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Women suffrage

Women’s Suffrage movement in the UK
Ilona: Women’s suffrage is the right of women by law to vote in national or local elections. Women
were excluded from voting in ancient Greece and republican Rome, as well as in the few democracies that
had emerged in Europe by the end of the 18th century. When the franchise was widened, as it was in the
United Kingdom in 1832, women continued to be denied all voting rights. The question of women’s voting
rights finally became an issue in the 19th century, and the struggle was particularly intense in Great Britain
and the United States, but those countries were not the first to grant women the right to vote, at least
not on a national basis. By the early years of the 20th century, women had won the right to vote in
national elections in New Zealand (1893), Australia (1902), Finland (1906), and Norway (1913). In Sweden
and the United States they had voting rights in some local elections.
In Great Britain woman suffrage was first advocated by Mary Wollstonecraft in her book “A Vindication
of the Rights of Woman” (1792) and was demanded by the Chartist movement of the 1840s. The demand
for woman suffrage was increasingly taken up by prominent liberal intellectuals in England from the 1850s
Ann: The first organised women’s suffrage movement began in 1866 in Manchester when women
sought to be included in the extension of the franchise to more men in the UK. As a result of the failure
of the political parties at that time, particularly the Liberal and The Conservative party, to act on these
demands to extend the franchise to women the frustration increased among certain quarters of the wider
suffrage movement.
The women saw having access to political citizenship, having the right to vote would alleviate some
of the everyday difficulties they experienced in their lives, so poor working conditions, low pay, lack of
health care, all of these issues could be changed and were more likely to be changed. They strongly believed
that if you had representation in the houses of parliament, their lives would change for the better.
Ilona: In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was founded. They were known
as the Suffragists. By 1910 MPs began to take notice and support the women’s suffrage and they have
slowly came round to the idea of women having the parliamentary franchise, they already could vote local
elections so it was just extending that right to them for national politics , but they couldn’t figure out how
to do it and they were all worried about if they did extend the vote to women, would the women vote
for another party, so it was about self-preservation: they wanted to stay in power and keep their
constituencies and they felt threatened by the unknown.
The suffrage movement began to fracture, creating a radical branch: the Women’s Social and Political
Union(WSPU) also known as the Suffragettes.
Ann: Between 1867 and 1913 there were no less than 40 attempts to pass bills and resolutions
in the House of Commons in favour of women’s suffrage, they were all either defeated, given insufficient
parliamentary time, ignored or blocked by the Government. The early suffrage bills had failed, because they
were private member’s bills, these are bills proposed by individual MPs, rather than the Government and
as such there were not guaranteed the necessary time to complete all of the parliamentary steps required
for a bill to become law. This meant that women’s suffrage bills, even when they had a majority of votes
in their favour failed to become law because of the lack of parliamentary time. Only a government-sponsored
bill stood a realistic chance of becoming a law. And so the question the women had to anwer was : “How
to convince the Government to sponsor a bill ? “
Ilona: For the Suffragists the answer was to continue to argue their case through patient lobbying,
petitions, marches and other law-abiding campaigns, until they had convinced the government that the
majority of the women wanted the vote and would use it responsibly. However for Mrs. Emmeline
Pankhurst’s WSPU aka The Suffragettes, the answer was a campaign of “DEEDS NOT WORDS”. A campaign
that would be impossible for the government to ignore, a campaign that would not meekly ask the
government for the vote, but demand it through political action. The deeds the suffragettes meant in their
slogan initially included organising marches and demonstrations much as the suffragists were doing,
campaigning in by-elections against government candidates and heckling ministers at public meetings; the
latter certainly challenged Edwardian notions of femininity and respectability, but none of these tactics were
in themselves criminal acts or even for that matter new.
Ann: A key turning point came in 1908. In February 1907 and June 1908 large-scale suffragists
and suffragettes demonstrations failed to convince the new Prime Minister Herbert Asquith that the majority
of women wanted the vote. Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, a leading figure in the WSPU wrote that summer
in “votes for women” : “We have touched the limit at a public demonstration, nothing but militant action
is left to us now”. In 1909 Christabel Pankhurst (Mrs. Pankhurst's daughter) coordinated a new campaign
that included breaking windows, setting fire to post boxes and even attempts to set fire to the country
homes of government ministers.
WSPU also continued to practice the older forms of militancy, such as public demonstrations. One
such demonstration in November 1910 included an attempt to stall the lobby of the House of Commons.
Frustrated by the impending failure of the conciliation bill, which would have given the vote to around 1
million wealthy, property-owning women. A 300 strong WSPU delegation reached Parliament, where they
were subjected to a six hour long assault (both physical and indecent) by the police on what would become
known as Black Friday.
Ilona: In 1912 an assassination attempt was made on PM Ascuith in Dublin. By the 1913 The
Suffragette WSPU was labelled a terrorist organization and up to a thousand suffragettes were imprisoned.
For the next two years the WSPU caused extensive damage to properties across the United Kingdom: burning
country houses, a school, more than 50 churches between 1913 and 1914 , the tea houses, bombs were
planted and exploded on trains and in various buildings, including a failed destination in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Their calculation was that the government's desire to maintain law and order would outweigh its opposition
to women's suffrage.
First World War breaks out in 1914 and in some strange way it's actually an opportunity for
Emmeline Pankhurst to stop the campaign, because it was kind of working itself into a dead end of violence.
It’s important to highlight that suffrage wasn’t only an issue of women, more men wanted voting
rights too.
Ann: And after the war they couldn't have young man returning from the horrors of the First World
War, who had served their countries the ultimate act of self-sacrifice and then not be given the right to
vote. Up to 40% of men didn't have the right to vote in 1914 because they didn't own properties and
they didn't meet the property qualifications.
In 1916 the House of Commons decided to extend the vote to all men over the age of 21.The
Suffragists saw this as an opportunity and they were very effective in ensuring that in those discussions at
Westminster, women would receive the right to vote.
Women over the age of 30, who owned property, were given the vote in 1918, enfranchising 8.4
million British women. And it took another 10 years before working class women could vote.
Ilona: And it's important when we're looking back and remembering the history of the suffrage
movement that we acknowledge that when social movements are using different forms of protest some of
those really can be quite extreme and we can't really hide away from, perhaps, being a bit uncomfortable
with some of the tactics that were used during the time, but at the same time recognizing the fact that
in our world most things get done through violence and the Suffragettes were just following the rules
established by men. And whether you agree with their methods or not, you can’t deny that brave women
all over the world changed our democracy forever.
The women got what they wanted, but it was only the beginning… We’ve come a long way since
then in some ways, in others not so much. Surely, women now enjoy more political freedoms and as of
today the UK has had 2 female prime-ministers. But the battle for equality is nowhere near the end and
it’s our responsibility as women to honour those extraordinary females and keep on fighting(not as literally
as the suffragettes did,obviously) until every woman is given the same rights as men.