Suffragists and Suffragettes
Table of Contents
By Claire Jones
Before the 1832 Reform Act most men and all women did not have the vote. This act created a wider franchise but used the term ‘male person’, specifically excluding women. As has been noted by many suffrage historians, this progressive legislation which aimed at broadening the franchise had precisely the opposite effect on women who were now formally excluded from citizenship. Successive reform acts (1832, 1867 and 1884) enfranchised new sections of society and gave most men the vote, leaving sex the principal ground for disqualification. As a result, debates about ‘fitness’ for citizenship and the vote, which had previously centred around wealth, property ownership and education, now revolved around questions of gender. Were women disqualified by their biology from having the vote, or was voting simply not women’s work? If women’s place was in the home, why should they participate in elections that took place in and influenced the public sphere? If a married couple were as one in the eyes of the law, was it not right that only husbands had the right to vote?
The movement for women’s suffrage is often marked as beginning around 1860 and ending in success in 1928. But it was not such a simple, linear route of advancement. Progress was often a case of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ as support grew and dropped back at various times. What’s more, ‘feminist’ consciousness about full political citizenship for women had its roots much earlier (for example, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792).
Despite being denied the national vote, women participated at a local level:
- 1869: single and widowed rate-paying women are granted the right to vote in municipal elections (later local councils).
- 1870: as a result of the Education Act, women are now eligible for election to School Boards, however when Local Education Authorities replaced School Boards in 1902 women are declared ineligible for election again.
- 1875: first woman Poor Law Guardian is elected. By 1900 there are around 1000 female Guardians, among them Emmeline Pankhurst.
- 1881: women given the vote on the Isle of Man, 37 years before women in mainland Britain are granted the privilege.
- 1907 all women rate payers are allowed to vote and to stand in local government elections.
Suffragists and Millicent Fawcett
Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929) is remembered as the primary leader of the constitutional (non-militant) wing of the women’s suffrage movement. She was born to a progressive family who supported the education of women (her sister became the doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson). As a girl Millicent was involved in the Langham Place Group – a collection of middle-class ladies who joined together in the early 1860s to campaign on women’s issues. She also supported the 1866 suffrage petition which led to John Stuart Mill raising the issue of the woman’s vote in Parliament for the first time.
In 1867 Millicent married the blind Cambridge professor of political economy and Liberal MP Henry Fawcett, who was fourteen years her senior, and became Mrs Fawcett. She acted as her husband’s guide and secretary and, in doing so, gained experience of how political work was done – a skill not usually accessible to women. This knowledge was to prove invaluable during the long suffrage campaign. Henry Fawcett died unexpectedly in 1884, leaving Millicent a young widow with a small daughter. She immediately threw herself into campaigning for votes for women.
Mrs Fawcett (as she was always known) was a suffragist. In contrast to the militant suffragettes, she believed in using law-abiding, non-violent means to gain the vote for women, including petitions, lobbying and spectacular marches. Only by behaving with respect for the law, she argued, could women prove that they could be ‘good’ citizens. Mrs Fawcett became president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) which was the largest of the suffrage societies and had some 50,000 members by 1913.
Earlier, in 1903, the suffragists had been joined by Mrs Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Although the WSPU did not use militant tactics at first, it did carry out a highly-visible militant campaign from 1905. Mrs Fawcett was torn in her attitude to this new development. She recognised the ‘oxygen of publicity’ given to the Cause by militancy, but was dismayed that law-breaking may make women appear unfit for citizenship and alienate mainstream support. Speaking privately, she described the storming of parliament by the militants in 1909 as an ‘immoral and dastardly thing to have done’. However she did offer the suffragettes a degree of public support, even after the two organisations broke all relations after an escalation of suffragette militancy in 1912. Although Mrs Fawcett believed these acts entirely damaging to the Cause, she continued to maintain that the government was responsible for provoking women to break the law, and that the penalties inflicted on them (long prison sentences and forced feeding) was excessive in relation to their crimes and to the punishments meted out to men.
On the outbreak of war in 1914, Mrs Fawcett suspended campaigning and threw herself into patriotic work in support of the war effort. After the war she was heavily involved in campaigning for women’s rights including access to the legal profession and the civil service, equal access for women to divorce, and for equal suffrage (which was finally achieved in 1928).
Suffragettes and Emmeline Pankhurst
Mrs Pankhurst (1858-1928) recollected in her autobiography, My Own Story (1914), ‘that men considered themselves superior to women, and that women apparently acquiesced in that belief’. Despite this, her parents were committed to political reform and equality and, like Fawcett’s family, believed in educating their daughters.
Emmeline married Richard Pankhurst, a radical lawyer, and supported him in 1883 when he stood as an independent parliamentary candidate campaigning for equal voting rights and other progressive measures. He was unsuccessful however. She and Richard later became involved with the Independent Labour Party (ILP), setting up a branch in Manchester. Richard Pankhurst died in 1898 – so, like Mrs Fawcett, Mrs Pankhurst became a widow with her own autonomy and time. When the ILP opened a hall in her husband’s memory in Salford, Mrs Pankhurst was outraged to discover that women were not permitted to join the branch of the ILP that the new hall would house. She decided there and then that her time in the socialist movement had been wasted and, instead, she formed a new women’s organisation. On 10 October 1903 she called to her home some wives of ILP men and held the first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), an organisation with the motto ‘Deeds, not words’.
During its early years the WSPU engaged in a range of peaceful activities such as organising demonstrations and petitions to parliament. In the autumn of 1905, on the eve of a general election, Mrs Pankhurst’s daughter Christabel, with mill girl Annie Kenney, interrupted a Liberal Party meeting in Manchester by asking repeatedly the question ‘Will the Liberal Government, if returned, give votes to women?’ The two women were ejected from the hall, charged with obstruction and sentenced to pay fines or face imprisonment. They refused to pay. Extensive newspaper coverage of the event (so much more exciting than reporting about a petition) made women’s suffrage the issue of the moment – and a new WSPU strategy was born. The following year, the WSPU moved its headquarters to London.
Between the Liberal election victory of 1906 and the outbreak of war in 1914, the ‘suffragettes’ mobilised mass support for women’s suffrage. Mrs Pankhurst’s first imprisonment occurred on 13 February 1908 for leading a deputation to the House of Commons: she was arrested, along with her companions, for obstruction and served a month in the second division alongside common criminal offenders. Soon WSPU members began to hunger strike in a bid to be granted political offender (division one) status. The government was not about to grant them this and responded instead with a regime of forced feeding – a dreadfully painful procedure for the victim.
When the Women’s Franchise Bill passed its second reading on 12 July 1910 the home secretary, Lloyd George, declared it ‘anti-democratic’ while Prime Minister Asquith argued against it as it would erode ‘the distinction of sex’. When in November parliament dropped the bill, Mrs Pankhurst led a women’s deputation to parliament. The women were forced back onto the streets by the police who manhandled them in a brusque and brutal way. This episode became remembered as ‘Black Friday’. When a new bill was proposed the WSPU and the NUWSS organised a massive procession in June 1911. But hopes were premature. Asquith announced that a manhood suffrage bill would be introduced in the next session which would allow an amendment for the enfranchisement of women. However, this would have needed government support and it was inconceivable that this would be forthcoming at that time. Asquith’s proposals were a fudge and the women knew it. This was when outright militancy began.
The new strategy involved opposition to all political parties and attacks on public and private property (although never on human life). The campaign involved smashing windows, setting fire to property and post boxes, throwing acid on golf courses and other ‘men’s’ methods. The police swooped on WSPU headquarters with a warrant for the arrest of the organisers. (Christabel Pankhurst escaped to Paris dressed as a schoolgirl.) The WSPU was now effectively an illegal, underground organisation.
Things only got worse when Asquith announced early in 1913 that the Manhood Suffrage Bill was dropped. Over the next eighteen months, the WSPU engaged in the destruction of property, arson, bombing, attacking art treasures and the cutting of telegraph and telephone wires. Mrs Pankhurst was under constant surveillance by the police and was rearrested in Spring 1913 and sentenced to three years’ penal servitude. However she was periodically released on licence under the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill-health Act, known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ (passed in April 1913) and served only six months of her sentence.
The WSPU has been accused of being autocratic, and it certainly adopted a ‘top-down’ military model of organisation. From 1906 policies were decided by an unelected central committee. Members did not participate in decision making but were informed of new policies. Men did become involved early on (notably Frederick Pethwick-Lawrence who even edited the WSPU newspaper, Votes for Women) but by 1913 the WSPU refused to countenance men’s involvement. Mrs Pankhurst believed that women needed to develop ‘the backbone’ to do it themselves if they were to become full citizens. The issue of men’s involvement was just one of the dynamics of various splits in the WSPU, one resulting in the formation of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). But acrimony and dispute were forgotten on the outbreak of WW1 when Mrs Pankhurst ceased campaigning for the vote and, instead, threw herself into the war effort. In the 1920s she went to Canada and campaigned on health issues, returning to England in 1926 when she was adopted as Conservative candidate for the working-class district of Whitechapel.
Conclusion: Women win the vote after a campaign lasting over sixty years
On 6 February 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave women over thirty years of age the vote if they were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or more, or graduates of British universities. Although this bill enfranchised only about eight and a half million women, it was a start. Ten years later, in 1928, women won the right to vote on the same terms as men.
The enfranchisement of women took over sixty years. Did the militant tactics of the suffragettes set back the cause by alienating law-abiding citizens, or did they hasten it by making the issue urgent? Would women have won the right to vote without Mrs Fawcett’s long years of rational, constitutional campaigning? The debate goes on.
Millicent Fawcett’s Women’s Suffrage: A Short History of a Great Movement is available from Amazon.
Suffrage historian Paula Bartley’s books are a good read and scholarly: Votes for Women (Access to History) (Hodder & Stoughton, 2003) and her biography, Emmeline Pankhurst (Routledge Historical Biographies)(Routledge, 2002).
See also The Ascent Of Woman: A History of the Suffragette Movement (Abacus 2004 – not just about suffragettes) and June Purvis, Emmeline Pankhurst: A biography (Routledge, 2002).