How did the Suffragette movement begin?

The British women’s suffrage movement can be traced back to 1792, with the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’

In this book she argued for the rights of women in education and the professions.  Her struggle was taken up by campaigners such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who after being prevented from entering medical school, studied privately and in 1865 became the first woman doctor to qualify in Britain.

Women’s issues also concentrated on the lack of rights for married women, which was upheld by the existing legal system.  The 18th century jurist Sir William Blackstone put his view forthrightly: ‘The very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband’.

In 1832, the Great Reform Act gave the vote to about half a million more men – one in five of the male population – but it excluded women from the vote.  In 1867, the Second Reform Act increased the vote to about 2.5 million male householders, out of a population of 22 million.  This inspired a new wave of protests, aided by many writers and philosophers, such as John Stuart Mill.

By the 1890s the suffrage movement was well established and had expanded from a small group of radical thinkers to embrace a growing force of women from all sections of society. 

The movement in Britain was greatly encouraged by events in other countries.  In America, as the slavery debate grew more heated in the 19th century, people became aware that women as well as slaves were oppressed. 

Lucretia Mott founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and joined forces with Elizabeth Cady Stanton to organise the first American convention on women’s rights which was held at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848.  There was a flowering of women’s groups across America, and in 1890 they formed the National American Women’s Suffrage Association.

In 1893, New Zealand became the first country to enfranchise women and by 1896 four American states – Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming – had given women the vote.  By the end of the century women had also been enfranchised in most of Australia and in the Isle of Man.

Activists from New Zealand, Australia and America advised their British counterparts on strategy and gave speeches outlining how the vote had improved women’s living and working conditions in their own countries.

Throughout their campaign, the women’s suffrage organisations met with strong opposition from the Press, Parliament, leading professionals and the Church.  But the opposition was not restricted to men; many women opposed the movement, feeling it threatened society’s traditional values. 

A group known as the ‘Ants’ pointed to the ‘defective temperament and intellect of women’.  They described women as illogical, emotional, fickle, fragile and absorbed with trivial and domestic matters.  A woman’s proper place, they said, was in the home.

Politics was seen as an unfeminine pastime that would corrupt women and kill chivalry.  To involve women in politics. Prime Minister William Gladstone said; ‘would trespass upon their delicacy, their purity, their refinement, the elevation of their whole nature’.

Other worries underlaid MP’s opposition to the suffragettes.  Politicians were concerned over an association between the women’s suffrage claim and birth control, fearing that if contraception were to spread it would endanger the country’s capacity to raise future armies.  Many British Soldiers had been killed during the recent Anglo-Boar war and women greatly outnumbered men at the beginning of the 20th century.

Support for the women’s franchise was also a risk for any political party hoping to win at the polls.  Indeed, strong opposition from the government continued until the outbreak of war in 1914.

The suffragettes called a truce to their campaigning during the First World War, but it was clear that they would step up their efforts as soon as the war was over.  This put pressure on the government to make concessions.

The initial effect of the war was to raise the status of the fighting man and to substantiate the idea that a woman’s most important role was to rear men for future armies.  But opinion changed as women took the places of fighting men in industry and public service, the number of women employed in Britain rose by more than a million. 

This played a significant part in challenging traditional stereo-types and put women in a much stronger bargaining position for getting the vote.  In France, women played an enormous part in the war effort, despite this they were not granted the vote until after the Second World War in 1945.

In February 1918, the Representation of the People Act granted the vote to women over 30, subject to certain economic and educational qualifications.  However, young working class women, although they received high praise for their war work, were still denied the vote.  In the election of 1918, some 8.5 million women were able to vote.

Among the candidates were 17 women of whom just one was elected: in Dublin, Countess Constance Markiewicz – the  ‘Red Countess’, one of the personalities of the Easter Rising – triumphed for Sinn Fein, but she did not take up her seat for political reasons.

The first woman to sit in the British parliament was Nancy Lady Astor, who became MP for Plymouth in 1919.  The same year saw the introduction of the Sex Disqualification Removal Act, which made available many professions to women and entitled them to serve on juries.  In 1928, the voting age for women was reduced to 21, the same age as men and three years later 15 women became Members of Parliament.

Despite the fact that four American states had enfranchised women by 1896, it was not until 1920 that the United States as a whole gave women the vote.  The women voters of New Zealand, enfranchised in 1893, did not elect their first woman MP, Elizabeth McCombs until 1933. Finland in 1906 became the first European country to give women the vote, followed by Norway in 1907.

Women were enfranchised in Germany in 1918, Spain in 1932, France, Italy and Japan in 1945.  In 1902 the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance was founded and organised conferences in Washington (1902) Berlin (1904) and Copenhagen (1906). 

The American feminist Susan B Anthony presided over the organisation with the English suffragist Millicent Fawcett as a senior executive.  Although the WSPU was banned from joining, it had a great deal of international support – and abuse. The term ‘suffragettes’ was first used by the London Daily Mail in 1906 as a derogatory label for women with WSPU.

The enfranchisement of women has been much slower in other countries.  Switzerland did not give votes to women until 1971, Jordan 1974 and Lichtenstein in 1984.  In some countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, women are still not allowed to vote.

Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Image Credit: The Times

In Britain, a mother and two of her daughters were in the vanguard of the growing suffragette movement.  Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the militant campaign for women’s right to vote, was born in Manchester in 1858.  She attended her first suffrage meeting at 14 and at 21 she married Richard Pankhurst, a radical reform lawyer.

She founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 and was imprisoned many times for her protests.  She died in London in 1928.

Christabel Pankhurst, the elder daughter of Emmeline, was born in 1880.  After graduating as a lawyer, she was appointed organising secretary of the WSPU and soon became a strong public speaker.

To escape arrest for conspiracy in 1912, she fled to Paris, where she edited The Suffragette newspaper.  In 1936, she was made a Dame of the British Empire and she died in the United States in 1958.

Sylvia Pankhurst, the second daughter of Emmeline was born in 1882.  In 1912 she set up the East London Federation of WSPU. Her socialist views caused a split between her federation and the WSPU in 1914. After 1918, she campaigned for a number of international causes, dying in Ethiopia in 1960.