“Reasons for supporting Women’s Suffrage … Because – to sum all reasons up in one – it is for the common good of all.” – NUWSS
A hundred years ago, 6th February 1918, a campaign decades-long came to an end with the Representation of the People Act. Until then, women were allowed no say in parliamentary business and were deemed lesser creatures than their male counterparts. The determination of thousands of women turned the tables on this inequality, and this year, 2018, marks the centenary of their greatest triumph.
The campaign for the right to vote began in the United Kingdom in 1867 with a “Ladies Petition” that was presented to the government by Liberal MP John Stuart Mill (1806-73). Despite over 1500 signatories, the bill was immediately dismissed. However, that was only the beginning; by 1918, parliament had received over 15,000 petitions for women’s suffrage, but it was not those appeals alone that achieved one of the most celebrated successes in history.
Even before all the centenary advertising started filling magazines and bookshop windows, most people were already familiar with the term “suffragette”. Coined by the Daily Mail, these were the women who fought for their rights, however, the campaign did not begin with them. Less known is the term “suffragists”, which describes a less violent group of women who named themselves the NUWSS.
The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed on 14th October 1897 and united many smaller, middle-class suffrage organisations that had already begun to emerge, such as the Kensington Society, which was involved with the original Ladies Petition. Also included in the group were the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage and the Central Committee for Women’s Suffrage.
Under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929), the NUWSS aimed to campaign in a non-confrontational and constitutional way. This mostly involved petitions, lobbying, and writing leaflets and newspapers.
Millicent Fawcett had grown up in a wealthy family in Suffolk along with her sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) who would become the first female doctor in the United Kingdom. Millicent was inspired by the drastic opinions of John Stuart Mill, whose speech on equal rights for women she witnessed at the young age of 19. Impressed by his public and practical support of women, Millicent became an advocate of his campaign.
“I cannot say I became a suffragist,” Millicent later wrote. “I always was one, from the time I was old enough to think at all about the principles of Representative Government.”
It was through her connection to Mill’s politics that Millicent Fawcett, neé Garrett, met her husband, Henry Fawcett (1833-84). Henry also shared the opinion of both Millicent and Mill, however, he died of pleurisy before the campaign for women’s rights really got underway. Left a widow at the age of 38, Millicent threw herself into political campaigning and was quickly elected the president of the NUWSS.
The NUWSS held public meetings for anyone to attend and distributed leaflets to spread their opinion and encourage other women to take up the cause. The main target of the society was the Liberal Party who hoped to win the next election. Their demand was that they receive the right to vote on the same terms “as it is, or may be” granted to men.
Although women’s rights were the organisation’s main concern, the NUWSS also supported the abolition of the slave trade and set up a relief fund for South African women and children during the Boer war. Essentially, their central aim was equality for all, regardless of sex and background.
The NUWSS’ progress was slow and some members began feeling restless, impatient and disillusioned with the lawful methods of campaigning. These women began to break away from the group to join a more radical organisation, the WSPU. Founded in Manchester in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), the Women’s Social and Political Union preferred to raise public awareness of their campaign by using militant tactics.
Emmeline Pankhurst came from a family with a history of radical politics; furthermore, she married the lawyer Richard Pankhurst (1836-98) who had strong views about the rights of women. Richard was the author of the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which allowed women the right to keep their earnings and property in their own name after marriage. Their daughters Christabel (1880-1958) and Sylvia (1882-1960) also became a vital part of the WSPU’s campaign.
The members of the WSPU are the women the Daily Mail christened “suffragettes” and they became the talk of the media for the following decade.
With the motto “Deeds not Words”, the WSPU gained notoriety with their aggressive demonstrations, many of which resulted in police intervention. Christabel and her friend Annie Kenney (1879-1953) snuck into a Liberal Party meeting and shouted their demands until forcibly removed, whereas, other suffragettes became involved in window smashing and arson. Some were even arrested for making bombs with the intent to blow up buildings. Nevertheless, the WSPU did not wish to harm other people, targetting empty properties instead.
Women refused to let being arrested hinder their campaign. Whilst detained behind bars, the suffragettes refused to eat to the point that they were seriously malnourished. In fear of being accused of murder, attendants began force-feeding the prisoners, a torturous and painful method involving tubes thrust up noses or down throats. This abusive treatment created an uproar among campaigners and other members of the public, therefore, the Cat and Mouse Act was developed.
The Prisoner’s (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act 1913, most commonly referred to as “Cat and Mouse Act” allowed for the release of hunger-striking prisoners into the community to be nursed back to health, at which time they would be rearrested. Many suffragettes found themselves repeatedly in and out of prison during this time.
By 1913, the WSPU was at the height of its campaign. They were conducting as many violent acts as they could get away with in order to show how serious they were about receiving the same voting rights as men. One suffragette went a step further resulting in the loss of her life in honour of the women’s movement. Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913) attended the Epsom Derby in June 1913, kitted with a banner stating “Votes for Women” which she intended to attach to the King’s horse as it raced by. A teacher who had given up her career to be a suffragette, Emily stepped out onto the race course and was fatally trampled by the horse’s hooves. At the time, women proclaimed Emily to be a martyr for the cause, throwing herself to her death, however, today it is believed that her death was an unintended, unfortunate accident.
The WSPU’s militancy came to an end, not with the success of the campaign, but with the outbreak of World War One in 1914. Emmeline Pankhurst called an end to the protests and encouraged women to support the war effort. Millicent Fawcett, although a pacifist, also asked the NUWSS to help in any way they could. Many women took on the roles the fighting men had left behind, whereas others worked in munition factories.
With the war entering its final year, women were finally granted the right to vote when the Representation of the People Act was passed on 6th February 1918. This allowed men over the age of 21 and certain women over the age of 30 the right to vote. Whilst any man could vote, women had to be householders or occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or a graduate from university. Whilst this was not equal, many women felt successful, however, certain women from the NUWSS continued campaigning until 1928 when women were granted equal voting rights with men.
Although many women were left out of the original Representation of the People Act, the country is busy celebrating the centenary of the suffragette and suffragist success. Many museums, publications, television channels and so forth are celebrating in various ways throughout the year. The following are a handful of things that are currently going on or something to look forward to:
Free to enter, the Museum of London has a temporary display until January 2019 commemorating the Act of 1918. It is dedicated to the hundreds of women who campaigned for the right to vote over 50 years, particularly focusing on the final decade. As well as this display, the museum has a permanent exhibition of suffragette memorabilia, including Emmeline Pankhurst’s Hunger Strike Medal, handwritten letters, banners and sashes in the suffragettes’ iconic colours (green, white and purple), weapons used for window smashing, and belts and padlocks used to chain themselves to railings.
The main aspect of the display is a powerful film reflecting on the militant campaign and how these women have inspired and shocked the world. The items on show highlight the extremes the suffragettes went to and bring the realities of the lives of these women to the fore. To emphasise that these women were real and not just stories, the museum has revealed handmade items a few campaigners put together both at home and in prison, for example, an embroidered handkerchief and Ada Flatman’s (1876-1951) scrapbook.
The museum’s gift shop contains a wide variety of suffragette items from books and postcards to hats and badges. Look out for the board game Pank-a-Squith, a replica of the original produced by the suffragettes to entertain themselves whilst in prison.
Until 13th May 2018, the National Portrait Gallery is displaying a complimentary showcase highlighting Victorian pioneers of the movement as well as paintings, works on paper and photographs representing key figures in the campaign for women’s suffrage, both for and against.
With educational details, photographs and paintings are explained in order to inform visitors about the significant events from the campaign. Photos include those of Emmeline Pankhurst, documenting her speeches and arrests.
From 27th June until 6th October 2018, Westminster Hall will be home to the Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition featuring unseen historic objects, photographs, and documents from Parliamentary collections. A large amount of the exhibition will involve interactive technologies to help tell the story of the women’s campaigns, protests and eventual success.
Curators have recreated historical places of the Palace of Westminster to emphasise what a woman’s experience of Parliament would have been like at the time of the suffragette movement. These include a Ladies’ Gallery with restricted views of the chamber and a loft space where women once sat to listen to the goings on in the room below.
The exhibition is free to enter, however, tickets must be booked in advance due to the limited capacity of the hall.
On Sunday 10th June, women in the cities of London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh are invited to walk together in celebration of the suffrage movement. Wearing green, white and purple, marchers will be showing off artworks that have been produced specifically for the event. In workshops throughout the UK, women are producing colourful centenary banners and plan to turn the city streets into a river of colour during the procession.
Participants must register to take part in advance of the date of the procession.
For the very first time, a female statue will stand in Parliament Square, London. In honour of her work and determination, Millicent Fawcett will be honoured forever as she takes her place amongst politicians such as Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela. Designed by Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing, the statue will be surrounded by 52 photographic etchings on tiles depicting 59 key women who played a significant role in the campaign for women’s suffrage.
In Manchester, her home city, Emmeline Pankhurst is also being honoured with a statue. Scheduled to be completed in December 2018, sculptor Helen Reeves has designed the bronze tribute to “stand guard as an enduring reminder of the struggle for the vote, beckoning us to keep going forward as we continue the journey towards gender equality.”
Many more celebratory events will be happening around the country. Regardless of what they are, their focus is the centenary of the Representation of the People Act. Unfortunately, most of these tend to lean more towards the suffragette influence and forget about the passive campaigns of the NUWSS. Also, many of the working class women who joined the campaign were unable to vote, either due to their age or lack of property. Nonetheless, this was the first time women could vote and, whilst it was not equal to the rights of men, it was a significant success in the emancipation of women.
The centenary has sparked debates about the importance of the suffragists and suffragettes. Some argue that women got the vote due to their war work and others claim it was to make up for the loss of lives on the battlefields. Others dispute the celebration claiming that the suffragettes were guerilla terrorists and should not be honoured for their violence, whereas, some suggest they should be pardoned. It is doubtful that the suffragettes would wish to be pardoned for their crimes, they were openly and deliberately committing them to express their views – they knew exactly what they were doing.
Regardless of these debates, the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918 is one of the biggest turning points in British history with similar Acts occurring at different times throughout the rest of the world. Women (and men) have every right to celebrate, reflect on how far society has come, and push forward with the determination to achieve equal rights for all.
“Once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible.”