Suffragettes ~ a brief history

The Suffragette
movement Some helpful hints.
The Suffragettes was a
name given to members
of The Women's Social
and Political Union.
This was a pressure
group which campaigned
for women to be given
the vote between 1903
and 1918.
It was not the only
women's pressure group
demanding reform.
Origins of the Movement
The political ideas of the French Revolution and
of writers such as Thomas Paine had led to the
development of the Radical Movement in Britain
to campaign for universal male suffrage.
This had been partially successful with the 1832
Reform Act, and the subsequent Reform Acts.
This had led some middle and upper class
women begin to consider the possibility that
women could be given the vote.
Led by
The National Union of
Women's Suffrage
The Suffragists
Committed to using peaceful, rational
argument to persuade men to give women the
As a result got nowhere fast
Emmeline Pankhurst
Educated in the Radical
political tradition from an
early age.
Became involved in the
suffrage movement but
was disenchanted with
the lack of success.
Founded the Women’s
Social and Political Union
in 1903 ~ dedicated to
‘deeds, not words’
The Women’s Social and
Political Union
Initially this used the same tactics as the suffragists,
namely pamphlets, letters to newspapers, public
meetings, collecting petitions and advertising.
They attempted to engage with the main Political
Parties to get them to promote political reform however
the Parties either did not believe in the ideas
(Conservatives) or did not feel they could take the
gamble (Liberals).
The WSPU started to become more confrontational with
the Political Parties in an attempt to get them to cooperate.
A quick note about
Political Parties at this
At this time there were only two main Political Parties:
the Conservatives [sometimes called the Tories] (Right
Wing); the Liberals (Centre).
The Labour Party (Left Wing) had only just started, did
not have many MPs and had no experience of
1912 ~ a move to
militancy and violence
In 1912 the Liberal Prime Minister Asquith had agreed
to sign legislation, if it had passed, would have given
women approximately the same voting rights as men
had been given in 1832. At the last moment he
changed his mind because he feared that women
would turn against the Liberals in the forthcoming
As a result the WSPU felt betrayed and concluded that
they now had to move to direct action to demonstrate to
the Public and politicians that they were serious and
that they were not going away.
The tactics which the Suffragettes now
used included:
chaining themselves to railings
heckling at political meetings
demonstrating and then resisting
Smashing windows
Setting fire to pillar boxes
Defacing public monuments
Attempting to detonate bombs
All of these were designed to gain media
attention and keep their issue in the
public eye.
Direct Action
Reaction to the campaign
of militancy
Initially the campaign of violence turned people against
the ideas of the Suffragettes, and they were strongly
contrasted with the peaceful Suffragists ~ not lawabiding, too emotional and irrational.
The campaign also split the WSPU with many more
moderate members, including two of Emmeline’s
daughter’s, leaving the organisation.
The Cat and Mouse Act
When sentenced to prison the Suffragettes went on hunger
strike to force the authorities to given them better conditions.
The Government responded in two ways: forced feeding of
prisoners(by inserting a tube down their throats and into their
stomachs; the Cat and Mouse Act 1913 which allowed for the
release of seriously ill Suffragettes and their re-arrest when
they were recovered.
The Suffragettes were able to make good propaganda use of
this and public opinion started to turn against the Government
Emily Davison
A committed Suffragette
Stepped in front of the King’s race horse at
the Epsom Derby 1913
Died 4 days later of her head injuries.
To this day it is not clear whether Davison
planned to kill herself (she had a history of
attempted suicide) or it was an accident.
Due to the popularity of the King, and the
Public’s love of animals, this action led to
further criticism of the Suffragettes.
The Suffragettes made
expert use of propaganda
using especially posters
They pioneered many of
the visual techniques
which would later be used
in World War I
propaganda and post-War
This tended to
focus on the impact
on the family and on
the natural order of
things which votes
for women would
The War Years
With the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 the WSPU called a ‘ceasefire’ and started to
co-operate with the Government, helping with recruitment of men into the armed forces
and women into war work.
A more extreme splinter group split away and formed the Women’s Suffrage
Federation under Sylvia Pankhurst's leadership. They continued the militant campaign
whilst The Suffragist Movement continued to lobby Parliament for political change.
The War, particularly once conscription was in place, removed unprecedented
numbers of men from British society. Women moved into this roles, filling everyday
jobs as well as war-work such as munitions factory workers. This demonstrated not
only their ability to cope and make a significant contribution to society, but also gave
many economic independence for the first time.
Votes for women
By the end of the War the Coalition Government had realised
that giving women the vote was not only accepted by the people
but was also desirable because whoever did this could gain their
6th April 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed
which gave women over 30 who met the ownership of property
qualification the vote (this still not the same as men)
November 1918 The Eligibility of Women Act allowed women to
stand for election to Parliament.
1928 The Representation of the People Act granted the vote to
all men and women over the age of 21.