Records of the Women's Freedom League

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The archive consists of Minutes: National Executive Committee including loose financial statements and Committee reports (1908-1961), Political and militant department (1910-1935) Finance sub-committee (1907-1909), press sub-committee (1908-1910) social committee (1908-1909) Parliamentary committee (1908), organising committee (1908-1909), fair committee (1925-1930), Vote Brigade committee (1913-1914); Annual Conference reports including some agendas, resolutions, nominations, attendance at National Executive meetings reports, standing orders, secretarial reports, organising secretary's reports, etc (1908-1940); Annual reports 1907-1929; constitutions (c1907, c1910, 1929, 1931); pamphlets; programmes of events.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Women's Freedom League (WFL) (1907-1961) was formed in Nov 1907 by dissenting members of the Women's Social & Political Union (WSPU). The cause was the WSPU's lack of constitutional democracy, an issue that came to a head on the 10 Sep 1907. Mrs Pankhurst announced the cancellation of the annual conference due on the 12 Oct 1907 and the future governance of the party by a central committee appointed by herself, effectively overturning its original constitution. Several members, including Charlotte Despard, Edith How Martyn, Teresa Billington-Greig, Octavia Lewin, Anna Munro, Alice Schofield and Caroline Hodgeson, broke away and continued with the conference. Here, the new constitution was written which encoded a system of party democracy. Its first committee consisted of Despard as president and honorary treasurer, Billington-Greig as honorary organising secretary, honorary secretary Mrs How Martyn, and Mrs Coates Hanson, Miss Hodgeson, Irene Miller, Miss Fitzherbert, Mrs Drysdale, Miss Abadam, Mrs Winton-Evans, Mrs Dick, Mrs Cobden Sanderson, Mrs Bell, Mrs Holmes and Miss Mansell as members. The following month, They renamed themselves the WFL, having used the title of the WSPU until that time: this had prompted Mrs Pankhurst to add 'National' to the name of her own organisation for this brief spell. They classed themselves as a militant organisation, but refused to attack persons or property other than ballot papers, unlike the WSPU. Their actions included protests in and around the House of Commons and other acts of passive civil disobedience. Their activities in 1908 included attempts to present petitions to the king and have deputations received by cabinet ministers while further protests were held in the House of Commons such as Muriel Matters, Violet Tillard and Helen Fox chaining themselves to the grille in the Ladies gallery. That same year, they were the only militant group to be invited by the National Union of Women's suffrage Societies to take part in the Hyde Park procession on 13 Jun 1908. Despard was the first woman to refuse to pay taxes as a protest, an action which quickly inspired others to form the Women's Tax Resistance League. These activities were expanded upon in Apr 1911 when women householders either spoilt or failed to complete their census forms. This escalation of action did not prevent them joining a Conciliation Bill committee with other suffrage groups in 1910 in response to Prime Minister Asquith's offer on a free vote on extensions to the franchise. A truce was called with the government until the failure of such a bill for the third time, but by 1912 the organisation had already announced that it would support Labour Party candidates against any of the government's Liberal candidates at elections. This practice of working with other groups was one which the WFL supported, having ongoing links with the International Women's Franchise Club, the International Women Suffrage Alliance and the Suffrage Atelier. During the early part of the First World War, like most of the other suffrage organisations, the League suspended its practical militant political action and began voluntary work, though not the 'war work' of the type advocated by other suffrage groups. The group formed a number of women's police services and a Woman Suffrage National Aid Corps that provided some help to women in financial difficulties and limited day care for children. Furthermore, in 1915, the WFL founded a National Service Organisation to place women in jobs. However, the following year, political activity began again when they joined the WSPU in a picket of the Electoral Reform Conference. When women were granted suffrage after the war, they continued their activities with a change of emphasis. The organisation now called for equality of suffrage between the sexes, women as commissioners of prisons, the opening of all professions to women, equal pay, right of a woman to retain her own nationality on marriage, equal moral standards and representation of female peers in the House of Lords and they continued with this programme of social equality until the dissolution of the group in 1961.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is available for research. Readers are advised to contact The Women's Library in advance of their first visit.

Acquisition Information

These records were deposited with the Fawcett Library sometime prior to 1973. An additional set of material was identified in the National Women Citizens Association archive and transferred to this archive in 2003.

Other Finding Aids

Fawcett Library Catalogue

Related Material

The Women's Library also holds the Papers of Charlotte Despard (7CFD); the Papers of Teresa Billington Greig (7TBG); Papers of Edith How-Martyn (7EHM); the Women's Tax Resistance League (2WTR); the Women's Freedom League Sheffield Branch (2WFS) and two Scrapbooks of Press Cuttings of the Women's Freedom League (10/27-28).

The Women's Library Printed Collection holds a number of publications by the Women's Freedom League, including their monthly bulletin and their annual reports. [missing issues of the Bulletin may be available as part of the British Library Newspaper Collection at Colindale]

The Women's Library Museum Collection holds a number of objects by the Women's Freedom League, including badges, banners, ribbons, flags, postcards and photographs (group and individual portraits of members, as well as WFL activities)