Keeper’s Gallery

Suffragettes vs. the State

Now open | Free entry

We are delighted to announce that, following a major refit, our Keeper’s Gallery has re-opened with a new exhibition for 2018.

Suffragettes vs. the State explores the militant side of the 20th century women’s suffrage movement.

From window smashing campaigns to force feeding, public rallies to police surveillance and criminal trials, discover the journey to universal suffrage through the original documents, photographs and records in our collection.

The Suffragettes, members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), campaigned for women to be allowed the vote in parliamentary elections. Frustrated that decades of peaceful lobbying by other suffrage societies had not achieved this goal, their actions took a militant turn. Our records show the lengths Suffragettes were willing to go to and the response from the State.

This new exhibition, part of our year-long Suffrage 100 programme of events and exhibitions, marks the centenary of some women being allowed to vote for the first time.

Suffragettes vs. the State will run until Friday 26 October and entry is free.

Tours of the Keeper’s Gallery

Come along to one of the free, 30-minute guided tours of the exhibition, held in the Keeper’s Gallery on the following dates:

Volunteer-led tours

  • Tuesday 3 July, 14:00
  • Tuesday 17 July, 14:00
  • Thursday 2 August, 15:15
  • Tuesday 21 August, 14:00
  • Tuesday 4 September, 14:00
  • Tuesday 18 September, 15:15

Curator-led tours

  • Tuesday 10 July, 15:00
  • Thursday 9 August, 15:00
  • Tuesday 11 September, 15:00

Suffrage 100 portal

Visit our Suffrage 100 web portal for more information on events, records and resources.

Exhibition highlights

Black Friday

In November 1910, what was intended to be a peaceful protest by the WSPU resulted in violent clashes with the police and became known as ‘Black Friday’. Among those at the protest was disabled Suffragette Rosa May Billinghurst who said she was thrown out of her tricycle by officers. The day marked a turning point in the WSPU’s campaign and led to increased militancy.

Window smashing

Hammers like this one were used in the WSPU’s 1912 window-smashing campaign. Over 100 volunteers took part in breaking windows of shops and prominent buildings in London’s West End. Many were subsequently arrested and imprisoned.

Working women’s deputation

In 1913, 12 working women met with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who gave assurances that voting reforms would be made. Among the deputation was Alice Hawkins, a boot and shoe trade worker from Leicester (with a feather in her hat). In her statement Alice referenced the inequality in her pay compared to men doing the same job.

St Paul’s bomb

In 1913 an ‘explosive machine’ was found near the Bishop’s Throne in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The device was wrapped in a copy of the WSPU’s newspaper, ‘The Suffragette’, with a note to the Home Secretary explaining that the bomb was retaliation for raids on WSPU headquarters.

Evelyn Manesta’s surveillance photographs

One tactic the police used to monitor Suffragettes was to photograph them. The images could then be circulated to public buildings as a warning. In the photograph on the left, Suffragette Evelyn Manesta, who had previously caused damage at Manchester Art Gallery, is being restrained in prison for the camera. The photograph on the right shows the restraining arm edited out.

Force feeding

Hunger-striking in prison was a political tactic of the WSPU in response to the state not treating Suffragettes as political prisoners – who would receive special advantages in ‘First Division’ cells. The State force-fed Suffragettes who went on hunger-strike, and many suffered from terrible and long-lasting side effects.

First women’s lavatories in Parliament

In 1918 the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act gave women over 21 years old the right to become Members of Parliament for the first time. In 1919, Nancy Astor became the first woman to be elected and take up her seat. This map shows that female lavatory facilities (highlighted in brown) had to be installed in Parliament.

Home Office Suffragette index

At the outbreak of the First World War, the WSPU suspended their militant campaigning for votes for women. In return, the State released Suffragettes who were in prison. This Home Office file, that helped administer the release of Suffragette prisoners, details the names of 1,333 Suffragettes who were arrested – including 109 men.

Emily Wilding Davison census protest

In 1911, women’s suffrage supporters organised boycotts of the census and defaced census returns. Emily Wilding Davison, however, made her protest by hiding in the crypt of Westminster Hall in the House of Commons on census night.

WSPU headquarters

The WSPU was highly organised and from their headquarters in central London they communicated with regional branches, organised militant campaigns and reached out to members. The State carefully monitored activities at the headquarters and often raided premises to gather evidence.

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Keeper's Gallery blog

To find out more about our latest exhibits, read our Keeper's Gallery blog series.