The Women’s Suffrage Movement
Women’s suffrage, the right of women to vote, was won 100 years ago through intellectual, political and violent struggle.
Before 1918, women were explicitly banned from voting in general elections. The women’s suffrage movement fought against this inequality.
The campaign for women’s suffrage took a number of forms. While Suffragists used peaceful means persuade people that women deserve equal participation, such as petitions, the Suffragettes were a more militant group of campaigners who engaged in a range of tactics, from arson to protest, to raise awareness of their cause. Prominent Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison died protesting by throwing herself under King George V’s horse whilst wearing violet, white and green – the colours of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) Suffragette group.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, many of the women in the Suffrage and Suffragette movements suspended their militancy and joined the war effort. By 1918 the war was won, and the nation had seen how women had effectively taken up traditionally male dominated roles whilst men were fighting for their country. Public opinion shifted in favour of giving women the right to vote. However, the extent to which the vote was a ‘reward’ for women’s role in the war is disputed by many historians of the period.
In 1918 Parliament passed the Representation of the Peoples Act, allowing some women the right to vote for the first time in the UK. As a result of the legislation women made up 43% of eligible voters, and whilst equality in voting wasn’t achieved, the United Kingdom took it’s vital first steps to acknowledging the role women had to play in politics and their own representation.
Tools of the women's suffrage campaign
Throughout the campaign for the vote women used a huge range of tactics to try and convince Parliament to award them their right to vote.
Petitions were one tool used by the suffrage movement to show support for women’s enfranchisement. In 1832 Henry Hunt MP presented a petition to Parliament from an individual woman asking for the right to vote. The petition was from Mary Smith from Yorkshire, who stated that she paid taxes and was subject to the rule of law, and therefore did not see why she should not vote. The petition was however laughed out of the House of Commons.
In 1866, John Stuart Mill, a Member of Parliament and philosopher, agreed to present another suffrage petition to Parliament. The petition was brought to Mill in Parliament by Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett who had collected 1,521 signatures – a huge number considering the limitations of technology and communications at the time. Following the presentation of the petition, Mill lead a debate in the House of Commons to replace the word ‘man’ with ‘person’ in the Second Reform Bill – which would have awarded women the vote. A vote on the issue was lost by 73 votes to 196.
Before 1912 the suffrage campaigning remained largely within the law, the women used methods such as chaining themselves to railings and disturbing the peace to promote their cause. When the activists felt that slow progress was being made, many women turned to more militant methods of campaigning including planting bombs, smashing shop windows and committing acts of arson.
One Suffragette even destroyed Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus painting in the National Gallery, and in 1913, Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby later dying from her injuries.
Women were often arrested and imprisoned for acts committed during the campaign. As a way to protest their imprisonment, some refused food and went on hunger strike. These women were often then subjected to force feeding – a brutal process. The Government passed the ‘Cat & Mouse Act’ which meant hunger striking suffragettes would be released from prison, in order to regain her health, only to be re-arrested when they were fit and well in order to complete their sentence.
While the more militant methods used by suffrage campaigners are often best remembered, it is thought that mixture of both the peaceful protests and more direct action were most effective in achieving the vote for women.
Not everyone wanted women to participate in politics. This document (below), published by Lord Cuzon, listed reasons why women shouldn’t be able to vote. The document tried to convince people that if women got the vote they would be distracted from motherhood and that they would only use it at times of “emotional excitement”.
It also claimed women having the vote would weaken British foreign policy, and remove men of their ‘chivalrous’ role in society.
What happened after 1918?
Following the enfranchisement of some Women over 30 and all men over the age of 21 in 1918, the franchise (number of people able to vote) rose from 7.7 million (28% of the adult population) to 21.4 million (78% of the adult population). Women contributed to 43% of the entire electorate in 1919.
Men who served as military or navy personnel in WW1 also got awarded the vote aged 19.
There was another bill passed in 1918 called the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, which allowed women over the age of 21 to stand as candidates in elections. So, despite women being unable to vote until they were 30, women in their 20s could be elected as an MP.
As a result of this Act, the first female MP to take her seat in the House of Commons was Nancy Astor in 1919.
Suffrage campaigners continued to campaign for women to get equal franchise with men, ten years after 1918 act was passed Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act (1928) which meant all men and women over the age of 21 could vote.
In 2019, 59% of female registered voters turned out to vote in the General Election, compared to 63% of men.
There are 220 women Members of the House of Commons, making up 34% of total MPs. The graph below demonstrates how this has increased over time.