The Women’s Dreadnought and the narrative of war

The tensions in the relationship between the Pankhurst sisters has been well acknowledged, “the question of legitimacy of working-class representation in the women’s movement drove this conflict”[1], but the significance of what this demonstrates about the multifaceted nature of feminism needs to be included in further analysis. Sylvia Pankhurst’s career trajectory and interests in politics and feminism throughout her life demonstrates that feminism incorporated multiple discourses and that there were multiple voices contributing to debate.

This therefore reduces the narrative that the First World War was the exclusive factor that created divide. It is more accurate however, that the war exemplified the multiplicity of interests and political agendas and arguments within feminism. In general, Sylvia and her sisters’ diverse interests in their writing, their pro and anti-war sentiments, are illustrative of the reality of the nature of feminism. Feminism writing envelopes a multitude of ideologies, and is influenced by contemporary debates and narratives. The determination to achieve equality of the sexes is not an isolated endeavour, women did not live in a bubble in which the only concern lies with the vote and that all concern was over with the vote. As Sylvia expresses “the East End movement was ‘not merely for votes but towards an egalitarian society – an effort to awaken the women submerged in poverty to struggle for better social conditions and bring them into line with the most advanced sections of the movement of the awakened proletariat.’”[2].

Cover page, Britannia, 15 October 1915. [3]
Want I want to explore is the significance of the name change to Britannia and The Women’s Dreadnought. The choice to both change names is interesting, Britannia – an obvious female embodiment of empire and nation – ultimately reflecting the determined patriotism they wished to portray. Both papers funneled their agendas through a guise of war. The choice by Sylvia to name her paper The Women’s Dreadnought is not so symbolically different. If Sylvia was to completely reject the narrative of war the name would have stayed the same. Instead she chose to rename the paper, and this is not without significance, the dreadnought is symbolic of a more modern and industrial notion of war.  It is not an explicit rejection of war narrative, rather it is emblematic of a perspective of war that concerns the realities of the everyday lives of the people. The dreadnought as an iconic war ship and signifies British achievement, still encompassed imagery of Great Britain, but is more reflective of the contribution built by the working-class people. The Women’s Dreadnought, and later The Workers’, is patriotic to the working people, not the idealised notion of ‘nation’. Instead the notion of Britannia is perhaps closer to notions of empire, and the middle-class expedition to colonise new lands, it resonates more with the notion of British superiority that in this symbolic imperialism was inherently gendered.


This difference in name choice does not signify that Sylvia was not interested in overt narratives of war but that she was more concerned with the realities of war for the working-class people, and this was reflected in her campaigns whilst maintaining an anti-war sentiment. As Michelle Tusan suggests the “wartime print culture sustained other marginalized communities as well, revealing not only the political but also the class divisions among activist women.”[4]. The difference in name choice is symbolic of Sylvia’s determination to address the realities of war for the British working people, and particularly women, she expressed her concerns in The Women’s Dreadnought, “Women, who are without any political power to stay it, are always the heaviest sufferers by every war.”[5].

Sylivia Pankhurst addressing a crowd; 1912

Sylivia Pankhurst addressing a crowd outside the headquarters of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, Old Ford Road, Bow. © Museum of London

What the diversity of the Pankhurst’s feminism demonstrates is the diversity of experience of women, particularly during the war. We can use this to understand the consequences of war for female citizenship, and how this varied between the classes. There was in part a re-emphasis of patriotism and duty in constructions of citizenship throughout the war. If the vote in 1918 Representation of the People Act was seen as the achievement for women, and rewarded for their contribution for the war, the vast majority of working class women who worked endless hours in wartime factories were not included in this.

It is neither valuable as historians to view these feminist concerns as isolated events that peaked and or changed at distinct times, such as during the war. It is instead more valuable for scholars to consider it an evolving institution with a wide combination of voices contributing to the debate, voices which use contemporary narratives and real experiences to add to this discourse. Historians should focus on the “ideological clarification”[6] that the war allowed, rather than the divisions it exposed.

[1] Tusan, Michelle Elizabeth, Women making news: Gender and Journalism in Modern Britain (United States: University of Illinois Press, 2005), p.202.

[2] Davis, Mary, Sylvia Pankhurst: A life in radical politics (London: Pluto Press, 1999), p.38.

[3] Smith, Angela, ‘The pankhursts and the war: Suffrage magazines and first world war propaganda’, Women’s History Review, i, 12 (2003), 103–118, p.106, Figure 1.

[4] Tusan, Michelle Elizabeth, Women making news: Gender and Journalism in Modern Britain (United States: University of Illinois Press, 2005), p.202.

[5] Researcher: Paul Bass, WAR? By Sylvia Pankhurst, the women’s Dreadnought, Saturday 1 august 1914 (East End at War, 2014), in Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives <; [accessed 1 February 2017]

[6] Calvini-Lefebvre, Marc, John Mullen, and Florence Binard, ‘The great war in the history of British feminism: Debates and controversies, 1914 to the present’, Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique, XX–1 (2015), p.4.




One thought on “The Women’s Dreadnought and the narrative of war

  1. I enjoyed reading your blog. The focus on the titles of the two journals was innovative and the images were excellent. I found you observations about ESP’s attitudes towards the war fascinating and thought provoking. However, in the you didn’t deliver all that was promised, since the emphasis was overwhelmingly on Sylvia and the WD rather than Christabel and Britannia.

    Some observations:-
    – Remember ESP wrote a her own account of her experiences in “The Suffragette Movement”, so you don’t need to rely entirely on secondary sources when quoting her.
    – You introduce really huge issues in the final two paragraphs which meant the originality in your approach was somewhat lost.
    – There are significant errors in the text. Proof reading is absolutely essential.


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