The Suffragettes were movements for women's suffrage in the United Kingdom. Suffrage means the right to vote. They wanted to be involved in the running of the country and they wanted to be treated as equals to men. At first the movements started with peaceful protests, but they progressed to acts of extreme civil disobedience.
The first leaflet advocating votes for women appeared in 1847, and soon suffrage societies began to be formed throughout the country. Twenty years later, John Stuart Mill led an unsuccessful attempt in Parliament to secure votes for women. It was defeated, and that led to the founding of the National Society for Women's Suffrage. The following year Richard Pankhurst, an MP and Manchester lawyer, made a fresh attempt to win votes for women. His wife and daughter, Emmeline and Christabel, went on to become the two most important figures in the movement.
In 1897 Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women's Suffrage. She believed in peaceful protest. She felt that any violence or trouble would persuade men that women could not be trusted to have the right to vote. Her game plan was patience and logical arguments. However, Fawcett's progress was very slow.
|Leaflet ridiculing the Suffragettes|
Most men in Parliament believed that women simply would not understand how Parliament worked and therefore should not take part in the electoral process. This left many women angry and on 10 October 1903, the Women's Social and Political Union - founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia - held its inaugural meeting. They declared that the situation was so serious they would have to pursue extreme measures of civil disobedience. The Union's members were soon nicknamed the Suffragettes.
In 1905 the organisation created a stir when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney interrupted a political meeting in Manchester to ask two Liberal politicians (Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey) if they believed women should have the right to vote. Neither man replied. As a result, the two women got out a banner which had on it "Votes for Women" and shouted at the two politicians to answer their questions. Such actions were all but unheard of then when public speakers were usually heard in silence and listened to courteously even if you did not agree with them. Pankhurst and Kenney were thrown out of the meeting and arrested for causing an obstruction and a technical assault on a police officer. Both women refused to pay a fine preferring to go to prison to highlight the injustice of the system as it was then.
The suffragettes escalated their actions. Sylvia Pankhurst described some of their destructive acts:
"Women, most of them very young, toiled through the night over unfamiliar country, carrying heavy cases of petrol and paraffin... Street lamps were broken, 'Votes for women' was painted on seats at Hampstead Heath, keyholes were stopped with lead pellets, house numbers were painted out... old ladies applied for gun licenses to terrify the authorities. A large envelope containing pepper and snuff was sent to every Cabinet minister... the press reported they all fell victims to the ruse. Empty houses and other unattended buildings were sought out and set on fire... bombs were placed near the Bank of England."
The Suffragettes also burned down churches as the Church of England was against what they wanted; they vandalised Oxford Street, apparently breaking all the windows in this famous street; they chained themselves to Buckingham Palace as the Royal Family were seen to be against women having the right to vote; they hired out boats, sailed up the Thames and shouted abuse through loud hailers at Parliament as it sat; politicians were attacked as they went to work, and their homes were fire bombed. Golf courses were vandalised. Mailbox contents were set on fire. Others refused to pay their tax.
Emily Wilding Davison burned down Prime Minister Lloyd George’s half completed house. She later became the movement’s first martyr when she died trying to throw a suffragette banner over the King's horse at Epsom Derby.
|Suffragette demonstration (1910)|
Many suffragettes were imprisoned and went on a hunger strike as a scare tactic against the government. The government was very concerned that they might die in prison thus giving the movement martyrs. Prison governors were ordered to force feed Suffragettes but this caused a public outcry as forced feeding was traditionally used to feed lunatics as opposed to what were mostly educated women.
The government responded with the Cat and Mouse Act. When a Suffragette was sent to prison, it was assumed that she would go on hunger strike. The Act allowed the Suffragettes to go on a hunger strike and let them get weaker and weaker. When the Suffragette was very weak, they were released from prison. If they died out of prison, this was of no embarrassment to the government, however, some Suffragettes who were especially weak were force fed with tubes which went down their throats and into their stomach. This meant that none of those who were released died but they were so weak that they could take no part in violent Suffragette struggles. When those who had been arrested and released had regained their strength they were re-arrested for the most trivial of reasons and the whole process began again.
During World War I there was a serious shortage of able-bodied men, and women were required to take on many of the traditional male roles - this led to a new view of what a woman was capable of doing. The war also caused a split in the British suffragette movement, with the mainstream, represented by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst's WSPU calling a 'ceasefire' in their campaign for the duration of the war, while more radical suffragettes, represented by Sylvia Pankhurst's Women's Suffrage Federation continued the struggle.
Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act in 1918 granting the vote to women over the age of 30 who were: householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, or graduates of British universities. It was only in 1928 that women in Britain finally achieved suffrage on the same terms as men.