Home » 50 years, 50 ideas » 9. Social networks and militancy: the making of a suffragette


9. Social networks and militancy: the making of a suffragette

WSPU meeting, Manchester, 1908

WSPU meeting, Manchester, 1908

With International Women’s Day taking place on 12 March, we are reminded of the great women of the last century who put their time and energy into the fight for women’s equality.

Manchester is the birthplace of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) set up by suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst in October 1903 with her daughter Christabel and women from Manchester’s Independent Labour Party.

Whilst much academic  research concentrates on the ‘stars’ of the suffragette movement, like the Pankhursts, Manchester Sociologists have been researching ordinary women, who became involved in political activism for the first time as members of the WSPU. The WSPU marked a new development in the ‘votes for women’ campaign because it introduced new, militant, tactics designed to attract attention to the suffragette cause, for example, arrest and imprisonment, stone-throwing and even arson.

The discovery of a box of letters and papers belonging to Helen Kirkpatrick Watts, a WSPU member, allowed sociologist Gemma Edwards to piece together her network of personal contacts and chart the factors involved in her move towards using militant tactics. Using social network analysis we can study how friends, family and other activists influence an individual’s political activism. Edwards’ work concludes that rather than pinning activist decisions on personality traits or prior socialization, it is the structure and – most importantly – culture – of interpersonal networks that shaped local women’s decisions about whether or not to become a militant suffragette. The structural pattern of interpersonal ties opened up, and closed down, opportunities for women to take part in militant activism, while also weaving a shared ‘meaning structure’ (Jan Fuhse, 2009) around the cultural legitimacy of militancy from which individual women had to draw.

References and further reading

Edwards, G. (2014) ‘Infectious Innovations? The Diffusion of Tactical Innovation in Social Movement Networks, the case of Suffragette Militancy’, Social Movement Studies 13(1): 48-69.
Read the whole special issue on social movements and social networks for free: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/toc/csms20/13/1#.UxW77kJ_vAs (includes work by other Manchester sociologists, Nick Crossley and Rachel Stevenson on IRA networks)

Jan Fuhse (2009) ‘The Meaning Structure of Social Networks’, Sociological Theory 27(1): 51-73.


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