The suffragette in the dock at Bow Street police court is one of the emblematic scenes of the “votes for women” agitation. She usually stood alone in the prisoners' box, facing the magistrate, flanked by tables lined with lawyers and police officials and backed by benches full of friends and supporters, newspaper reporters, and ordinary spectators. Notwithstanding the state's claims of legal equality and judicial impartiality, she seemed to be engaged in an unequal contest speaking truth to unbending masculine authority. She was powerless to alter the outcome, a guilty verdict and a spell of imprisonment. This scene, like those of the protester arrested in the streets and the hunger striker being forcibly fed in prison, underlines the spectacular nature of suffrage militancy. Yet its very power to seize and hold our attention can obscure the complex interactions and effects that made militancy such a profoundly ambiguous moment in the intertwined histories of the women's suffrage movement and the Liberal-ruled Edwardian state.
Recent research has displaced the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) from its once central place in suffrage history. Jill Liddington, Jill Norris, and Jo Vellacott have recovered the very important contributions of radical and democratic feminists to the movement. In recounting the efforts of moderate women's suffragists, Claire Hirshfield, Leslie Parker Hume, and others have helped to paint a much more complex picture of the high politics of franchise reform. Historians have also begun to examine the distinct experiences of the movement in Ireland and Scotland.