two years they launched a raft of progressive relief initiatives, from milk distribution centres to a health clinic, an employment bureau, a toy factory and several cost price restaurants.

Although the Federation’s relief work took up most of their time and resources, they never stopped agitating for long term, structural change as well.

Feeding the East End

The Federation started fundraising for a milk distribution drive, and soon they were giving out milk, eggs and barley in Bow, Canning Town, Stepney and Poplar. They also raised money to open a clinic to treat the children worst affected by malnutrition and disease. This was housed in a former pub in Bow called the Gunmaker’s Arms, which they symbolically renamed the Mother’s Arms when it opened in 1915.

Members of the Federation tackled starvation among adults in the East End by opening three canteens serving nutritious food at cost price, anticipating the government’s national kitchens. Again these canteens were supported by donations of food, cooking utensils and crockery from those who could afford it in the local area. 

Barring a handful of upper- and middle-class women (who admittedly tended to be in leadership positions) the women running these relief projects were the neighbours, colleagues, family and friends of those they were helping. Many worked the same punishing hours and faced the same hunger, which makes their achievements even more extraordinary.

While the Federation worked to try and meet the need in their streets, they also lobbied for policy changes to reduce the suffering on the home front.

Equal pay

The Federation took issue with some popular charitable efforts which they believed contributed to the unemployment crisis. The most prominent of these targets was Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild, who at the outbreak of war launched an energetic drive to produce garments for soldiers. The Woman’s Dreadnought pleaded with them to stop: ‘We would put forward a very special appeal to leisured people not to start sewing for the soldiers and others whilst women who hitherto have earned their bread by such tasks are left to starve.’

Although she is unlikely to have been a Dreadnought reader, the queen seems to have been considering the same problem. Soon after Needlework Guild branches up and down the country began their furious muffler-making, the Queen’s Work for Women Fund was created to provide employment for women who had lost their income through the war.

When it was announced that the Fund workrooms would pay just 10 shillings a week, Sylvia christened them ‘Queen Mary’s Sweatshops’. Although they were closed in February 1915, she felt the damage was done, as ‘they had set the common standard for women’s war relief wages.’

Putting their principles into practice, in October 1914 the Federation opened a cooperative toy factory at 45 Norman Road in Bow, providing work for East End women who had lost their jobs through the war. The workers were paid a living wage of £1 a week and encouraged to learn the toymaking trade, with art lessons to help them produce their own designs. The toys were very well-received, and praised for their quality and attention to detail. In a pioneering move, the East London suffragettes opened a day nursery attached to the factory, where women could leave their children at a cost of 3d a day, including meals.  Sadly, women’s factory work for less ethical employers than the suffragettes was dangerous, exhausting and very poorly paid. After several months of lobbying for equal pay, including a series of letters between Sylvia Pankhurst and David Lloyd George, in April 1915 the government agreed to pay women the same ‘piece rates’ as men. That is, the same pay according to output. But no such ‘special conditions’ were laid down for time rates, where pay was calculated by time spent to produce the outputs. This left a big loophole for employers to continue to pay women lower wages, by switching all their work to time rates, and for the most part that is what happened.

In addition to supporting small groups of women workers by offering advice and publicising their situation in the Dreadnought, the Federation struggled to raise awareness more widely of women working for ‘sweated’ wages on government contracts. In May 1915 they held a ‘Women’s Exhibition’ in Caxton Hall in Westminster which exposed the terrible pay and conditions of women who were being exploited in the name of ‘the war effort’.

The vote

Where is the vote in all this? Rather than rooting their appeal in the principles of fairness and justice, the East London Federation of the Suffragettes presented the vote largely as a means to an end, grounding their campaign in the everyday reality of working women’s lives. The Federation focussed on the concerns of their community and emphasised the extra leverage that the vote would give in the struggle to improve pay and working conditions, secure decent housing, and protect children’s health.

While Sylvia and the rest of the Federation were always clear that their work in the East End was not about charity – it was about building a strong, mass movement of working women who could and would demand their rights – the sheer scale of the suffering triggered by the outbreak of war forced them to adopt new strategies.

Their relief projects were a result of and a testament to their local focus. Responding to a crisis in their community took precedence over opposition to the war, but it also presented them with new opportunities to show what women could do with a vote, with a voice. While the East London Federation of the Suffragettes didn’t view their practical, politicised, community action as a contribution to the ‘war effort’, it saved lives nonetheless. 

By Sarah Jackson

Suffragette rally in London 1915

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