The Suffragettes
Early years 1903-1906
Very few rights for women and no right to vote in
general elections – ‘politics should be left to
men’.
How could powerless ‘outsiders’ persuade those
with power to share it with them?
Peaceful protest within the law? Work within the
system? Or break the law?
1897 National Union of Women’s Suffrage
Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett:
peaceful protest, letters, leaflets, petitions
etc. Known as the Suffragists. But little
change meant many thought this was not
enough.
1903 Women’s Social and Political Union
(WSPU), known as the Suffragettes. Set up
by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters
Christabel and Sylvia. ‘Deeds not Words. One
object, political equality with men.’ They
organised events to get publicity and were
ready to break the law.
Developments 1906-1908
1906 The Liberals won the election and many thought
they would give women the vote. But Prime
Minister Asquith said other reforms were more
important.
Suffragists and Suffragettes tried publicity events:
leaflets, Votes for Women newspaper, publicity
stunts, large demonstrations (300,000 in WSPU
march to Hyde Park 1908)
October 1906 WSPU Suffragettes broke the law by
protesting in the House of Commons. Arrested and
sent to prison.
Others chained themselves to railings outside Downing
Street.
No response from Asquith so WSPU decided to step up
their action.
Suffragette actions included setting fire to buildings and
post boxes, cutting telegraph wires,. pouring acid on
golf courses
NUWSS and WSPU split away from each other.
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The Suffragettes
Suffragettes and the media
1913 the death of Emily Davison
At the Derby horse race she tried to stop the
king’s horse but was knocked down and
killed.
At first the media and public were against the
action. However the WSPU organised two
big funerals and made her a martyr.
Some newspapers were totally against the
idea of votes for women – e.g. The Times.
Other newspapers supported the women
when their methods were non-violent.
Some newspapers reported police violence.
One magazine (Punch) supported votes for
women.
But most newspapers were against the
Suffragettes.
However, when the WSPU used violence the
papers reported it and gave the
Suffragettes the publicity they wanted!
Why did a small number of women get so much
media publicity?
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Women getting arrested made a good story
Many people were shocked by women acting in
this way
The Suffragettes put the government under
pressure and people liked reading about this
Newspapers had strong views for or against
votes for women
The violent tactics of the authorities made a
good story
The Suffragettes were very good at publicity
How successful was the Suffragettes’ use of the
media?
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They wanted media attention and didn’t mind if
it was positive or negative.
But their more violent tactics meant some
women left them and joined the NUWSS.
Some important men could claim that they were
mentally unstable.
However, they kept the attention of the media.
Stalemate! The government could not crush the protests but women could not get
the vote unless the government changed the law.
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The Suffragettes
Government attempts to deal
with the protests
The government found it hard to deal with the protests
without upsetting the public and giving the
Suffragettes more support.
Liberal MPs were divided about women’s votes – some
for and some against.
When the WSPU used direct action the government took
a hard line. They banned all women from Liberal
meetings.
WSPU members broke windows and refused to pay fines.
They wanted to be sent to prison.
They wanted to be treated as political prisoners but the
government treated them as ordinary criminals (not
allowed to speak, having to empty their own
chamber pots). They wanted to scare and humiliate
Suffragettes and put off others from doing the
same.
Some Suffragettes went on hunger strike.
The government did not want them to die in prison and
become martyrs.
The authorities began force-feeding the women in
prison. Wedges forced mouth to open, tube
pushed down through the nose. Sometimes the
food went into the lungs instead of the stomach.
Many health problems as a result.
This caused a public outcry and got the WSPU more
support.
1910 Asquith agreed to work with the WSPU and
NUWSS on a new Bill to give women the vote.
The Suffragettes called off violent protests. But
the new law never happened because Liberals
thought women would vote for the
Conservatives.
Friday 18th November 1910 (‘Black Friday’) over
300 Suffragettes protested angrily outside
Parliament. The police were told to scare and
humiliate them. Many women suffered violent
and sexual assault from the police.
Hundreds more women were now willing to go to
prison.
1911 big window-breaking campaign
1913 the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ – hunger strikers
freed from prison before they were badly ill,
then arrested again when they were strong.
Balance of power – If authorities are powerful enough to squash a protest it gets nowhere.
If government is scared to use its power because of public reaction, protesters can force change.3
The Suffragettes
The end of the campaign
In 1913 Sylvia Pankhurst had split with her mother and
left the WSPU. She formed the East London
Federation for working-class women. She wanted
all women to have the vote.
Christabel Pankhurst only wanted the vote for women
with money and property.. She supported more
violent action.
In 1914 the First World War began. The WSPU stopped
all protests and supported the war effort.
In return the government released all Suffragette
prisoners.
The NUWSS did not support the war as strongly as the
WSPU.
During the war women played an important, active part
doing jobs that had previously been for men only.
Women were clearly capable of doing ‘men’s work’.
Sylvia Pankhurst was strongly against the war, a socialist
and pacifist. But Emmeline and Christabel worked
to get young men to serve in the armed forces.
The war ended in 1918.
In the same year the Representation of the People
Act gave the vote to women over 30 if they or
their husbands were householders.
In 1928 all women over 21 got the vote.
Did women get the vote because of the war or because
of the Suffragettes’ actions?
The war showed that women could do jobs just as well as men.
Many people had been put off by the Suffragette tactics.
However, it was the Suffragettes who had made the change in law
possible and they were the ones who pushed for it in 1918.
The government also did not want to go back to all the problems
before the war.
But only richer women got the vote in 1918.
THINK
• ‘Violent protest was the worst way of
campaigning for the vote.’ Do you agree?
• Did the government’s attitude to the
protests only help the Suffragettes’
campaign?
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The Suffragettes