“There is much controversy as to whether the granting of the vote to women was the outcome of WW1 or part of a current towards the progressive democratisation of Western Societies”. Countries such as New Zealand (1893), Australia (1901), Finland (1906) and Norway (1913) women got the vote before the war began.
Feminists could be found in all classes – working class feminists often combined feminism and trade unionism which did not go down well with the upper-class women. Feminism and socialism did not need to go together. Emmeline Pankhurst became a member of the Tory Party and was pro-war and Emma Orczy was an active member of the Organisation of the White Feather, shaming men into fighting and branding them publicly as cowards by handing out white feathers.
There were two main organisations working for the enfranchisement of women at the outbreak of WW1 and they both had very different approaches to feminism. They were The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Milicent Fawcett and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by Emmeline Pankhurst. The NUWSS helped sponsor women’s hospital units but played no part in the recruiting strategy whereas Pankhurst and the Government signed a deal – the WSPU agreeing to collaborate in exchange for the release of women prisoners who were in jail because of their political activism. The government sponsored the WSPU who set up demonstrations and published pro-war propaganda in their periodicals. Emmeline and her daughter Christabel believed a franchise should be limited to their own class, whereas Sylvia Pankhurst became estranged from her mother and sister because she believed in universal suffrage. Emmeline and Christabel were also in favour of conscription but Sylvia organised a monumental demonstration against it.
In 1914 when war broke out the suffrage campaign was more or less abandoned. Suffragettes became involved with the war effort helping soldiers, families and others struggling in wartime conditions. They agreed to maintain subscriptions and open a distress kitchen “to supply food to the necessitous at the lowest possible price.”
On 26th September 1914, 9 Victoria Crescent served hot meals twice a day for those with tickets from the Wimbledon Guild of Help. When it became clear that Merton needed a kitchen too, premises at 119 Merton High Street were equipped and opened on 23rd November (now demolished). Clothing was also collected and distributed where needed.
The treasurer of the Distress Kitchens was Rose Lamartine Yates. Rose split with leading suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst when EP suspended WSPU activities and decided to back the government during WW1. Rose broke away with Sylvia Pankhurst in 1914 to form the Suffragettes of WSPU.