Sunday, 28 September 2008

The Suffragettes



There have been certain women in history who, as a group or individually, have changed the world for women forever. Some have fought for women's rights, some have entered what had previously been a "man's world" and some have impacted so greatly on the world around them they showed the true power of women.

Of course, right there at the top would be the Suffragettes. We've all heard of them, we could all probably name one or two of them but how much do we really know about the suffragette movement, what they truly achieved and what they went through to achieve it.

Here is a simple question
"what did the suffragette movement fight for"

The answer..
"The right for women to vote"

Sounds simple enough but the fight was anything but easy and definitely anything but peaceful.

The move for women to have the vote had really started in 1897 when Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women's Suffrage. "Suffrage" means the right to vote and that is what women wanted - hence its inclusion in Fawcett's title.

Millicent Fawcett 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. Fawcett argued that women could hold responsible posts in society such as sitting on school boards - but could not be trusted to vote; she argued that if parliament made laws and if women had to obey those laws, then women should be part of the process of making those laws; she argued that as women had to pay taxes as men, they should have the same rights as men and one of her most powerful arguments was that wealthy mistresses of large manors and estates employed gardeners, workmen and labourers who could vote........but the women could not regardless of their wealth.

However, Fawcett's progress was very slow. She converted some of the members of the Labour Representation Committee (soon to be the Labour Party) but 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 in 1903 the Woman’s Social and Political Union was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. They wanted women to have the right to vote and they were not prepared to wait. The Union became better known as the Suffragettes. One would expect such an uprising to be done in a somewhat peaceful way, it being led by women and all that. but the suffragettes were determined to get what they wanted, and weren’t afraid to use violence to get it.

Having said that, the Suffragettes started off relatively peacefully. It wasn't until 1905 that they really 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 thought woman should have the right to vote. As neither man replied the two women produced a banner on which was written "Votes For Women" and began to shout at the two politicians for an answer. As a result Christabel and Annie were removed from the meeting and arrested. They could have paid a fine for this, but in order to gain more publicity and to prove how dedicated they were to this cause the two women refused to pay, an action that led to their imprisonment.

Despite the fact it was becoming increasingly obvious that a male dominated political and religious Britain was not about to bow down to the suffragettes wishes they refused to give up the fight. In fact "fight" became a much more appropriate word for their ever more extreme demonstrations. Possibly one of their most controversial acts was the burning down of churches. These actions were carried out in protest at the Church of England's refusal to back their cause. In fact representatives of the church made it clear they were fully against the suffragette movement and all that it stood and fought for. Oxford Street was also a target, all windows in this famous street were broken in yet another show of their resilience and refusal to bow down to the law and all that it stood for. Even the Royal family did not escape untouched. Members of the movement, angered that the Royal Family were openly against their cause, chained themselves to the railings around the palace. The violence increased to the point where Politicians were being attacked and their houses fire bombed. Extreme violence was beginning to be the main news in the first decade of the 20th Century.

As one can imagine many Suffragettes ended up in prison, and were happy to do so.
Once inside they would immediately go on hunger strike leaving the government in a very difficult position. Force feeding was not an option as this would have potentially turned the public against the government. Force feeding was only permitted for those who were classed as mentally unstable and these were known to be well educated women with full control over their own minds. On the other hand, should a Suffragette die in prison they would become martyrs and rather than be a blow to the movement this would make them even more renowned and possibly even increase their following.

This dilemma saw the start of the "Cat and Mouse Act" brought in by the Government to solve the problem. The basic aim of this was to allow the women to go on hunger strike while ensuring none of them died but the government was not seen to be bowing down to the cause. The idea was simple. The Suffragette was imprisoned and allowed to go on hunger strike. She would become weaker and weaker but as her condition became life threatening she would be released. Should they then die through their malnutrition it would be of no embarrassment to the government as they were out of prison and should they survive they would be too weak to fight for the movement for some time. Those who survived were watched closely and, as soon as they had regained their strength they were re-arrested for the most minor of offences and the whole process would start again.

Although the government believed that their new "weapon" of this Act would be successful in finally seeing the demise of the movement what it actually did was make the Suffragettes become more extreme. And it was then that the most famous acts of a member of the Suffragette movement occurred. It was June 1913 and the day of the Derby. Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under Anmer, the kings horse, as it rounded Tattenham Corner and was killed immediately. Initially the Suffragettes, although devastated by the death of one of their own, felt this would only help their cause. After all, they now had their "martyr". Unfortunately for them it had the opposite effect with many men, particularly those in power putting forward the point that Emily Wilding Davison was a well educated, intelligent woman and that if a woman of her standing would do something like this what would a lesser educated woman do. And, this being the case how could women now be given the right to vote.

And so it seemed there was to be no end to this battle of wills, strength and resolve. The Suffragettes made no secret of the fact they would become more violent, and the Government though not willing to give in realised that the more they tried to quieten these women the more likely they were to use more extreme ways of fighting for their cause. And then something happened that became the turning point for the Suffragette movement and for women in Britain forever. In August 1914 Britain was plunged into World War One. Emmeline Pankhurst, very much a leader of the movement instructed each and every Suffragette to stop their violence and to halt their campaign to support the Government and its war effort. As we know, the work done by the women of Britain was vital during the war years and was openly admitted by the Government to have played a very large part in the success of their war effort.

The war ended and in 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed by Government. This act was in the end passed by an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons, and finally saw the beginning of women being given the vote. At this time the right was only given to women over the age of 30, so in many ways there was still a lot of work to be done, but the Suffragettes believed this was a good enough start.

So why did the Government change their views so drastically ? It was assumed that the act was a ‘reward’ for the vital work done by women during World War One. Before the war, society had been suitably angered and horrified by the acts of the Suffragettes – arson, vandalism, attacking politicians, the Derby of 1913 etc. Parliament rationalised on the following: how could women be given such a right when they could not be trusted to act decently? During the war, Britain had experienced a potentially disastrous munitions shortage and this was only solved by the work done by women in munitions factories. Women had also driven buses, worked on surface jobs in coal mines etc. Vital work was also done on farms to keep Britain well stocked with food. However it was also suggested that While the Suffragettes had shocked society (both male and female), no-one was keen to return to the violence of pre-1914 Britain, a nation exhausted by war. And so it suited both sides that an agreement should be made at this time.


Some will agree with the actions of the Suffragettes while some will think their actions were over extreme, but none can deny the impact they made for the women of the day. When we think of the equality we now have it is important to remember that without the Suffragettes it could still all be so very very different.






There have been certain women in history who, as a group or individually, have changed the world for women forever. Some have fought for women's rights, some have entered what had previously been a "man's world" and some have impacted so greatly on the world around them they showed the true power of women.

Of course, right there at the top would be the Suffragettes. We've all heard of them, we could all probably name one or two of them but how much do we really know about the suffragette movement, what they truly achieved and what they went through to achieve it.

Here is a simple question
"what did the suffragette movement fight for"

The answer..
"The right for women to vote"

Sounds simple enough but the fight was anything but easy and definitely anything but peaceful.

The move for women to have the vote had really started in 1897 when Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women's Suffrage. "Suffrage" means the right to vote and that is what women wanted - hence its inclusion in Fawcett's title.

Millicent Fawcett 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. Fawcett argued that women could hold responsible posts in society such as sitting on school boards - but could not be trusted to vote; she argued that if parliament made laws and if women had to obey those laws, then women should be part of the process of making those laws; she argued that as women had to pay taxes as men, they should have the same rights as men and one of her most powerful arguments was that wealthy mistresses of large manors and estates employed gardeners, workmen and labourers who could vote........but the women could not regardless of their wealth.

However, Fawcett's progress was very slow. She converted some of the members of the Labour Representation Committee (soon to be the Labour Party) but 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 in 1903 the Woman’s Social and Political Union was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. They wanted women to have the right to vote and they were not prepared to wait. The Union became better known as the Suffragettes. One would expect such an uprising to be done in a somewhat peaceful way, it being led by women and all that. but the suffragettes were determined to get what they wanted, and weren’t afraid to use violence to get it.

Having said that, the Suffragettes started off relatively peacefully. It wasn't until 1905 that they really 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 thought woman should have the right to vote. As neither man replied the two women produced a banner on which was written "Votes For Women" and began to shout at the two politicians for an answer. As a result Christabel and Annie were removed from the meeting and arrested. They could have paid a fine for this, but in order to gain more publicity and to prove how dedicated they were to this cause the two women refused to pay, an action that led to their imprisonment.

Despite the fact it was becoming increasingly obvious that a male dominated political and religious Britain was not about to bow down to the suffragettes wishes they refused to give up the fight. In fact "fight" became a much more appropriate word for their ever more extreme demonstrations. Possibly one of their most controversial acts was the burning down of churches. These actions were carried out in protest at the Church of England's refusal to back their cause. In fact representatives of the church made it clear they were fully against the suffragette movement and all that it stood and fought for. Oxford Street was also a target, all windows in this famous street were broken in yet another show of their resilience and refusal to bow down to the law and all that it stood for. Even the Royal family did not escape untouched. Members of the movement, angered that the Royal Family were openly against their cause, chained themselves to the railings around the palace. The violence increased to the point where Politicians were being attacked and their houses fire bombed. Extreme violence was beginning to be the main news in the first decade of the 20th Century.

As one can imagine many Suffragettes ended up in prison, and were happy to do so.
Once inside they would immediately go on hunger strike leaving the government in a very difficult position. Force feeding was not an option as this would have potentially turned the public against the government. Force feeding was only permitted for those who were classed as mentally unstable and these were known to be well educated women with full control over their own minds. On the other hand, should a Suffragette die in prison they would become martyrs and rather than be a blow to the movement this would make them even more renowned and possibly even increase their following.

This dilemma saw the start of the "Cat and Mouse Act" brought in by the Government to solve the problem. The basic aim of this was to allow the women to go on hunger strike while ensuring none of them died but the government was not seen to be bowing down to the cause. The idea was simple. The Suffragette was imprisoned and allowed to go on hunger strike. She would become weaker and weaker but as her condition became life threatening she would be released. Should they then die through their malnutrition it would be of no embarrassment to the government as they were out of prison and should they survive they would be too weak to fight for the movement for some time. Those who survived were watched closely and, as soon as they had regained their strength they were re-arrested for the most minor of offences and the whole process would start again.

Although the government believed that their new "weapon" of this Act would be successful in finally seeing the demise of the movement what it actually did was make the Suffragettes become more extreme. And it was then that the most famous acts of a member of the Suffragette movement occurred. It was June 1913 and the day of the Derby. Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under Anmer, the kings horse, as it rounded Tattenham Corner and was killed immediately. Initially the Suffragettes, although devastated by the death of one of their own, felt this would only help their cause. After all, they now had their "martyr". Unfortunately for them it had the opposite effect with many men, particularly those in power putting forward the point that Emily Wilding Davison was a well educated, intelligent woman and that if a woman of her standing would do something like this what would a lesser educated woman do. And, this being the case how could women now be given the right to vote.

And so it seemed there was to be no end to this battle of wills, strength and resolve. The Suffragettes made no secret of the fact they would become more violent, and the Government though not willing to give in realised that the more they tried to quieten these women the more likely they were to use more extreme ways of fighting for their cause. And then something happened that became the turning point for the Suffragette movement and for women in Britain forever. In August 1914 Britain was plunged into World War One. Emmeline Pankhurst, very much a leader of the movement instructed each and every Suffragette to stop their violence and to halt their campaign to support the Government and its war effort. As we know, the work done by the women of Britain was vital during the war years and was openly admitted by the Government to have played a very large part in the success of their war effort.

The war ended and in 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed by Government. This act was in the end passed by an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons, and finally saw the beginning of women being given the vote. At this time the right was only given to women over the age of 30, so in many ways there was still a lot of work to be done, but the Suffragettes believed this was a good enough start.

So why did the Government change their views so drastically ? It was assumed that the act was a ‘reward’ for the vital work done by women during World War One. Before the war, society had been suitably angered and horrified by the acts of the Suffragettes – arson, vandalism, attacking politicians, the Derby of 1913 etc. Parliament rationalised on the following: how could women be given such a right when they could not be trusted to act decently? During the war, Britain had experienced a potentially disastrous munitions shortage and this was only solved by the work done by women in munitions factories. Women had also driven buses, worked on surface jobs in coal mines etc. Vital work was also done on farms to keep Britain well stocked with food. However it was also suggested that While the Suffragettes had shocked society (both male and female), no-one was keen to return to the violence of pre-1914 Britain, a nation exhausted by war. And so it suited both sides that an agreement should be made at this time.


Some will agree with the actions of the Suffragettes while some will think their actions were over extreme, but none can deny the impact they made for the women of the day. When we think of the equality we now have it is important to remember that without the Suffragettes it could still all be so very very different.

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