Color image of woman's suffrage movement

Anthropology: Exploration of Women’s Suffrage in the UK and its Impact

Woman’s suffrage was the movement to fight for women’s right to vote. It became a national movement in the United Kingdom during the Victorian era. It pushed gender equality and had a significant impact on women’s rights. This was done through the use of art, debate, propaganda, and more extreme methods such as attacks on property, including window smashing and arson. This article will explore the woman’s suffrage movement in the UK, its effectiveness, and its impact on UK society.

The roots of women’s suffrage

The woman’s suffrage movement is rooted in centuries of women’s oppression and injustice. Women were denied the right to vote and many believed that unless there was a dramatic change in law, women would continue to face oppression. From the mid-19th century, women across Britain began to engage in a struggle to secure their right to vote. This led to the organization of groups of women demanding that they should have the same political rights as men.

Early suffragist societies included the Kensington Society, the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage, the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage, and the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association. There was also the formation of national movements like the Primrose League and the Women’s Liberal Associations. The biggest and most famous campaigns developed into national movements were the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS), the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

The National Society for Women’s Suffrage

The National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS) was formed in 1868 and represented a unified, national front. The society was formed by Lidia Becker and was the beginning and the foundation of the national women’s suffrage movement. The NSWS approach was largely constitutional. The group’s aim was to reform the law through legal means, without breaking the law or using radical methods. Women who tried to reform the law constitutionally became known as “suffragists”.

The suffragists gathered over 1500 signatures in support of women’s right to vote. The women took their petition to Henry Fawcett and John Stuart Mill. Both men were the MPs who supported universal suffrage. Mill drafted an amendment to the Second Reform Bill that would give women the same political rights as men. The bill was presented to the parliament in 1867, but did not pass and was defeated by 196 votes to 73. After the women’s suffrage bill was rejected by parliament, many suffragists became increasingly radical and willing to use violence to accomplish their goals.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS)

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was an organization founded in 1897 by women’s suffrage societies around the United Kingdom. The group was led by Millicent Fawcett and its actions to gain votes for women were democratic and non-militant. The motto of the NUWSS was “until we win! We demand the vote”. The NUWSS introduced Parliamentary Bills, spread propaganda in the form of leaflets, and held meetings to promote their aims. In 1914, NUWSS had more than 500 branches throughout the country, and more than 100,000 members.

Therefore, there is no doubt that the NUWSS became the leading moderate suffragist organization, involving thousands of women in the campaign to earn women the right to vote. However, some argue that, although the NUWSS was influential and certainly a significant part of the suffrage movement in the UK and Europe as a whole, their non-radical campaign was only effective to a certain extent.

Black and white image of a march for women's suffrage
The 1913 march for women’s suffrage by the NUWSS in London (hist259.web.unc.edu)

The effectiveness of the NUWSS in gaining the right to vote

The NUWSS failed to successfully achieve the vote through their campaign. The leader of NUWSS – Millicent Fawcett, believed that British women’s involvement in the war efforts during World War I could earn women the respect of men and the government at the time and, as a result, help them gain equal rights to vote. They highlighted the contribution of women during the war, when they worked as nurses, worked in war industries, and supported families of soldiers.

This, however, was not enough to gain the universal right to vote. Only some women gained the right to vote (those who were over 30 and property owners or wives of property owners). This meant that most women whose work during the war played a vital part were completely neglected in the equal right to vote. This infuriated the women and led suffragists to hold a meeting with the Prime Minister to persuade him to change the law. Meanwhile, suffragettes responded with increased violence that led many women to be sent to prison. Despite this, the support for the NUWSS remained. Their actions continued to be publicized in newspapers and some men were more inclined to support the NUWSS rather than the actions of the militant party – the Women’s Social and Political Union.

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was the militant wing of the British woman’s suffrage movement. The members who believed that more militant action was necessary to gain votes for women split from the NUWSS and formed a separate, more radical group. The WSPU was founded on 10 October 1903, in the Pankhurst family home, by Emmeline Pankhurst, along with two of her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, and her husband, Richard. WSPU membership was known for civil disobedience and direct action. Their actions were more radical and they believed that they couldn’t gain votes for women if they acted according to law. The more radical group of women’s suffrage movements became known as the ‘suffragettes’. The first time the term was used, it was meant to ridicule the activists of women’s suffrage. However, the members of the WSPU decided to embrace the term.

With their motto being “deeds, not words”, women from WSPU heckled politicians, held demonstrations and marches, broke the law to force arrests, broke windows in prominent buildings, set fire to post boxes, committed night-time arson of unoccupied houses and churches, and went on hunger strikes if they were arrested and imprisoned. Hunger strikes often lead to force-feeding.

Women's suffrage movement (WSPU) leaders holding a banner saying "votes for women"
Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), c. 1908 (wikipedia.org)

The most radical actions by WSPU

The series of demonstrations and lobbies of the Parliament in 1906 led to the arrests and imprisonment of WSPU members. This gave them national attention. Some of the most extreme actions of the WSPU included bombing and arson. On 19 February 1913, a bomb was set off in the country home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George. In June 1914, a bomb was placed beneath the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey. Earlier, in 1908, suffragettes, such as Edith New, made speeches in Downing Street, where the British Prime Minister lived. She chains herself to the railings to ensure that the police won’t move her on. She was arrested. The suffragettes felt ignored and believed the government did nothing for them to gain the right to vote because women were not considered serious by the government, and their issues were ignored.

As a result, they wanted to highlight the seriousness of their issue and started to introduce more radical actions. Because of this continuation of the more violent tactics used by the suffragettes, many women who participated in the suffrage movement were facing imprisonment. Arrests were reported on local and national news. This showed the importance of the woman’s cause and, essentially, the importance of the right to vote. Meanwhile, constitutional ways to pressure the government to make changes to the law, such as petitions and marches, were easily ignored.

The death of Emily Davidson – an activist who became a martyr to the cause of women’s suffrage

The most radical action by the WSPU took place in June 1913, when one of the members of the WSPU, Emily Davidson, was killed while attempting to drape a suffragette banner on the King’s horse as it was racing in the Epsom Derby. The death of Emily Davidson was ruled ‘accidental’. Evidence suggests that the suffragette did not intend to commit suicide. She was found with a return ticket from Epsom Race Course to Victoria Station, London, helpers pass for the Suffragette Summer festival to be held on the evening of 4th June, a notebook, and a pen. The belongings that she had with her, such as the return ticket indicated that she was planning to return home and did not plan to take her own life. Nevertheless, she became a martyr to the cause of women’s suffrage and her death had a significant impact on how suffragettes were perceived.

Black and white image of the suffragette Emily Davidson being knocked down to the ground by the King's horse in 1913
Suffragette Emily Davidson was kicked to the ground by the King’s horse during the 1913 Epsom Derby (edition.cnn.com)

Introduction of prison hunger strikes by the suffragettes

The continuation of the imprisonment of many of the members of the WSPU led to the introduction of prison hunger strikes in Britain. Suffragettes who had been imprisoned while campaigning for votes for women went on hunger strike and refused to eat and often drink. They threatened to starve themselves to force a response from the authorities. This led many imprisoned suffragettes to be then force-fed. Hunger strikes and force-feeding remain one of the most disturbing aspects of the struggle for women’s right to vote. This radical practice was previously only used in what was then called “mental asylums”, and was first introduced in prisons by suffragettes.

Black and white photgraph of a sufraggette being force-fed in prison
A suffragette being force-fed in Holloway prison, circa 1911 (wikipedia.org)

The introduction of the “Cat and Mouse Act” and its impact on women’s suffrage in the UK

The authorities introduced the policy of force-feeding to prevent death due to malnourishment. However, the introduction of this practice has made the public only sympathize more with the suffragettes. As a result of this, the government later passed the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913. This became commonly known as the “Cat and Mouse Act”.

The “Cat and Mouse Act” allowed the release of suffragettes who were close to death while enduring the hunger strike only to re-imprison them again once they were healthy. According to research, the act did not do much to deter the activities of the Suffragettes.

Poster created by suffragettes in 1914 in relation to the introduction of the new law
WSPU poster 1914 (wikipedia.org)

The effectiveness of the WSPU and the NUWSS in gaining the right to vote

The suffragettes’ militant and radical campaign certainly raised awareness of the importance of the issue. It also highlighted the overall gender inequality in British society at the time. It seemed that the government did become more serious about passing the bill that would give women the right to vote after their more violent campaign. However, some believe that the increasing violence of the suffragettes led to a lot of negative attitudes towards them. This, in turn, led to less support for women’s right to vote. This effect was reflected in Parliament. From 1911 onwards, each time the issue of women’s right to vote was raised, there was a bigger majority against it instead of for it. Thus, the violence of the suffragettes can be perceived as damaging to their own cause.

On the other hand, the suffragist movement existed long before and has only achieved empty promises from MPs. Suffragists worked hard to persuade the government to change the law and realize the lack of gender equality in terms of political voting as well as in many other areas of life in Britain at the time. Victorian women were disadvantaged financially and sexually and were unequal to men in education, marriage, and society as a whole. The suffragists played a significant role in bringing these issues to the government’s and men’s awareness.

The conflict within the women’s suffrage movement

As the suffragette campaign was becoming increasingly militant, some suffragists became less supportive of the violence. They believed that it was only harming the perception of the government toward women. Thus, smashing windows, for example, would only put off the MPs and harm the reputation of the women’s suffrage movement. This has caused some tension between the two groups, which did not help the cause.

Cultural significance of women’s suffrage movement in the UK

The women’s suffrage movement had a significant impact on gender equality. The influence has been obvious within political, financial, educational, and wider social spheres in the UK and around the world. The movement grew out of the injustice and was the beginning of a more equal society. People’s attitudes toward women dramatically changed due to the women’s war effort during World War I and due to the campaigns for women’s suffrage. It encouraged women to fight for their rights and has impacted perceptions of men toward women, leading to support of men in the women’s right to vote.

Furthermore, it impacted the feminist movement in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and highlighted the gender inequality within British culture. Despite a lot of progress, there is still some gender inequality within the film industry, music industry, and art industry overall. Even today, over a hundred years later, women who advocate for fairer job opportunities, equal wages, education, sex education, and birth control, look up to suffragettes from the Victorian era who struggled to gain their right to vote. This illustrates the huge role of the women’s suffrage movement in British society and culture.

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