WOMEN & THE VOTE
Women had been granted the right to vote in local elections (they could also be members
of local councils; they had also received the vote in New Zealand, a couple of US states
and – much nearer home – the Isle of Man.
They could own property; be awarded degrees and be doctors; nevertheless many men
considered women to be mentally inferior (or at least different): suited for the home but
not for politics or public life. Something new or different always takes people a long time
to accept. Many women did not see a need for the vote and many considered it
unnatural; moreover many did not have the time to consider the issues concerned. It
suited many men to keep things as they were and not for women to question their role.
In 1897 Millicent Fawcett founded the NUWSS (the National Union of Women’s Suffrage
Societies); which brought together many pre-existing organisations and brought greater
numbers and publicity to their peaceful and ladylike activities. They were known as the
In frustration at the lack of progress achieved a breakaway movement was formed in
1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst & her two daughters Sylvia and Christabel. In 1906 they
adopted more militant methods like heckling ministers. The WSPU (Women’s Social &
Political Union) were nicknamed by the Daily Mail as the Suffragettes.
From 1908 they become more militant smashing windows, burning property and letter
boxes and chaining themselves to railings. The government certainly began to treat them
seriously which had not happened previously; the courts sent Emmeline, Christabel and
Flora Drummond to jail in 1908. To some (including Millicent Fawcett) they became
martyrs and heroines. However their increasingly “extreme” tactics led to the two
women’s movements drifting further apart.
The government promised a Conciliation bill in 1911 with widespread parliamentary
support and the WSPU called off their campaign. Then Asquith dropped the bill (was he
ever serious?) and announced that there would be a new bill to give all men the vote; to
this could be added a clause relating to votes foe women. Both movements felt betrayed
Reactions: The NUWSS advised its members to vote Labour at the next election (though
there were supports of women’s votes in all parties Labour was the only party officially in
favour – even in the Labour party many Trades Unionists were hostile; conservative
views were to be found in all parties. There was also the peaceful Pilgrimage from
Carlisle to London. Workingclass women were offered free membership. The WSPU
stepped up their arson attacks (including Rowley Regis church), damaged male concerns
such as cricket pitches and golf courses. Paintings were slashed and when its members
went on hunger strike they were force fed which gave them extra publicity material.
The Cat & Mouse Act was the government response to hunger strikes: prisoners on strike
were released until recovered and then rearrested. Needless to say the WSPU milked the
maximum publicity from this.
The Suffragette Derby (1913): Emily Davison threw dashed in front of a horse (it
happened to be the king’s); she died later of her injuries. Her funeral marked the high
point of suffragette suffort.
However WSPU activity whilst raising the profile of women & the vote had probably
discredited the women’s cause; other issues were hitting the headlines; strikes; militancy
in Ulster and the whole Home Rule crisis and the approach to war. The war itself raised
women’s profile more positively.
The NUWSS encouraged recruiting and the WSPU campaigned for women’s admission to
male areas of the workforce. Both organisations called off their suffrage campaigns.
Though there was a slow take-up by employers women did make a significant impact in
most areas of industry including munitions. They also acted as nurses and auxiliaries to
the armed forces. Policewomen first appeared.
By the end of the war women over 30 had been admitted to the vote (as had all men
except conscientious objectors); the WSPU had certainly raised women’s profile and the
longer & more gentle approach of the NUWSS had not been useless. War work and
responsibility (which included raising families in the absence of men) were probably more
significant. Similarly the sacrifice of women who had lost their males was appreciated.
Moreover the whole democratic profile of the country had changed; women could no
longer be denied the vote. Personally Lloyd George was far more sympathetic than
BACK TO TOP