Suffrage | Sarah Stook

The History of the Suffrage Movement

Argument 1: Women cannot fight for King and Country

Argument 2: Most women DON’T want the vote

Argument 3: They are well represented by their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons

Argument 4: There is a certain sphere, and if a woman goes out of it, she will neglect her role as mother and homemaker. She will abandon her children, leave her husband and neglect her home.

Argument 5: Women are delicate, emotional creatures who get angry and upset. They are too fragile to vote.

Argument 6: They can already vote in local elections, which cover things such as their children’s education. Parliament covers war and taxes, outside of what women understand.

Argument 7: If a woman can vote, she can enter Parliament. Who wants a female as an MP, or as a member of the Cabinet?

Argument 8: The men in parliament are perfectly capable of representing women

Argument 9: Politics is dirty and nasty, and no woman should be dragged into this murky world.

Argument 10: Giving women the vote would mean gender equality, which would upset the natural order of things.

Reading this today, it seems like utter insanity. Women work outside the home, have different political views to our family members (certainly the case in my family), many represent us as MPs and in the case of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, represent us as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Yet, if you cast your mind back over 100 hundred years ago, these arguments were not only held by men, but women too, conservatives and liberals also. Suffrage in the United Kingdom has been an issue that had been in the public conscience since the early 19th century, but really hit it towards the end of it. Every politics student will have learnt about John Stuart Mill, author of the influential On Liberty, and the first MP to openly call for female suffrage. In 1869, several years after he’d been elected to Parliament, Mill published The Subjection of Women as a joint venture with his wife, arguing that a lack of education, marriage and society. He believed that most men and all women were slaves to the system and that the lack of women’s rights impeded on the progression of women.  He was not the most suffrage supporting MP with Willoughby Dickinson have a perfect voting record on the issue. During this time, various pro-suffrage leagues started to spring up as more and more women (and men) started to gain an interest in fighting for equal polling rights. Many names will be known to at least some, but the two that most of us would have learned about in GCSE History come up later. The first of these, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS) was founded in 1897 by Millicent Fawcett, whose members we know as ‘suffragists.’ Six years later, in 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughters and allies, founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), who we know as the ‘suffragettes.’

It is of no secret that the suffrage fighters suffered for their beliefs. In the 19th century, they were seen as probably a novelty, but by the time the suffrage movement really came into public belief, these women and their supporters were not particularly liked. When campaigning, they were spat at, verbally and even physically abused. An afternoon peacefully campaigning outside of Downing Street or Whitehall would see women hit, punched and smacked with a policeman’s truncheon despite them not doing anything illegal. These law enforcement officials, following law and a society that said women were delicate, precious little things, hypocritically beat them as though they were hardened criminals. Whilst a few newspapers were sympathetic to the cause, but most wrote headlines and stories that poured scorn on the movement. In parliament, most MPs and Lords would have laughed at the thought, even those with politically active wives. Children were taken from their suffragette mothers, husbands left wives and families did not speak to others. Whilst some politically active families may have seen the arrests of the women as points of pride, the vast majority- especially well-to-do, well known families and those from small communities would have been horrified to have a jailbird in their backyard. Helen Archdale’s mother-in-law attempted to kidnap Archdale’s sons to keep them away from her; Mary Gawthorpe (a big part of the WSPU campaign)’s engagement did not survive her campaign; Florence Bartlett went to prison under her maiden name to avoid embarrassing her husband; Jessie Stephenson’s sister stopped speaking to her and Helen Cragg left her home. Though the case is fictional, Maud Watts, the protagonist of the film Suffragette suffers a lot. The laundry worker, played by Carey Mulligan, loses her job; her husband kicks her out and does not allow her to see her son, before sending him for adoption because he can no longer afford to care for the boy. It is easy to see why many women, especially those in the WSPU, were middle and upper class women, as those working women risked their jobs. Whilst those jobs were often menial and dangerous, losing it meant destitution for both these women and their family.

Whilst Fawcett and her allies campaigned peacefully, Pankhurst and their allies believed in violent protests, and they often did that. They cut telephone lines, threw rocks at shop windows and chained themselves to railings outside of important buildings. In more violent and dangerous stunts, they sent letter bombs, set fire to unoccupied property and even attacked politicians (one lady even threw a hatchet at the then-Prime Minister). Whilst many credit the WSPU more than the NWUSS, historians both modern and contemporary wonder how much they did help. Their violence was discredited even by those in favour of suffrage and many at the time were put off by what they deemed hooliganism. The most famous, of all action, occurred on 8th June 2013.

Emily Davison was easily one of the most radical women in suffrage, outstripping even the Pankhursts. She achieved first-class honours at Oxford in one term but was not given a degree, as Oxford didn’t give women degrees. A veteran of force-feeding, Davison lost a lot of weight and became ill in her numerous trips to prison. She was not afraid of violence- in prison, she was nearly drowned and had to be sent to hospital so that she did not get pneumonia. Amongst her actions were hiding in Westminster, throwing things at politicians and setting letter boxes alight. As a result of her heinous treatment in prison, Davison even attempted to kill herself by throwing herself from some railings. All of this came to ahead when Davison headed to the Epsom Derby, where the King’s horse would be racing. Ducking under the barrier, Davison was hit by a horse. After under a week in a coma, she died. It was unclear as to what she was doing- whether she was crossing the fence or whether she was trying to pin a flag to the horse is unknown. Some question whether she was trying to kill herself, though some argue against this- one prominent answer is the return train ticket she was carrying. Whatever happened, Davison’s name was forever in history. Hated by contemporary media, politics and society, Davison became a martyr to the cause. Though Emmeline Pankhurst was imprisoned at this point, it didn’t stop over 5,000 women and men taking part in a procession through London, on top of over 50,000 people lining the route. Davison’s grave in Morpeth, Northumberland bears the WSPU slogan ‘Deeds, Not Words.’

It was the war that did it.

Many young men were shipped off to the European battlefront to die gruesome and horrible deaths. On the home front, the women and remaining men worried for their safety, all whilst doing their best on the British Isles. For the first time, women really entered the workforce. Some joined the army in support roles- as typists, as nurses and the Auxiliary Corp. At home, they took over the men’s jobs in the fields and in the factories, working tirelessly in the munitions factories- many in dangerous conditions. When the war ended, many women found that they did not want to return home and were upset that the men wanted their jobs back. For the suffragettes and suffragists, this was an opportunity of a lifetime. During the war, Pankhurst halted all militant activity, though all organisations continued to campaign peacefully between war work. They had worked tirelessly and shown to be a key part of the country, and henceforth argued that it was unfair that they were not allowed to go to the ballot. Finally, it was agreed that women were worthy of the vote. Of course, it was not all women- they were those over thirty, householders, wives of householders, those who paid a certain amount in rent and university graduates. Accepting the deal, the leaders of the movement watched as the Representation of the People Act of 1918 was passed. A few months later, and the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 allowed women to stand as representatives- the first being Constance Markievicz of Sinn Féin who was elected in the general election of that year. Markievicz did not take her seat, however, leaving Conservative Nancy Astor, who won a by-election the following year, the first sitting female MP.

As the years drew on, more women campaigned for electoral victory. Only few were successful in the early years, but many came second or third. Yet, the fight was not yet over. The Representation Act allowed all men 21 and over to vote (the voting age did not lower to 18 until 1969), but only a limited number of women to vote. They could vote, but not equally. Most countries had not passed suffrage at this point, but those who had had mainly allowed it on completely equal terms (for example, the 19th Amendment was passed in the USA in 1920).

The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 became law on 2nd July 1928. Emmeline Pankhurst had died less than a month before and never got to see her dream truly come true, but one woman did…

‘When a bill was finally passed in 1928, giving women the same rights as men, a grey-haired old lady could be seen looking down on the public proceedings from the public gallery. Millicent Fawcett lived to see the future she had dared to dream of as a bright-eyed teenager. The long battle that had given her energy and inspiration was finally over. She died within a year.’ Sophy Ridge, The Women Who Shaped Politics.

It had been a long battle, a tiresome and dangerous one, but in 1928, we won.


The Effect:

I’m aware that all of this reads as a history article on a GCSE website, but it is more than that. The effect of a single, cohesive dreamed shared by thousands, even millions, had an effect on politics that we still cannot fully comprehend.

To date, we have had:

  • Two female Prime Ministers. Margaret Thatcher served from 1979-1990, whilst Theresa May started in 2016 and as of writing, it still PM.
  • Five women in the Four Great Offices of State. None have served as Chancellor, but we’ve had the aforementioned PMs, Margaret Beckett as Foreign Secretary and Jacqui Smith, May and Rudd in the Home Office.
  • Four-hundred and ninety eight women in the Houses of Commons. Currently, there are 208 women in parliament.

Here are some of the women who have benefited from the suffrage movement:

  • Constance Markievicz (1868-1927): The second woman in the world to hold a cabinet position, Markievicz became the first female to be elected to the House of Commons in 1918. As a Sinn Féin member, she did not take her seat. Prior to politics, Markievicz was an Irish revolutionary. As she did not sit in Parliament, she did not contribute too much to legislature.
  • Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor (1879-1964): The first elected female MP to take her seat. A divorced American, Astor is perhaps not the first person that would spring to mind as one imagines. A Conservative, you will know Astor from the famous ‘If I was your wife’ exchange with the man himself Winston Churchill. Astor made social reform her mission.
  • Margaret Bondfield (1873-1954): The first female member of the British Cabinet, Bondfield was made Minister of Labour (parallel to the first female US cabinet member, Frances Perkins) in 1929. Bondfield was a Labour MP from a working-class, if political, family. In her role, Bondfield worked on welfare reform amongst others.
  • Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947): Known was ‘Red Ellen,’ Wilkinson was first elected in 1924. A suffragette who started her life in the British Communist Party, Wilkinson was an ardent socialist who got elected as a Labour MP. The second woman in the British Cabinet as a Minister for Education, Wilkinson was a staunch supporter of the working class.
  • Barbara Castle (1910-2002): Elected Labour MP in 1945, many (including myself) believe that she should have been Labour’s first female Leader. Though she served many roles in the Wilson cabinet, she is most known from a feminist perspective in her role as Minister of Employment. Fellow Made in Dagenham fans will remember that it was her that was instrumental in passing the landmark Equal Pay Act of 1970.
  • Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013): The Iron Lady, Thatcher was first elected in 1959. A triple record breaker, Thatcher was the first female leader of a major UK political party, female Leader of the Opposition and female MP. A Conservative, Thatcher’s government presided over war, strikes and economic turbulence.
  • Betty Boothroyd (1929- Present): A Labour MP first elected in 1973, Boothroyd became a Deputy Speaker in 1987 and the first female Speaker of the House in 1992. A witty and warm figure, in her time as a partisan MP, Boothroyd took a special interest in encouraging young people into politics. As Speaker, she was sharp and fierce.
  • Margaret Beckett (1943-Present): Labour MP since 1984, Beckett is the second of five women to hold a Great Office of State. For two years she was Deputy Leader and even held the office of Leader of the Opposition for two months between the death of John Smith and Tony Blair’s election. A woman of all trades, Beckett has held many positions in government. In her time, she focused on a variety of things that were linked to her roles, such as climate change and the Iranian nuclear crisis.
  • Jacqui Smith (1962-Present): Labour MP between 1992 and 2010, Smith was the third to hold a Great Office as Home Secretary. In 2007, under the new Brown government, Smith became Home Secretary. In her time, she was focused on street crime, drugs and ID cards.
  • Theresa May (1956-Present): First elected as a Conservative in 1997, May was the fourth to hold a Great Office, managing to stay in the role of Home Secretary for seven years and in the process being one of the longest-serving in that role. In 2016, when Cameron resigned, May managed to win the leadership bid. As Home Secretary, May focused on immigration, drugs and anti-social behaviour. In her role as PM, May is currently focusing on Brexit.
  • Amber Rudd (1963-Present): Elected as a Conservative in 2010, Rudd is the fifth Great Office holder on the list. Added to the Cabinet in 2015, she rose to the Home Office during the first May administration. Whilst mainly focusing on immigration, crime and security (especially after some horrible terrorist attacks), Rudd has also worked on women’s rights, especially FGM.

Though this article focuses on our wonderful island, it is important to note past and present female Heads of State/Government in order to truly show the effects of suffrage:

  • Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1916-2000): Prime Minister of Sri Lanka three times and the first female elected leader in modern times. Her first tenure started in 1960 and ended in 2000 with her death. She was leader of her party for over thirty years with one of her daughters serving as President and her son Speaker and Leader of the opposition, creating a political dynasty in her own right.
  • Indira Gandhi (1917-1984): Daughter of the first Indian PM and mother of another, Gandhi parallels Thatcher in that she did not describe herself as a feminist but is still an icon. Watching over the controversial ‘Emergency,’ Gandhi is still a popular figure despite her ruthlessness, especially amongst women. Gandhi was assassinated by nationalists. If one has seen the video for Sisters Are Doing it For Themselves, you will see she is featured in an extended footage.
  • Golda Meir (1898-1978): The original ‘Iron Lady,’ Meir served five years as Prime Minister of Israel. Though Israel has never has the easiest time, but Meir watched over two of the most troubling events- the Munich massacre and the Yom Kippur War. For the former, she sent Mossad to track down and kill the remaining terrorists in Operation Wrath of God. David Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli PM called Meir ‘the best man in government.’
  • Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007): From a political dynasty like Gandhi, Bhutto was a very well-educated woman who became Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988. Extremely controversial is a modernising force, Bhutto championed democracy, secularism and feminism in a country not really well known for any of those things. Bhutto was assassinated by unknown forces in 2007. At Oxford, Bhutto was a good friend of Peter Mandelson and introduced the-then Theresa Brasier to her husband Philip May.
  • Mary Robinson (1944-Present): The first female President of Ireland who served for seven years. Robinson was a very popular president who modernised the office and after leaving office, has shown herself vocal at global affairs. In 2009, Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom- the highest civilian award in the USA. Robinson was succeeded by a woman, Mary McAleese.
  • Angela Merkel (1954-Present): Chancellor of Germany since 2005, Merkel is easily the most powerful woman in the EU and Europe (sorry May), and also arguably the most powerful women in the Unlike many leaders who tended to have studied law or politics, Merkel has a science degree.
  • Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (1938-Present): President of Liberia since 2006, Sirleaf only recently left office. Like many leaders, she attended a prestigious university- this time, it was Harvard. A controversial name in the world, she nevertheless jointly won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for work in women’s rights. She supported current President George Weah and because of this, was expelled from her party as she had crossed the aisle to do it.
  • Jacinda Ardern (1980-Present): Elected PM of New Zealand in 2017, she is one of the youngest leaders in the world and is the youngest female. A former Tony Blair policy advisor, Ardern is a socialist and republican (Her Majesty is Head of State there). As she is expecting a baby, she will be only the second head of government to have a baby in modern times during office (Bhutto being the first). Many praised her for juggling motherhood with probably the hardest job in the country.

Effect on me:

If I scanned my first year politics lecture or seminars, I would say around nearly half of the students in the room were female. Though most of the political parties on campus have women, neither Labour nor Conservative, or any of the smaller parties, have majority women- they are generally minorities within the groups. Most of the professors and lecturers are men, but there are still women. When out canvassing, you see that women are well represented in political parties.

Yes, I feel that even without the suffragettes and suffragists, women would have got the vote. In a liberal democracy like ours it was inevitable, but it would have taken much, much longer.  France did not give women the vote until 1945. The last two countries to give women the vote were Switzerland and Liechtenstein in 1971 and 1984 respectively, both given through a male referenda (how kind of them to give us the vote). Liechtenstein had tried three times before, but finally gained in 1984. Though it was probably the war that really pushed it, there is no doubt that women like Pankhurst and Fawcett really pushed it, especially since equal suffrage did not occur until 1928.

As a student of politics, it is easy to see just how much the world had changed because of this. Of course, it was not all suffrage- even after women achieved full voting rights; it would be years before higher education became as open to women as it is. Oxford did not admit women as full students who could have degrees until 1920 but their entry was limited until 1959 when the women’s colleges were given full collegiate status. Cambridge was even later- they gave out diplomas until 1921, but were not given full status until 1948. Women were not allowed to have their own bank account without their husband’s petition until the sixties, neither were they allowed birth control, which when legalised, was only for married women. Societal attitudes were slow to change, but the voice of women in both parliament and at the ballot box allowed them to vote in their own interests. The importance of women in education, especially in Oxford or Cambridge, cannot be understated here. Only four UK universities have produced UK Prime Ministers- Oxbridge have the most, with Glasgow and Edinburgh rounding it up. Our two female PMs have both been educated at Oxford. It seems that, despite growing numbers of working class or non-Oxbridge MPs, that politics is still an upper class world. I do not attend either institution, but even I know what my prospects would be like had I attended either. The networking and influence that the universities have is large, and the Labour and Conservative Associations on both have given birth to not only Prime Ministers, but other Heads of State and high ranking officials. Not only do members receive the benefits of networking future colleagues, but they will know people through others and get to meet speakers, especially those who are alumni. Even outside of Oxbridge, there are huge benefits of going to university. Not only is one endowed with a degree, but they are given knowledge in their degree, a chance to meet new people and a chance to start really getting involved in politics. Cat Smith, MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, is very proud of her local connections and was no doubt helped by her involvement in the Labour Society on campus. Whilst many will be active in their home constituencies, but for those whose chances are limited, it is a great way to get involved.

On politics itself, the effect has been unbelievable. There are women of all parties; a quick flick through Twitter can see councillors, student activists and MPs with a variety of views. Women tend to be expected to be liberal by those who believe in identity politics, but many have shown more centrist or conservative views. If women want to be in politics, they can. It can take a try or ten, but elected office is a very realistic aim in today’s world.

As a politics student, it means a lot to me. Not long ago, a left-wing acquaintance expressed wonderment about how someone could be both a Conservative and a feminist- to him; it seemed that the left were for women when the conservatives were not. Yet, these women are my heroines. When I watched Suffragette for the first time the other day, I didn’t exactly want to smash a window like some of the women did, but it was the most almightily uplifting film.  There is something about seeing women treated as children who need the protection of men and apparently cannot understand politics that makes one angry and seeing them stand up that makes one thrilled. Even those women probably didn’t imagine that they would see a female PM, even if women slowly made their way into parliament. This view prevailed as late as 1970, when Margaret Thatcher famously said ‘There will not be a woman Prime Minister in my lifetime- men are too prejudiced.’ Just nine years later, she became that trailblazer. There are many women who have been helped into their positions by women only short list but even those who did worked their arses off getting into a position to be picked. Early MPs like Nancy Astor would have not only had adversity at the ballots, but would have had to fight their way in the old boy’s club of Parliament. Thankfully, we see that women, ethnic minorities and working-class candidates are making inroads.

To every woman- Pankhurst or Fawcett, working or upper class, Northern or Southern- who fought for the right to vote, thank you. Without you, the face of British politics would not be the same. You may have been beaten, imprisoned, subjugated and even shunned, but it didn’t stop you.

On behalf of us all, THANK YOU.

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