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General History of Women’s Suffrage in Britain


Rebecca Myers
Friday 24 May 2013 19:55 BST

This mostly covers events of the 20th century.

One of the most important aspects of women’s suffrage in Britain was the sheer number of organisations established in favour of women’s suffrage and the factionalised nature of the movement. Although diversity of opinion tended to be in action (pacifist vs. militant), rather than party allegiance (Fawcett said “women’s suffrage had never been a party question”), many groups in favour of women’s suffrage were also politically aligned to certain parties, or other campaigns.

Both Parliament UK and the British Library claim that there were seventeen societies in favour of suffrage for women that came together in the late 19th century to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Parliament UK claims they united in 1897, the British Library claims 1887, although this appears to be an error on the part of the British Library website, as all other sources consulted say 1897. Parliament UK also claims that “by 1913 nearly five hundred regional suffrage societies had joined, making the NUWSS a most influential alliance.”

The following list I have compiled gives a good guidance as to the vast number of groups in support of (if not solely dedicated to) women’s suffrage in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th century. Below are the founding dates of some of the more prominent of these groups.

In 1851, the Sheffield Female Political Association was formed and brought a petition in support of enfranchising women to the House of Lords

In 1865, the Kensington Society was founded as a discussion space for supporters of enfranchising women

In 1867, the Manchester Suffrage Committee was founded (a precedent for Manchester’s pivotal role in the suffrage movement)

Also in 1867, the Kensington Society became the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage

In 1871/2 the Central Committee of the National Society for Women's Suffrage was established

In 1883, the Primrose League (a Conservative group) were established

In 1886 the Women’s Liberal Federation was formed

In 1889, the Women’s Franchise League was formed

In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was established (three years later their leader would be Millicent Garret Fawcett)

In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed by Emmeline Pankhurst

In 1906, the National Federation of Women Workers is established

Interestingly, Millicent Garrett Fawcett cites party-affiliated women’s suffrage organisations (such as the Primrose League and the Women’s Liberal Federation) as essential to the fight to enfranchise women: “the organised political work of women has grown since 1884, and has become so valuable that none of the parties can afford to do without it or to alienate it.”

It is also important to note that women’s suffrage in Britain did not leap from no voting rights at all to full suffrage, but that there were many bills taken to parliament and many small gains ahead of the 1918 declaration of suffrage for women, and then the declaration of full suffrage for women in 1928. These included:

The year 1880 saw suffrage granted to women on the Isle of Man, at first to women “freeholders” and then, a few years’ later, extended to include women “householders”.

At the 1884 carrying of the Reform Bill, efforts were made to include women’s suffrage in the extension of franchise to agricultural labourers. However, it was rejected, although notably not by a unanimous ‘no’ from the House: although Fawcett calls it a “crushing defeat”, it may surprise people today to learn that it lost by 135 votes to 271.

A petition of 37,000 signatures demanding the enfranchisement of women, which was taken to parliament by a group of women’s textile workers from Northern counties of England in 1902

In 1907 the Qualification of Women Act rules that women can be elected to the positions of mayor, and onto borough and county councils

Prominent aspects of the fight for women’s suffrage in Britain

Suffragists and Suffragettes

The Suffragists and the Suffragettes are two very different, and often very divided movements. The suffragists was the broader term referring to the supporters of suffrage for women, more specifically the members of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), formed in 1897 and led for the majority by Millicent Garrett Fawcett. NUWSS aimed to achieve enfranchisement for women by peaceful and legal means, such as bringing petitions and Bills to parliament, and distributing literature for their Cause.

NUWSS was growing constantly, bringing in large membership figures, but in 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst, frustrated at the lack of progress made in getting women the vote, along with her daughters Sylvia, Christabel and Adela, established the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the members of which became known as the suffragettes (around 1906, after a Daily Mail article coined the phrase). Dora Montefiore noted that the WSPU “revolted against the inertia and conventionalism which seemed to have fastened upon... the NUWSS”, and certainly its aims were to employ more militant, public, and illegal tactics, although moreso after 1905 when it was clear media interest in the fight for suffrage was waning. Their motto was ‘Deeds not Words’, and, unlike the majority of other groups in support of women’s suffrage, they refused to join NUWSS.

They also strived for women to be able to vote on the same par with men, as opposed to full unconditional suffrage for women. Ada Nield Chew wrote to The Clarion in 1904, criticising this policy, because “the entire class of wealthy women would be enfranchised, that the great body of working women, married or single, would be voteless still”, but to many suffragettes it was simply the only realistic aim. It was at a meeting in October 1905, during which Christabel and Annie Kenney repeatedly shouted ‘will the Liberal government give votes to women?’ over the top of a speech by Sir Edward Grey, then assaulted police officers when asked to leave, that the first arrests were made in the name of suffrage for women.

There were great issues of class within WSPU, for, although they worked in conjunction with the Independent Labour Party, it has been noted that (increasingly under Christabel’s leadership) the movement found Cause with middle class, rather than working class women. Again, it is important to note the idea that they fought for equal votes to that of men, who had themselves yet to receive full suffrage, and it was a deeply class-ridden issue.

The Pankhursts

The founders of WSPU and by far the most famed of all women working towards suffrage in the 19th and 20th century were Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, particularly Christabel and Syliva. From these women come many of the best first-hand accounts of the movement, two of which are cited in this research. Leadership was an important issue in WSPU, dictating their stance, militant actions and publications at the time (for example, Christabel’s leadership saw their publication The Suffragette lauding the advantages of secret arson – although the militant nature of WSPU meant Christabel’s leadership was plagued by freelance militancy she struggled to control). The Pankhursts suffered a family split in 1913, when Adela and Sylvia were dismissed from WSPU, Sylvia for her participation in the East London Federation of Suffragettes. This rift was never solved, with Emmeline even publicly declaring that she “strongly repudiate[d]” Sylvia’s political actions.

Hunger Striking and Force Feeding

During their imprisonments, suffragettes underwent hunger strikes in protest. The iron resolution of the women during the hunger strikes was renowned, even though delicious and often quite decadent food (“food such as I had never before seen”) was brought to and left in the cell with the prisoners to tempt them. Prisoners would lose serious amounts of weight in prison (Davison claimed she “lost 1½ stone” after 124 hours of fasting during one of her imprisonments). The government’s response to these hunger strikes was to force feed the prisoners; a practice of which, admittedly, I did not realise the full “barbaric” and brutal nature until this research. Indeed, Christabel Pankhurst said that, “from the moment that women had consented to prison, hunger-strikes, and forcible feeding as the price of the vote, the vote really was theirs”. Morley and Stanley, Davison’s biographers rightly point out that forcible feeding was so awful that “anyone who has read a description of forcible feeding by one of the women who underwent it, such as Sylvia Pankhurst’s well-known account, and has any empathy or imagination at all, will reject with disgust the government’s argument that forcible feeding was not dangerous and was carried out for caring reasons and in a caring spirit only.” Emily Davison’s “suicide attempt” in the Holloway prison was known to have been enacted in the hope of escaping forcible feeding, and, having read various accounts of the horror of having a “steel or a wooden gag” forced into the mouth so that one’s jaws were “forced painfully wide”, a large tube put down your throat and food poured down it (which many vomited back up), ideas of this being some sort of extreme or unbalanced action vanish (C. Pankhurst).

Perhaps the most famous account of the force feeding was written by Sylvia Pankhurst, an extract of which reads as follows;

“My gums, when they prised them open, were always sore and bleeding, with bits of loose, jagged flesh... sometimes the tube was coughed up three or four times before they finally got it down. Sometimes, but not often – I was generally too much agitated by then – I felt the tube go right down into the stomach; a sickening, terrifying sensation, especially when it reached the breast. My shoulders were bruised, my back ached during the night... Infinitely worse than the pain was the sense of degradation”

Lady Constance Lytton, who regularly escaped the horrendous ordeal of force feeding due to a health condition, set out to prove that it was only because she was of upper class status that her condition was taken into account ahead of force feeding. She was arrested in disguise as a working class woman ‘Jane Warton’, and, true to her suspicions, believing her to be working class, the prison authorities neither performed a full medical examination of her, nor took her heart condition into account.

Cat and Mouse Act

In order to combat this inconvenience of having to release the women, the government introduced the infamous ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ in 1913. The Act’s official name, the ‘Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act’ highlights its major purpose: to facilitate the re-arrest of suffragettes after they had recuperated from their ‘illness’ from hunger-striking. They also moved to drop force-feeding within this Act, the policy being instead to wait until the hunger-striker under arrest was at a critical stage of weakness (not force feeding them as before), before releasing them to get back to health, and (they thought) re-arrest them afterwards, although this proved far harder to enact than the government had anticipated. The Act effectively meant that the government could shirk responsibility of any harm done to the suffragettes in jail, by hunger-strike for example, including death (the Home Secretary at the time is reported as having said, “let the prisoners die”). The nickname ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ highlights the move around that time to sympathy for the suffragettes, who the public perceived as being cruelly played with by the government in the countless re-arrests and poor treatment of the women, much as a cat would torture a mouse. The Act was “a statutory memorial” of the government’s “lamentable treatment of women”, and it is credited with at least part of the Liberal party’s decline in popularity in the early 20th century.


I have mostly covered militancy within the more extensive research into Emily Wilding Davison, including the various acts of militancy (bombings, arson and stone-throwing), although: a word on the first militant acts, of chaining themselves to railings. I was surprised to learn (although I feel I should have suspected) that, upon chaining themselves to railings of various public buildings, as they regularly did in some of their early acts of militancy, the suffragettes suffered sexual assault at the hands of men of the public and police. Sylvia Pankhurst says of Black Friday also that many women were “subjected to ill-usage” and that “the cry went round: ‘Be careful; they are dragging women down the side streets!’ We knew this always meant greater ill-usage”.

It should also be noted, that, alongside the more “violent” militancy (roughly post-1912), there were many large-scale rallies, two of the most important of which were the 1908 and 1913 rallies in Hyde Park. 250,000 people attended in 1908.

Much has been made of the difference between public perception of female militants and male militants. The suffragettes were held to blame for men’s actions in assaulting them: “Women’s claims [to the right to vote] were justified and the action they wanted to take was perfectly reasonable; what was unjustified and unreasonable were the reactions of men (who often seized the opportunity to punch and kick and claw and also to sexually assault with impunity)... It is interesting that in criticisms of violence it is the WSPU women who are effectively blamed for men’s violence towards them”. The women chaining themselves to railings were deemed “silly”, to which Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence replied, “doing something silly is the woman’s alternative to doing something cruel. The effect is the same. We use no violence because we can win freedom without it; because we have discovered an alternative”. It was also argued by many suffragettes, Sylvia included, that the punishment did not tend to fit the crime, “it was a scandal four of us should be serving five months in all for [breaking] one little £3 window; that the Government had had their pound of flesh, and far, far more, oh, far, far more.”

Slashing the Rokeby Venus

Mary Richardson entered the National Gallery in 1914 with a meat cleaver and slashed the famous painting known as the Rokeby Venus. She said of her actions, “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.”

Black Friday

On the 18th of November 1910, the Conciliation Bill was due to be brought before the House of Commons, which argued for extension of franchise to women. A ninth “Women’s Parliament” was assembling in Caxton Hall at the time, and Sylvia Pankhurst notes Asquith “left the House without [discussing leaving time for the Conciliation Bill before dissolution of Parliament]”. Around three hundred women headed to Parliament, where unfolded “scenes of unexampled violence”, including the sexual assaults I referenced above. Sylvia Pankhurst reports that 115 women were arrested “on “Black Friday” as the day was afterwards named”, and two women died: Cecilia Haig “died in December, 1911, after a painful illness, arising from her injuries” and Henria Williams, who, “already suffering from a weak heart, did not recover from the treatment she received that night in the Square, and died on January 1st.”

WWI – 1914

WWI saw the temporary winding-down of the suffrage movements, which Sylvia (having by this point been ousted from WSPU) notes as a quiet but rapid change of tack: “militancy was no more. The Suffragette of August 7th, 1914, contained an appeal from Christabel: ‘Women of the WSPU. We must protect our Union through everything... for the same of the human race... women must be free’. Next week the Suffragette failed to appear. Mrs. Pankhurst issued a statement through the Press that militancy would be rendered ‘less effective’ by contrast with the greater violence of the war, that work for the vote on the lines of peaceful argument being, ‘as we know, futile’, the Union would suspend activities. Money and energy would thus be saved, and ‘an opportunity’ given to ‘recuperate after the tremendous strain and suffering of the past two years’.” She also notes that the NUWSS suffered greatly from the war, dividing its ranks into the majority (under Fawcett) who dropped their work for women’s suffrage to support the war effort, and the ‘Women’s Active Service Crops’ who formed the British section of the ‘Women’s International League’. WSPU, in the meantime, dropped nearly all of its suffrage work, focusing completely on the war, even changing the name of the Suffragette to Britannia. However, the WSPU made a resurgence in support of the National Register war work and compulsory national service for women, alongside Lloyd George. The nationalist work of many of the suffrage groups during the war greatly helped their cause, and it was during the war that Asquith made his declaration of allegiance to enfranchising women (1916). Moves had already been made to include women’s suffrage in parliamentary bills before the declaration of armistice, and the WSPU were pivotal in lauding the benefits of votes for women coming “in war time. If it did, women would work with greater energy, enthusiasm and patriotism for the security of their native land”.

Women gain the vote – 1918

The Representation of the People Act granted women over 30 the right to vote, as long as they were married to or a member of Local Government Register. It also extended men’s suffrage to the right for all men to vote over the age of 21, and abolished most property qualifications for men.

Women gain full suffrage – 1928

Women were granted suffrage equal to men in 1928 under the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise Act) 1928. The age for women to vote was lowered to 21, and property qualifications reduced to the same as men, at this point barely notable.

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