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A POTTED HISTORY OF WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE

Introduction

2018 is the 100th anniversary of when some women were granted the right to vote. Women’s rights have therefore been at the forefront of the news recently, including suffrage, the gender pay gap, and historic (and continuing) abuse of women by powerful men.

Some may think there’s been overload and every time you turn on the news, it’s the same story. Truth can be trivialised by over-dramatisation and constantly being pushed into your face. This can lead to the “whatever” effect, as I call it, and the subject becomes fatigued.

However, women’s suffrage was hard won and is an extremely important part of our history. So, regardless of extensive media coverage, I have decided my third article will be on women’s suffrage. I hope that you find it iinteresting.

Suffrage – the right to vote in political elections (Oxford Dictionary)

Women’s suffrage in England began in the aftermath of the Reform Act of 1832 which extended the voting rights of men, but not women.

Prior to 1832 most men and women were not allowed to vote. The Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884 enfranchised new sections of society, giving most men (aged over 21) the right to vote and left gender the principal ground for exclusion. By 1900 approximately 58% of the male population were entitled to vote. Even though women paid rates, taxes and were subject to the same laws of the land, they continued to be denied the right to vote.

It wasn’t until 1928 that women obtained equal suffrage. It had taken the perseverance and shock tactics of both the suffragists and the suffragettes nearly 100 years to achieve what should have been the right of women, without debate.

There are two main protagonists of women’s suffrage:

Mrs Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929) – suffragist
Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 – 1928) – suffragette

Millicent Fawcett & The Suffragists

Suffragist groups existed across the country and had one common aim – to achieve the right to vote for women through constitutional, peaceful means. These were mainly regional, non-politically aligned groups, but in 1898 a number of these groups came together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), under the leadership of Mrs Fawcett.

Mrs Fawcett published widely on women’s issues and was a frequent public speaker on women’s rights. She had an advantage of being married to an MP, Henry Fawcett, and regularly sat in the Gallery at the House of Commons to watch the debates which gave her a good understanding of political tactics.

The suffragists believed in achieving change through lobbying to persuade Members of Parliament, who were sympathetic to their cause, to raise the issue of women’s suffrage in debate on the floor of the House. As these debates took place every year between 1870 and 1884 and, as Parliamentary proceedings were extensively covered in the national and regional press, this did have some success in keeping the campaign in the public eye.

However, concentrating on political debate in the House of Commons, meant that other opportunities to raise their profile and gain support throughout the country, were perhaps not explored.

This lead to the rise of the Suffragettes, the more militant arm of suffrage.

Emmeline Pankhurst & The Suffragettes

The Pankhurst family is well known for being a major player in the militant campaign for the vote.

Emmeline Pankhurst with a number of other campaigners, became increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress made by the suffrage movement. They decided a more direct approach was needed and founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Their motto was “Deeds not Words”.

This group’s aim was to cause disruption and some civil disobedience. One well known initiative was the “rush” on Parliament in 1908 when it encouraged the public to invade the House of Commons. Although, 60,000 people gathered, it was unsuccessful as the police cordon held fast.

As the group became more frustrated at the lack of response by the Government, they became more violent in their actions, including attacks on property and other unlawful acts.

Consequently, many suffragettes were imprisoned. While in prison, some of them went on hunger strike, leading to the infamous force feeding of these women and the Cat and Mouse Act of 1912 (which allowed hunger strikers to be released to recover and then subsequently be re-imprisoned).

Womens Freedom League

Another organisation that campaigned was the Women’s Freedom League which was formed in 1907 by Teresa Billington-Greig and Charlotte Despard. Although a militant organisation like the WSPU, they used passive resistance to taxation and non-cooperation with the census rather than attacks on people and property. The Grille Incident is probably once of the most well-known of their actions where, on 28th October 1908, two of their members chained themselves to the grille covering the Ladies’ Gallery window. The Ladies’ Gallery was the only place women could watch proceedings at the House of Commons (they were not allowed in the Public Gallery) and the grilles covering the windows were made of heavy brass with gaps not large enough to allow clear vision. They were considered symbolic of women’s exclusion from Parliament and voting.

Male Supporters

There were many male supporters, some with their own agenda. Three of the men especially proactive in their support of women’s suffrage were:

Keir Hardie MP, who regularly spoke in the House on the subject, questioned government ministers on the treatment of suffragette prisoners and attended WSPU events.

George Lansbury MP resigned his seat so that he could fight a by-election on the suffrage question (which he lost). He was imprisoned in 1913 after making a speech at a WSPU rally in support of their campaign of arson attacks.

Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, joint editor of the publication “Votes for Women”. He was imprisoned, went on hunger-strike and was forcibly fed. He was an MP between 1923 and 1931.

Anti-Suffrage Women

Whilst there were plenty of women who were passive about suffrage, there were also a number who were strongly anti-suffrage. This could have been due to a traditional (a woman’s place is in the home) attitude, consternation at the militant tactics employed, or restrictions and influence placed upon them by their husbands or other male family members.

Mary Ward (known as Mrs Humphrey Ward) who led the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League from 1908 is a good example. In 1910, this organisation merged with the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage to form the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage.

Women’s Role in the War

When the First World War started in 1914 most suffrage organisations suspended their activities to concentrate on supporting the war effort.

It is estimated that between 1914 and 1918 around two million women replaced men in employment. They worked in munitions, railways, street sweeping and factories – just a few examples.

It is certain that women’s work during the War helped strengthen the suffrage cause.

An excellent book on this subject, which I have had since it was first published in 1977 and which I strongly recommend, is – Women at War 1914-1918 by Arthur Marwick.

Men’s Right to Vote

Another factor was the growing Labour Party’s movement to increase the franchise of eligibility to vote overall. Before 1918 only about 58% of the male population could vote, the remaining 42% were excluded.

Outcome

During 1916-1917, the House of Commons speaker, James William Lowther, chaired a conference on electoral reform which recommended limited women’s suffrage.

This was greatly influenced by the suffrage movement, by the work women were doing for the War effort and the rise of the Labour Party. In addition, only men who had been resident in the country for twelve months prior to a general election were entitled to vote – this disenfranchised many servicemen who had been fighting for the country overseas.

A General Election was imminent and, finally, politicians were persuaded to extend the vote to all men and some women and in 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed.

This gave women over the age of 30 and who met a property qualification, the right to vote. Although this was an achievement, it still only represented 40% of the total population of women in the UK.

Men fared better. The Act abolished property and other restrictions for men and extended the vote to all men over 21. If a man was in the armed forces, then that age reduced to 19.

Still Not Equal

It wasn’t until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women finally achieved the same voting rights as men.

Conclusion

Neither suffragists nor suffragettes were successful as sole entities in achieving their joint goal. However, both had important parts to play: I liken these to a building site – suffragists were the architects, planners and developers; suffragettes were the on-site contractors getting their hands dirty.

Having researched this from a variety of sources, my view is that success was a combination of all I have outlined above – peaceful negotiation, aggressive confrontation, a change to the political system and support from those with power, and the necessities of War.

Women won the vote in 1928 on equal terms with men and it is now 2018 – do women have the same rights as men? Yes, in UK law they do. However, consider my opening paragraphs and you may agree that there is still some way to go before equal treatment has been achieved.

There is so much history, and so many stories to be told, surrounding suffrage and women’s rights and it is impossible to cover everything in a short article. I hope I have whetted your appetite to find out more.

Resources
UK Parliament website – www.parliament.uk
Herstoria.com
BBC GCSE Bitesize – http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/
Exploring Surrey’s Past – www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk
Women at War 1914-1918 by Arthur Marwick.

© Janice Tyler March 2018

Tyler's Tales

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