Women’s suffrage societies which campaigned for the right to vote began to appear in Britain in the middle of 19th century and their members called Suffragists believed in peaceful, constitutional ways to promote votes for women. In 1866, a group of women organised a petition that demanded that women should have the same voting rights as men and gathered over 1500 signatures in support of the cause. They took their petition to Henry Fawcett and John Stuart Mill, two MPs who supported universal suffrage. Mill drafted an amendment to the Second Reform Bill that would give women the same voting rights as men and presented it to Parliament in 1867. The amendment was defeated, however, by 196 votes to 73.
In the wake of this defeat, the London Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed and similar women’s suffrage groups were founded all over Britain. In 1897, 17 of these individual groups joined together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Fawcett.
The NUWSS adopted a peaceful and non-confrontational approach. Members believed that success could be gained by argument and education. The organisation tried to raise its profile peacefully – and legally – with petitions, posters, etc. and public meetings. By 1914 the NUWSS had grown to approximately 54,000 members. Almost all of its leaders and most of its members were middle or upper class, and largely they campaigned for the vote for middle-class, property-owning women. However, working-class women did join the NUWSS and some members recognised that they needed the support of all women.
In Manchester in 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. Christabel Pankhurst said, “the vote question must be settled. Mine was the third generation of women to claim the vote and the vote must now be obtained. To go on helplessly pleading was undignified. Strong and urgent demand was needed. Success must be hastened.” The organisation grew to include branches all over Britain and involved more working-class women.
Today “marketing” to encourage support for a political or social view is normal, but it was first used politically by the W.S.P.U, who created their campaign as a brand. There were well-designed logos, stylish exhibitions, spectacular processions and meetings in London and the major cities. Special colours represented the movement, purple, white and green for freedom, purity, and hope respectively. Supporters wore the colours and they were used on badges, bicycles, chocolate bars, cakes, jewellery and even a motor-car. The label of suffragette was actually first used in an article by Daily Mail journalist Charles E Hands. The intention of the “ette” suffix was “to belittle and to show that they were less than the proper kind of suffrage worker”, says Elizabeth Crawford, a researcher and author on the women’s suffrage movement. “But they took up the name and were very proud of it.”
The WSPU adopted militant, direct action tactics. They chained themselves to railings, disrupted public meetings and damaged public property. In 1913, Emily Davison stepped out in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. Her purpose remains unclear, but she was hit and later died from her injuries.
Suffragettes were arrested and imprisoned, but continued their protest in prison by hunger strikes. Although initially they were fed by force, in 1913 the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act was passed in parliament. Commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act it allowed prison authorities to release hunger-striking women prisoners when they became too weak, and re-arrest them when they had recovered. Emmeline Pankhurst was jailed and released on 11 occasions. Newland Park, the large house next to COAM, was used as a refuge for Suffragettes.
You can read more about this connection with Newland Park on the Amersham Museum website or come to their presentation at COAM on Friday 13th October at 12.30pm.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, the suffragettes and suffragists stopped their campaign and after the war in 1918 some women were given voting rights.
Rise Up Women! by Dr Diane Atkinson