Suffragette


"A woman seeking the right to vote through organized protest."

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst, prominent members of the WSPU

The Suffragette cause was taken up by the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), a large organisation in Britain, that lobbied for women's suffrage led by militant suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.

Emmeline Pankhurst was the most prominent of Britain's suffragettes.

Portrait badge of Emmeline Pankhurst (c. 1909) sold in large numbers by the WSPU to raise funds

Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913) died after throwing herself in front of the King's horse at the Derby

Memorial edition of The Suffragette newspaper dedicated to Emily Davison

Today I would like to remember the women who fought for our rights as women to vote! The women who starved for us. The women who were beaten mercilessly for us! The women who were brave enough to stand up even in the face of fear! These women are why I have the life I have today!

Throughout the woman's suffrage movement, many tactics were employed in order to achieve the goals of the movement. Throughout Britain, the contents of letter boxes were set alight or corrosive acids or liquids poured over the letters and postcards inside, and shop and office windows were smashed with hammers. Telephone wires were cut, and graffiti slogans began appearing on the streets. Places that wealthy people, typically men, frequented were also burnt and destroyed while unattended so that there was no risk to life, including cricket pitches, golf courses and horse racing tracks.

In the early-20th century until the First World War, approximately one thousand suffragettes were imprisoned in Britain. Most early incarcerations were for public order offences and failure to pay outstanding fines. While incarcerated, suffragettes lobbied to be considered political prisoners; with such a designation, suffragettes would be placed in the First Division as opposed to the Second or Third Division of the prison system, and as political prisoners would be granted certain freedoms and liberties not allotted to other prison divisions, such as being allowed frequent visits and being allowed to write books or articles. Because of a lack of consistency between the different courts, suffragettes would not necessarily be placed in the First Division and could be placed in Second or Third Division, which enjoyed fewer liberties.

Poster by "A Patriot", showing a suffragette prisoner being force-fed, 1910.

Memories of Winson Green Prison September 18, 1909; Illustration from Mabel Cappers WSPU prisoners scrapbook

Suffragettes in prison clothing after their release, 1908. Wearing their prison numbers on badges, they wave joyfully to the crowds. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

UK WSPU Hunger Strike Medal 30 July 1909 including the bar 'Fed by Force 17 September 1909'. The Medal awarded to Mabel Capper records the first instance of forcible feeding of hunger striking Suffragette prisoners in England at Winson Green Prison in Birmingham.

Nineteen-year-old Fay Hubbard selling suffragette papers in New York, 1910

Suffragettes were members of women's organisations in the late-19th and early-20th centuries which advocated the extension of the "franchise", or the right to vote in public elections, to women. It particularly refers to militants in the United Kingdom such as members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). "Suffragist" is a more general term for members of the suffrage movement, particularly those advocating women's suffrage.

ONE hundred years have come and gone since suffragettes achieved what seemed impossible at the time - equal votes for women.

The suffragettes' relentless battle led to women finally achieving the right to have their say. Read on to discover more about their monumental fight...

Charlotte Despard, second from right, leads a suffragette march by the National Federation of Women Workers in Bermondsey, London

Tess Billington carries a banner inscribed with the suffragette slogan 'Votes For Women' during a demonstration in the Ladies Gallery in the House of Commons, London

But there were also moderate women's groups who campaigned for the right to vote in a more peaceful manner, known as suffragists.

The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, led by Milicent Fawcett, helped to build the legal support for women.

Voting rights timeline

  • 1832 Mary Smith presents the first women's suffrage petition to Parliament. In the same year, The Great Reform Act specifies that only "male persons" can vote - despite some women with property being able to vote before that

  • 1865 The issue of parliamentary reform declined with the Chartists, and only returned when MP John Stuart Mill stood for office showing support for female suffrage

  • 1867 Mill presents the Second Reform Bill to Parliament. It fails, but the National Society for Women's Suffrage is formed in the same year

  • 187 The Married Women's Property Act allows married women to own their own property. Previously, when women married, their property transferred to their husbands

  • 1881 The Isle of Man grants votes to women

  • 1884 An amendment to the Third Reform Bill to give women the vote is rejected

  • 1897 The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) forms with more than 20 national societies in support. The party is led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, based in Gower Street, central London

  • 1903 Emmeline Pankhhurst found the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst. The group's tactics diverged from the NUWSS, and included hunger strikes, throwing stones, smashing windows and arson of unoccupied churches.

  • 1905 Militant campaigns began, and Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst were arrested. The slogans "deeds, not words" and "votes for women" became mantra for the campaign.

  • 1906 Prime Minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and 400 of 670 MPs are in favour of women's suffrage. A daily newspaper coins the term "suffragette".

  • 1908 Up to 500,000 activists attend a mass rally in Hyde Park. Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith doesn't attend, so suffragettes smash windows in Downing Street and chain themselves to railings to get his attention

  • 1910 The Conciliation Bill, which would give women the vote, is favoured by MPs but Asquith decides not to carry it through.

  • 1913 The Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act, more commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act, was an attempt to stop suffragettes from becoming martyrs. Rather than being force-fed during their time in prison while on hunger strike, they would be released once they became extremely weak to prevent them dying in custody

  • 1913 In the same year, campaigner Emily Davison was killed by a horse at the Derby (see below)

  • 1917 The Electoral Reform Bill is finally passed. This gives votes to some women only - those over the age of 30, those over 21 who own property or those married to householders

  • 1918 The Representation of the People Act is passed, allowing men over 21 and women over 30 to vote

  • 1928 Everyone over the age of 21 is given the right to vote

  • 1969 The voting age was lowered to 18

In 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed, allowing women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification to vote.... however...

Many people assume that, as a direct result of women’s war work during the First World War, they were given the vote on equal terms to men. However, they were not.

The Representation of the People Act of 1918 was primarily needed to resolve the issue of soldiers returning from service in the First World War who were not entitled to the vote, as they did not meet existing property qualifications. The 1918 act abolished almost all property qualifications for men over the age of 21 and gave the vote to women over 30 – but only if they met minimum property qualifications or were married to a man who did.

Women could also vote as part of a university constituency if they were a university graduate. The age differential was to ensure that, following the loss of men in the war, women did not become the majority voters. After the act was passed, women made up 43 per cent of the electorate.

Women were not given the vote on the same terms as men until a decade after the act was passed: on 2 July 1928, the Second Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Actwas passed into law. In a cruel twist of fate, Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the militant WSPU, died on 14 June 1928, some 18 days before equal suffrage rights were granted.

NOT ALL Suffragettes were women:

The suffrage campaign and particularly militancy is almost always presented as a protest by women only. However, this is untrue, as many men were committed to the suffrage cause. Keir Hardie MP regularly raised questions in the House of Commons, and George Lansbury MP resigned his seat over the issue. Lansbury was also arrested at a suffrage rally in 1913 after speaking in support of the campaign of arson attacks.

November 1912: British Labour politician George Lansbury with his wife during the Bromley and Bowe by-election, London. The following year he was arrested at a suffrage rally. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Even more closely involved with the movement was Frederick Pethwick-Lawrence. The WSPU did not admit male members, but Fred and his wife, Emmeline, became joint editors of the WSPU journal Votes for Women.

Fred also represented the WSPU in legal matters, including trials, as women were not permitted to do so.

Fred was imprisoned many times for his involvement with the movement. Like his wife and other suffragettes, Fred went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed [from 1909, women demanding the status of political prisoners began to refuse food, and the government’s response was to forcibly feed them]. In his autobiography, Fate Has Been Kind (1943), he described how he was force-fed: “The head doctor, a most sensitive man, was visibly distressed by what he had to do. It certainly was an unpleasant and painful process and a sufficient number of warders had to be called in to prevent my moving while a rubber tube was pushed up my nostril and down into my throat and liquid was poured through it into my stomach. Twice a day thereafter one of the doctors fed me in this way. I was not allowed to leave my cell in the hospital and for the most part I had to stay in bed.”

What we can be certain of is that votes for women had mass support. Marches attracted vast numbers of militant and non-militant supporters, both male and female, from all walks of life. The Women’s Sunday Procession in June 1908 attracted more than 300,000 protesters carrying 700 banners through London. There were certainly more suffragist members of the NUWSS than militant members of the WSPU. By the outbreak of the First World War, the NUWSS had 50,000 members, but estimates on membership numbers for the WSPU vary massively from between 2,000 to 5,000.

The Women’s Franchise Demonstration, London, 1910. From ‘The Year 1910 Illlustrated’. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Thank you to the SUN, A news UK company and Wiki for this information and images!


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