Suffragists, sufragettes, and votes for women

English women’s fight for the right to vote began in the nineteenth century, and it started out politely enough. Bills were introduced in Parliament. Bills were defeated in Parliament. 

What could be more polite than that?

In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies gathered local groups into a national organization and by 1914 it had 54,000 members. Most of them were respectable and middle class, and it’s not too much of a leap to assume that the campaign made a huge difference in individual women’s lives and in how they saw their role in the world. We can make a wild guess and say that many a couple argued about it over their respectable breakfast tables. Or didn’t argue and just let the tension build. 

They also made the issue part of the national conversation.

Irrelevant photo: a red hot poker. Not, obviously, a real one. A flower.

The organization was efficient and nonviolent and the members were, for the most part, dedicated. And you know what? Women kept on not getting the vote. 

Their work played out against a complicated background involving political parties and a lot of wrestling over not just whether women should vote but which men should. So as usual, we need a bit of background: 

From as early as the 1830s, the Chartists, a working-class movement, had been pushing to open the vote up to all men. They presented petitions to Parliament: 1.25 million names on the first one, 3 million on the second, and nobody I checked with says how many on the third. In response, Parliament blew a raspberry and ignored them.

Before the First Reform Bill (that was in 1832) only 3% of adult males could vote. Your right to vote (or not vote) depended on how much you earned and what your property was worth.

After the bill, the vote was broadened but not to all men. Shopkeepers, tenant farmers, and small landowners got the vote. That’s in the counties. In the boroughs, householders who paid at least £10 a year in rent could vote and so could (gasp) some lodgers. 

What’s the difference between counties and boroughs? Beats me, but that comes from Parliament’s own website, so it must be right. It’s probably about the difference between cities and the countryside, but don’t take my word on that. I’m a stranger here myself. The point is that more people could vote, but only a safely respectable kind of more. And since women had come into the conversation they were, for the first time, specifically excluded. 

Isn’t progress a wonderful thing?

The Second Reform Act in 1867 did more of the same, doubling the number of men who could vote in England and Wales from 1 million to 2 million.

Leave Ireland and Scotland out of it, will you? This is complicated enough already.

By 1885, 8 million people out of a population of 45 million could vote–two-thirds of adult men. (Any numbers that don’t add up here can be blamed on women and children being left out of the accounting.)

So when women started pushing for the vote, the first question that popped its divisive little head up like a jack-in-the-box was, Which women? If all women had the vote, then presumably all men should as well. Or should only women who could meet the same property qualifications as men vote? Or how about unmarried women who met the qualifications, since married women were–or so the argument went–represented by their husbands. Or should it be only married women, since unmarried women were at best faintly embarrassing.

Or only women with those huge, amazing hats.

And this is where party politics came into it, because different choices were to the advantage of different parties. 

And if that wasn’t complicated enough, the women’s suffrage movement  was pulled between the women who wanted a single focus for the organization–votes for women–and those who wanted to address other issues too, because wasn’t the purpose of voting to have an impact on issues?

As women’s suffrage gained momentum, the Conservative Party could see the value of having propertied women vote: Well, of course they’d vote Conservative. And you could see why both non-propertied women and working-class (and presumably non-Conservative) men might oppose that. If the country allows only a small group of campaigners into the hall and they go in, closing the door on the rest of them, the people left outside might well ask themselves why they’d bothered supporting the ones who went in and didn’t return that support.

In 1893, the Independent Labour Party was formed–the forerunner of today’s Labour Party. Its goal was to represent the interests of the working class–a tough job at a time when large parts of the working class were still disenfranchised. 

In those conflicting currents, the suffragists bobbed around, lobbying politicians and campaigning for candidates who supported women’s suffrage, getting their hopes raised and crushed with each new bill. But the question of whether women should vote was, increasingly, an issue that couldn’t be ignored. Even people who made fun of it couldn’t ignore it. The Liberal and Conservative parties formed party women’s groups. They weren’t where the power lay, but they involved women in the machinery.

In 1894, women who met the same qualifications as men gained the right to vote in local elections.

In 1897, a women’s suffrage bill that had looked promising was defeated. You probably know what follows when a movement with a lot of momentum runs into a wall. Either it collapses or it explodes.

It exploded. The Women’s Social and Political Union was formed in 1903. The names you might recognize here are Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel, Sylvia, and Adela. The group appealed to working-class women, not just respectable ones, and they were called suffragettes by a hostile press. The name was meant as an insult but the group adopted it. Why not? The words Tory and Whig had originally been insults, and both groups ended by embracing them.

In 1905, Christabel and Annie Kenney got themselves arrested when they interrupted a political speech and unfurled a Votes for Women banner. And when I say “got themselves arrested,” I mean that Christabel had to work at it. The police threw them out of the hall and were going to let it go at that until Christabel spat in a police superintendent’s face and hit an inspector in the mouth. 

That did the trick: They both got arrested, they refused to pay a fine, and they were jailed, one for three days and one for seven. 

When they came out, they were met by a thousand supporters and the press, which got them national publicity. 

By 1909 the WSPU was a national organization, selling 20,000 copies of its paper every week, and it had a genius for attention-grabbing actions. Members disrupted political speeches and by-elections. They tried to rush the House of Commons. They broke windows, blew up pillar boxes (which in other versions of the English language would be called mailboxes), attacked paintings in galleries, and bought gun licenses not so they could use guns but to scare the authorities into thinking they might.

They also chained themselves to railings, getting the grill that sectioned off the House of Commons Ladies Gallery removed by chaining themselves to it.

They took advantage of a Post Office service that allowed postmasters to “arrange for the conduct of a person to an address by an Express Messenger,” posting two women to the prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, so they could talk with him.

The delivery was refused. 

The sad part was that social media hadn’t been invented. 

It was the eye-catching actions that gave them their reputation, but most of what they did was legal and even peaceful. They drove (at the time that involved horses) around town with placards on carriages. They carried placards themselves, on foot. At a time when women were supposed to be quiet, passive, deferential, and to the best of their ability and training to imitate doormats, this was shocking enough, but they also addressed crowds in theaters and restaurants–crowds who hadn’t come to hear them and were often hostile. They threw leaflets from theater balconies. Many of them were roughed up by crowds of men or by the police. 

In 1913, Emily Davison tried to stop a horse race and was hit by the king’s horse. She died of her injuries a few days later.

In a lot of these actions, women were arrested, and when they were released they were greeted by supporters, who sometimes pulled them through the streets in open carriages, increasing the visibility of their actions. And in prison, many of them went on hunger strikes and were force fed–a brutal and very painful process. 

In The English Rebel, David Horspool asks whether their militancy delivered or delayed votes for women and answers that it probably did both. If you have trouble working that out, go argue with him. I’m not sure both are possible at the same time, but I can see his point anyway. The same argument goes on, although the parallels aren’t exact, when Black Lives Matter demonstrations spill over into rioting or looting. Does it help or does it hurt? It depends on where you do your counting and how. In the case of the suffragettes, even a century later historians can still argue over it.

Whatever the answer turns out to be, it won’t be a simple one.

In 1910, a bill that would have given unmarried women the vote failed. The Liberals thought it might harm their interests. The Conservatives weren’t strongly enough in favor. Militancy had been winding down, but the bill’s defeat wound it up a notch. Asquith’s car was attacked. 

Somewhere in here, the Suffragists’ leadership–and the Pankhurst family–split over tactics. Should they work with men? How violent should their actions be? Should any bill introduced expand the vote for both men and women or should it only be for women?

I’ve been around political activism long enough for this all to sound familiar. If you get deep enough into politics, it can get very crazy very easily, but the alternative is–or at least seems to be–what someone I once knew called crackpot realism, where you dial your goals down to fit what looks possible, accomplishing somewhere between less than you wanted and nothing at all. 

And there things stood when everything was interrupted by World War I. Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the European powers all dug trenches and shot at each other, and 20 million soldiers and civilians died. Another 21 million were wounded. 

That was the war to end all wars. 

Yeah, they really did say it would.

The more radical branch of the Suffragettes (that was Emmeline and Christabel’s) suspended their activities, partly, according to Horspool, because Emmeline and Christabel were exhausted but also because they were realistic about how much political oomph women’s suffrage could have in the circumstances. And they did something I find more interesting: They moved to the political right. They suspended the campaign for the vote, backed the war, changed their paper’s name from The Suffragette to Britannia, and diverted the organization’s funds to the war effort, but many suffragettes were pacifists and the organization broke up for good. 

Their support for the war, according to Horspool, consisted of making speeches and editorializing in the direction of industrial workers, who were probably looking for their news and editorials elsewhere.

 Sylvia’s branch of the Suffragettes had become the East London Federation. Its membership was working class and it aligned itself with the Labour Party, campaigning for both workers’ and women’s rights. And–since changing newspaper names was in style–it changed the Woman’s Dreadnought to the Workers’ Dreadnought.

In 1916, the government faced the prospect of an election in which most servicemen wouldn’t be able to vote because of a residency requirement. 

Crisis. Conference. 

The moderates (remember the suffragists, working politely away in the background?) made a pitch for women’s suffrage. The former radicals (remember half the Pankhursts?) withdrew their support for women’s suffrage in case if ended up disenfranchising servicemen.

Aren’t humans strange?

A compromise bill passed in 1918. It gave the vote to women over 30 who were qualified to vote in local elections or whose husbands were qualified. That was about 8 million women. And there it sat for the next ten years, when the voting age was dropped to 21 and all other restrictions were lifted–in other words, women voted on the same terms as men.

Christabel ran for Parliament as a Women’s Party candidate and lost. Later she became a born-again Christian and lectured in California. Emmeline moved to Canada for a while and lectured on social hygiene until the winters drove her out.

I know just how she felt–minus the social hygiene part.

What is social hygiene? “The practice of measures designed to protect and improve the family as a social institution; specifically: the practice of measures aiming at the elimination of venereal disease and prostitution.” 

Bet you didn’t see that coming. 

68 thoughts on “Suffragists, sufragettes, and votes for women

  1. This is so interesting. I was hooked to the very last word. It says a lot about the current state of politics too. I don’t even know if the right to vote was won years after it all started by the wearing down of the government, or by the change in ‘times’, or by the genuine need after the war. It must have been a combination of all three. Nothing is ever ‘black and white’. Literally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A combination, I expect, but when we talk about a change in the times, we’re often talking about buckets that campaigners have filled, drop by invisible drop. They did several things over the years–change the national conversation, wear down the government, focus the newspapers on the issue. And suddenly, magically, the times change.

      From inside, though, it must’ve felt like they were hurling themselves at a brick wall.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. I have a feeling that support for the war also entailed going around handing out white feathers (a sign of a coward) to young men not in uniform, although I dont think you have to have been a suffragette to do this. Sort of the 1914 version of online trolling.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I went to the same school as the Pankhursts. We used to have Speech Day in the very hall where she interrupted the meeting and attacked the policeman. I will never forgive the council for selling it off to be turned into a hotel! She apparently couldn’t stand the school, but the teachers never told us that bit :-) .

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I would like to think that I would be one of those women who started the fight for equality, if I were around then…
    there is no way of knowing though as so much that you do is shaped by your upbringing and who knows how I would have turned out if I hadn’t been brought up by a woman who was prepared to fight for everything she believed in and taught me I could do anything…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’d often read about Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia, but I hadn’t heard of Adela. Thanks for the introduction! Emmeline still stands guard in Victoria Tower Gardens near the Houses of Parliament’s misogynistic portals which had remained closed to her for so many years.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Boroughs are towns and cities with certain rights to self governace, I believe.

    As for the Chartists, “Parliament blew a raspberry and ignored them” doesn’t quite cover what happened. Chartists were killed, executed and deported. We have family stories about soldiers running men, women and children down and then running them through with swords.

    Fun times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been meaning to write about the Chartists. You’ve given me extra reason to do that. Thanks. and ditto for the definition of boroughs. It’s used relatively casually in the US. New York City’s broken into five boroughs, which each have their own governments under the city government. As far as I know, that’s the only US city to use the term.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Most of what I knew of the Women’s Suffrage movement in Britain I have gleaned from various historical mysteries – though t hey seem to have been accurate as far as they went. Same about the Chartists.
    Dan’s comment “You can’t vote until we need your vote” is enjoying a ghastly comeback in the Former Colonies.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great read, Ellen. One of the many benefits that British women immigrants to the colonies and self-governing outposts had was being away from Britain. (Beyond ironically, the householder women of the Isle of Man gained the vote in 1881.) The women of New Zealand gained the vote in 1893 (although they couldn’t run for office for another 28 years). My home State of South Australia was the first government in the world to have full voting and candidacy rights for women in 1894.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can imagine what a breath of fresh air it must’ve been for them–at least some of them–to break out of the strict roles they were trapped in. I wonder how much the experience varied from class to class.


  9. New Zealand women became the first to be able to vote in 1893. In 1903 Australian women were able to vote and stand for Parliament. Of course that was white women. Aboriginal women didn’t get the vote until 1962. We have compulsory voting here, but I never take it for granted. Too many people, both women and men, have fought too hard over the centuries to have that right. And many people are disenfranchised even today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hadn’t known that history. Thanks.

      In the meantime, the US is doing its damnedest (or parts of it are) to go backward and block as many we’re-not-going-to-vote-for-you groups from voting as possible.


    • Indeed NZ women were able to vote from 1893 but as, I noted in my earlier response, they couldn’t stand for office until 1919, long after Australian women could do so. However, your point about Australian Aboriginal women (and men) not being allowed to vote in Federal elections until 1962 is shamefully taken but I note that in South Australia all women, including Aboriginal women, were allowed to vote and stand for office from 1895. Sadly, not all States were as enlightened.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. It’s amazing how long it took people to get the vote (people with property, people without property, citizens, women [and women in Switzerland only got the vote in the 1970s I think] and how much persistence it took. And now people don’t vote, often. When I was a child, we had a lovely neighbor who was proud of the fact she had voted in every election since women could vote. I’ve already voted in the current election (important stuff all the way down the ballot) and am happy to have my rights, hard won as they are by my foremothers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you, but I also understand why people don’t bother. It’s not as if the political establishment–and I have to include both parties here–have done a lot to convince people that ordinary people have a role in running the country and that their voices matter. People’s cynicism doesn’t help the situation, but it does grow out of something real.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Recently I followed the PBS documentary series on the women’s suffrage movement in the US – a similar story to here, in some ways, with disagreements galore over objectives and tactics, and complicated by the way some states could be persuaded to allow women the vote and others not. As I recall, it contrasted the long grind of “respectable” campaigning with the radical Alice Paul, who had been with the UK suffragettes, force-fed while on hunger strike in prison in the UK, and no less radical in the US – but how much the eventual success of the 19th Amendment owed to the radical tactic is open to debate.

    As I understand it, the 1918 Act in the UK was really a reaction to WW1. On the one hand, universal male suffrage could hardly be denied any longer, after soldiers had gone through so much, and on the other, women had stepped up to replace them in factories, transport and other services; but the recognition of the suffrage only went to older and propertied women (who weren’t necessarily those who’d done the stepping up). It took until 1928 for universal adult suffrage and what was sometimes called the “Flapper Vote”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I expect historians will always debate the relative effectiveness of radical vs. respectable tactics, and I’m not sure how you measure their results. Inevitably, when an old system changes, it will credit the change to reasons it finds acceptable–at least marginally. But would they have listened to the respectable campaigners if the radical ones hadn’t been out there raising hell? My own sense is that the longer you block change, the more inevitable radical tactics will become, regardless of whether from our armchairs we decide they’re effective. The corollary of that belief is that the respectable campaigner is in an enviable position if a bunch of wild-eyed radicals are calling for the same thing out in the streets.


  12. It may surprise you, Ellen, as an American (and may surprise many many other nationalities across the globe) but in Australia we have one independent national electoral commission that validates voters for every level of government, with the essential qualifying factors being the need to be over 18 and a permanent resident. Not only do we make it compulsory to enroll to vote but also to actually vote in Federal and State elections. Around 5% are prepared to pay the modest fine for non-compliance but the 95% turnout here makes the numbers in other democracies look a little sick and, frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. It sounds like things were more interesting there for women trying to get the vote. Or at least more complicated. I imagine there were women there who didn’t think that women should vote aswell?

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Pingback: The Peterloo Massacre, or how the British got the vote | Notes from the U.K.

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