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Student Questions: Women's Suffrage


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A student in my school has asked the following question:

"Who was mainly responsible for getting women the vote - the suffragettes or the suffragists?

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A student in my school has asked the following question:

"Who was mainly responsible for getting women the vote - the suffragettes or the suffragists?

The traditional view gave credit to the militant tactics of the suffragettes, represented primarily by the WSPU. This interpretation undermined the role of the suffragists, represented by the NUWSS, who favoured constitutional methods. In recent years, however, this argument has been overturned by historians Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, who maintain that the suffragettes alienated public sympathy by their violent attacks on property. They emphasise the contribution of the "radical suffragists", the female cotton workers of Lancashire - many of them allied to the trade union movement - who concentrated on peaceful, "grass roots diplomacy". Students should question the validity of too sharp a distinction between "suffragettes" and "suffragists", however, as further research is revealing a deeply complex movement, which cannot be so simply categorised. Students may also wish to examine the impact of women's work in World War I, which arguably was far more significant in the fight for the vote than the role of either the suffragettes or the suffragists.

On this issue, I recommend the following books for GCSE, A/S and A2 students:

David Taylor. Mastering Economic and Social History. Chapter 24.

Paula Bartley. Votes for Women.

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In the run up to the First World War the people campaigning for women’s suffrage fell into two distinct groups: the suffragists and the suffragettes.

The first suffragist group was formed in 1866 (the Kensington Society). The group got the support of several Liberal M.Ps. One of these, John Stuart Mill. Mill, added an amendment to the 1867 Reform Act that would have given women the same political rights as men. The amendment was defeated by 196 votes to 73.

Other suffragist groups were formed and in 1887 seventeen of these groups joined together to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Lydia Becker was elected as president. Three years later, when Becker died, Millicent Fawcett became the new leader of the organisation.

The NUWSS held public meetings, organised petitions, wrote letters to politicians, published newspapers and distributed free literature. Millicent Fawcett believed that it was important that the NUWSS campaigned for a wide variety of causes. This included helping Josephine Butler in her campaign against the white slave traffic. The NUWSS also gave support to Clementina Black and her attempts to persuade the government to help protect low paid women workers.

In 1903 a group of former members of the NUWSS in Manchester left to form a new organisation, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Led by Emmeline Pankhurst, this new organisation pointed out that it was no longer willing to restrict itself to the constitutional methods favoured by the NUWSS.

Millicent Fawcett, like other members of the NUWSS, feared that the militant actions of the WSPU would alienate potential supporters of women's suffrage. However, it was decided that the NUWSS would not openly criticize members of the WSPU.

The Liberal Party won the 1905 General Election. The NUWSS and the WSPU both believed that women would now be granted equal rights with men. This did not happen. They now also had the added problem that the media had lost interest in the struggle for women's rights. Newspapers rarely reported meetings and usually refused to publish articles and letters written by supporters of women's suffrage. As a result the WSPU decided to use different methods to obtain the publicity they thought would be needed in order to obtain the vote.

On 13th October 1905, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney attended a meeting in London to hear Sir Edward Grey, a minister in the British government. When Grey was talking, the two women constantly shouted out, "Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?" When the women refused to stop shouting the police were called to evict them from the meeting. Pankhurst and Kenney refused to leave and during the struggle a policeman claimed the two women kicked and spat at him. Pankhurst and Kenney were arrested and charged with assault.

Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney were found guilty and fined five shillings each. When the women refused to pay the fine they were sent to prison.

The case shocked the nation. For the first time in Britain women had used violence in an attempt to win the vote. Members of the WSPU now became known as suffragettes.

During the summer of 1908 the WSPU introduced the tactic of breaking the windows of government buildings. On 30th June suffragettes marched into Downing Street and began throwing small stones through the windows of the Prime Minister's house. As a result of this demonstration, twenty-seven women were arrested and sent to Holloway Prison.

On the 13th October, 1908 the WSPU held a large demonstration in London and then tried to enter the House of Commons. There were violent clashes with the police and 24 women were arrested, including Emmeline Pankhurst, who was sentenced to three months in prison.

Herbert Asquith became Prime Minister in 1908. Unlike other leading members of the Liberal Party, Asquith was a strong opponent of votes for women. In 1912 Fawcett and the NUWSS took the decision to support Labour Party candidates in parliamentary elections.

In July 1912, Christabel Pankhurst began organizing a secret arson campaign. Attempts were made by suffragettes to burn down the houses of two members of the government who opposed women having the vote. These attempts failed but soon afterwards, a house being built for David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was badly damaged by suffragettes.

In 1913 the WSPU arson campaign escalated and railway stations, cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses being set on fire. Slogans in favour of women's suffrage were cut and burned into the turf. Suffragettes also cut telephone wires and destroyed letters by pouring chemicals into post boxes.

Kitty Marion (an American actress) was a leading figure in the WSPU arson campaign and she was responsible for setting fire to Levetleigh House in Sussex (April 1913), the Grandstand at Hurst Park racecourse (June 1913) and various houses in Liverpool (August, 1913) and Manchester (November, 1913). These incidents resulted in a series of further terms of imprisonment during which force-feeding occurred followed by release under the Cat & Mouse Act. It has been calculated that Kitty Marion endured 200 force-feedings in prison while on hunger strike.

Some leaders of the WSPU such as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, disagreed with this arson campaign. When Pethick-Lawrence objected, she was expelled from the organisation. Others like Elizabeth Robins showed their disapproval by ceasing to be active in the WSPU.

The only major political party committed to women’s suffrage was the Labour Party. The leaders of the party disapproved of the violent tactics being used by the suffragettes. They also disagreed with the WSPU’s willingness to accept the vote for women on the same grounds as men. It of course has to be remembered that many working class men did not have the vote at this time. The Labour Party therefore demanded universal adult suffrage. They feared the possibility of the Liberal government would grant the vote to all members of the middle class (men and women). This would have made it even more difficult for the Labour Party to gain power (something they expected to happen when universal suffrage was achieved).

The NUWSS also shared the same values as the Labour Party and supported universal suffrage and equal pay for equal work.

In 1914 the NUWSS had over 100,000 members. The WSPU was in decline and it is estimated that the organization had less than 2,000 members (official membership figures were never published by the WSPU). By the summer of 1914 over 1,000 suffragettes had been imprisoned for destroying public property. All the leading members of the WSPU were in prison, in very poor health or were living in exile. The number of active members of the organisation in a position to commit acts of violence was now very small.

If the vote had been given to women in 1914 the WSPU would have been given very little credit for this achievement. In fact, at this time it was on the verge of extinction.

However, all this was to change with the declaration of war on 4th August, 1914. Two days later the NUWSS announced that it was suspending all political activity until the war was over. The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort.

After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as 'We Demand the Right to Serve', 'For Men Must Fight and Women Must Work' and 'Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws'.

Two days after the British government declared war on Germany, Millicent Fawcett also announced that the NUWSS would suspend all political activity until the conflict was over. Although the NUWSS supported the war effort, it did not follow the WSPU strategy of becoming involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces.

In October 1915, The WSPU changed its newspaper's name from The Suffragette to Britannia. Emmeline's patriotic view of the war was reflected in the paper's new slogan: "For King, For Country, for Freedom'. In the newspaper anti-war activists such as Ramsay MacDonald were attacked as being "more German than the Germans". Another article on the Union of Democratic Control carried the headline: "Norman Angell: Is He Working for Germany?" Mary Macarthur and Margaret Bondfield were described as "Bolshevik women trade union leaders" and Arthur Henderson, who was in favour of a negotiated peace with Germany, was accused of being in the pay of the Central Powers.

The leaders of the WSPU had now shifted to the extreme right of the political spectrum (some of them went on to form the British Fascisti Party in 1924).

In January, 1917, the House of Commons began discussing the possibility of granting women the vote in parliamentary elections. Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister during the militant suffrage campaign, had always been totally against women having the vote. However, during the debate he confessed he had changed his mind and now supported the claims of the WSPU (the limited franchise). However, he rejected the idea of universal suffrage that had been supported by the NUWSS and the Labour Party.

On 28th March, 1917, the House of Commons voted 341 to 62 that 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.

The official reason given for granting some women the vote was because of the role they played during the First World War. However, this is clearly untrue. Women who were not householders and were under the age of 30 were also part of the war effort. In fact, it was unmarried young women who had played the most important role during this period.

The WSPU (suffragettes) had got what it wanted and ceased to play a role in the campaign for universal suffrage. In fact, its two leaders, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, both joined the Conservative Party. They also argued for right-wing policies such as the abolition of trade unions.

The NUWSS (suffragists) on the other hand continued the fight for universal suffrage. In 1919 it adopted a six point programme: (1) Equal pay for equal work, involving an open field for women in industry and the professions. (2) An equal standard of sex morals as between men and women, involving a reform of the existing divorce law which condoned adultery by the husband, as well as reform of the laws dealing with solicitation and prostitution. (3) The introduction of legislation to provide pensions for civilian widows with dependent children. (4) The equalization of the franchise and the return to Parliament of women candidates pledged to the equality programme. (5) The legal recognition of mothers as equal guardians with fathers of their children. (6) The opening of the legal profession and the magistracy to women.

It was not until March 1928 that Parliament began discussing the possibility of giving the vote on the same terms as men. There was little opposition in Parliament to the bill and it became law on 2nd July 1928. As a result, all women over the age of 21 could now vote in elections.

Historians have been very kind to the suffragettes and they have been given far more credit for achieving the vote for women than they deserved. It is possible that their militant actions before the war might have had an influence on the way that MPs voted in 1917. It is argued that the government did not wish to see a return to this behaviour after the war. However, politicians would have taken more notice of the relative size of the WSPU and the NUWSS in 1914.

What is clear is the suffragettes deserve no credit at all for the fact that all women got the vote. Between the passing of the 1918 Qualification of Women Act and the 1928 Equal Franchise Act, the suffragettes played no role in this campaign.

Why is it then that school textbooks spend more time covering the activities of people like Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst than that of Millicent Fawcett and Eleanor Rathbone (leader of the NUWSS after 1919)? I suspect one reason is that they do their research by reading other school textbooks rather than by taking a close look at the original sources.

Whatever the reason, it definitely provides a distorted view of how women obtained the vote. It also provides a very dangerous message - that political violence works.




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