The Suffragettes and the Historic Battle for Women’s Votes

Who first called for women’s votes?

The first appeals for women to be given the right to vote date from the early 19th century. One of the first calling for such was Jeremy Bentham, who first suggested that women should be given the right to vote in his 1818 ‘Plan for Parliamentary Reform’.

Women at that time had no political rights at all, they were deemed to be represented by their husbands or their fathers.

A second historic call for women’s formal political equality was made by the radical MP Henry Hunt – who in 1832 presented a petition drawn up by Mary Smith, a rich Yorkshire woman, asking that unmarried women who owned property and paid taxes should be allowed to vote.

NB – to put this in context, following the 1832 Reform Act, only 18% of men had the right to vote, which was linked to property-ownership at that time.

When did the campaign really get going?

The first campaigning women’s groups weren’t formed until the end of the 19th century, initially focusing on the lack of education and employment opportunities for women and their lack of legal representation, and the vote gradually became the central symbolic and practical issue for these groups.

In 1867, Barbara Bodichon and others form the London Society for Women’s Suffrage; other committees then sprang up all over the country and in 1897 the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett was formed.

millicent-fawcett

Millicent Fawcett

How were their arguments received?

The issue gained traction throughout the later half of the nineteenth century. The philosopher and MP John Stuart Mill tabled an amendment to the 1867 Reform Bill, calling for all householders to be enfranchised. And, as the suffragists pointed out, the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 had enabled about 60% of men to vote, some of whom were barely literate; yet well-educated, taxpaying women still did not.

Motions were debated in Parliament throughout the 1870s, but they were defeated on the arguments that women were less able than men, that their natural sphere was in the home, that they were unable to fight for their country, or that they simply did not want the vote.

This later was at least partially true, and supported by some women: Florence Nightingale declared in 1867 that she had ‘never felt the want of a vote’.

What about the Suffragettes?

In 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union was formed in Manchester by Emmeline Pankhurst and other campaigners. The WSPU, frustrated by slow progress on women’s rights, was committed to ‘deeds, not words’.

In 1905, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney repeatedly shoted over a speech by the MP Sir Edward Grey, asking ‘Will the Liberal government give votes to women?’. They assaulted police officers when asked to leave and were arrested. A series of mass processions followed: more than 250 000 women protested in Hyde Park in 1908, shocking Edwardian England.

How effective were their protests?

Most historians believe that the suffragettes were very effective in mobilising women around the campaign for votes for women. Many were arrested and treated brutally, with prisoners on hunger strike being force fed for example.

Over time their tactics became more radical: smashing shop windows and setting fire to letter boxes, libraries and even homes…. and in the most famous event of the period, Emily Davison threw herself under the kind’s horse on Derby Day, 1913 and was killed.

However, at the time, it was thought these violent and dramatic tactics were a step-backwards for their cause.

The First World War and Vote Reform

It was the First World War which finally brought the vote for women. The sacrifices of the war bolstered support for expanding the suffrage to women. The war saw more than a million women employed outside of the home – in munitions factories and engineering works for example, and the vote had traditionally been based on occupational status.

In 1918, The Representation of the People Act was passed be an enormous majority which gave women over 30 who were householders or married to one, or university graduates, the right to vote. However, the act also extended the vote to nearly all men over the age of 21.

It was not, however, until 1928, with the Equal Franchise Act, that men and women had equal voting rights.

Sources 

The Week, 3rd Feb 2018

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