Suffragism, Sufragists and suffragettes – the movement which changed the world for both women and men

Suffragism was the beginning of the feminist movement and suffragettes were the first modern feminists.

Famous Suffragists and suffragettes:

Susan B. Anthony, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, began working to establish women’s right to vote in the mid-1800s. Unfortunately, Anthony never saw the impact of her efforts—the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, was passed on August 26, 1920, more than a decade after Anthony’s death—but her activism remains one of the most important stories in women’s history. Explore this group to learn more about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and other leading suffragettes, including Sojourner Truth, Ida B. WellsAlice Paul, Dorothy Day, Amelia Bloomer and Jeannette Rankin.



United States


The most famous suffragist is Emmeline Pankhurst.

The nineteenth century was a time of social revolution. Social classes came into conflict across Europe as people realised that they were entitled to more than society was prepared to give them. The women’s movement was no different. In the late 1800’s women realized that they too deserved more; they wanted to be considered equals in society.

Middle and upper class women started making public speeches demanding Women’s Suffrage – the right to vote alongside men – but as the movement progressed some women decided to become more militant. This escalated tension, as well as demonstrating their devotion to the cause. Dubbed ‘Suffragettes’ their revolutionary ideas encouraged many women and some men to devote themselves wholeheartedly to the cause.

The success of the Suffragettes’ movement was one that can be attributed to its leaders. A number of strong individuals organised, drove change and eventually realised their hopes of equal rights. These great minds provided the impetus the revolution needed. Among these demonstrators were Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, Annie Kenney, Constance Lytton, and Emily Davison. These women, along with many others across the United Kingdom, united to fight for women’s rights.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), of Manchester, was one of the leading women’s rights activists of her time.  She led the movement that eventually allowed women to gain the right to vote.  She was married to Richard Pankhurst, who was a lawyer and a supporter of the Suffragettes.  He supported Emmeline in her revolution and together they fought against the strictures of Victorian Society.  Richard’s death in 1898 took Emmeline by surprise, but she carried on towards accomplishing her goals of suffrage. Emmeline founded the women’s franchise league, which allowed married women to vote in local elections in 1889.


Emmeline helped found the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. This union proved to be almost too militant for its own good. Emmeline actively led this group – of newly named Suffragettes – on many protests. Many of these protests were followed by imprisonment and hunger strikes. Emmeline was arrested many times and herself participated in the strikes. Notoriously, the hunger strikes lead to force feeding of the women within the prisons.  These graphic police tactics shocked many members of the public, offended by their use in a civilised society. It was later outlawed under the Cat and Mouse Act of 1913.

Emmeline Pankhurst was a remarkable woman who put all of her efforts into her cause. Yet, when the Great War broke out in August 1914 she – like many Suffragettes – decided to turn her energies towards the war effort. A few years after the war women were granted the right to vote.  Emmeline had lived to see the day. She died ten years later in 1928, still fighting for women’s rights.

Christabel Pankhurst


Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958) was the daughter of Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst.  Christabel was one of the most vociferous members of the Suffragette movement.  She was born in Manchester, where her father’s radical social views influenced her greatly.  Her surroundings and upbringing played a large part in forming her early political and social views. In 1901 she was introduced to the views of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society. Christabel thought that their views were intriguing, but felt that they needed to be more aggressive in their cause. Verbal arguments were not enough to promote the kind of change that Christabel wanted to pursue.

With many influences around her, no one shaped her like her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst.  Together they were also founder members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903.  She was arrested, with Annie Kenney, for interrupting a meeting of the Liberal Party.  The Suffragettes were imprisoned.  Christabel was arrested many times and even left the country to escape further imprisonment in 1912.  In 1906 she was awarded a law degree from Manchester University.  She then moved to London, and was named the organizing secretary of the WSPU.

Christabel helped form the goals of the Union: it was necessary to become disruptive in order to achive lasting change. New tactics were agreed, including stone throwing, the breaking of shop windows using hammers secreted in handbags, arson and attacking politicians. Her efforts against the state were unceasing, although, like her mother, she supported the war in 1914.  After the war she continued her efforts. Today she is regarded as a model for suffrage movements all over the world.

Annie Kenney

Annie Kenney (1879-1953) was compared by WT Stead to Joan of Arc, and Josephine Butler described her as: “A woman of refinement and of delicacy of manner and of speech. Her physique is slender, and she is intensively nervous and high strung. She vibrates like a harp string to every story of oppression.”

Annie was born near Oldham and worked in a local cotton mill. In 1905 her sisters convinced her to go to a meeting where Christabel Pankhurst was speaking about women’s suffrage.  Annie promised Christabel that she would bring along women from the factory to have a meeting. The meeting turned out to be a great success.

Annie joined the WPSU in 1905 and her involvement only grew from then on. She attended a Liberal rally with Christabel Pankhurst at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, where the two ladies were going to ask Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey what they would do for women’s suffrage.  When there was no reply they released a banner that said “Votes for Women”. They were kicked out of the meeting and then arrested and charged with assault.

Throughout the movement she was charged with many offences and participated in the hunger strikes, which she never fully recovered from. When Christabel went to France to escape imprisonment in 1912, Annie was put in charge of the WSPU.  Annie saw Christabel as a great leader and heroine and imitated her activities for women’s suffrage until her death in 1953.

Lady Constance Lytton

Constance Lytton (1869-1923) was a Suffragette activist, writer, speaker and campaigner for prison reform, votes for women and birth control. The daughter of Lord Lytton, Constance came from the British aristocracy. In order not to receive special treatment she worked under an alias, Jane Warton. This allowed her avoid charges that she was part of the elite and gave her the opportunity to be an activist with no special privileges.

In 1909 she became a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). In 1911 she was imprisoned in Holloway Prison and went on hunger strike.  Her identity was discovered by the prison authorities and she was released. Enraged by this, she criticized the decision by writing to the Daily Liverpool Post. Like most Suffragettes, she was imprisoned many times and was involved in self mutilation and hunger strikes.

Constance wrote about all of her experiences and publicised them in several newspapers. This contributed to the growth of the suffrage campaign and allowed it to reach more potential activists. Lady Constance died at the early age of 54. Partly because of her involvement in the hunger strikes she never fully regained her health.

Emily Davison 

Emily Davison (1872-1913) was born in Blackheath, South London. She studied at Oxford University, although women were not allowed to receive degrees at that time. In 1906 she joined the WSPU and gave up her job to devote herself to the Suffragette movement.  She was arrested on many occasions and in 1909 was jailed in Strangeways Prison in Manchester, where she promptly went on hunger strike. She became a very militant Suffragette.

In 1913, Emily stepped into the path of the King’s Horse during the Epsom Derby and attempted to catch its reins as it passed.  She was badly injured from the collision and died from her injuries on 8 June. Her purpose was not clear, but she did cross boundaries in order to demonstrate her devotion to the cause and allowed others to see the seriousness of the Suffragettes.

Black Friday 1910

The Suffragettes carried out several demonstrations to support their cause during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The acts were designed to widen understanding of their cause and demonstrate their absolute devotion. The first Suffragette protest involving the Metropolitan Police, known as Black Friday, was held at Westminster in 1910. 300 Suffragettes and 6,000 policemen were present at the protest. Many women were arrested and assaulted during this day of action. They were protesting Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s decision to shelve the so-called Conciliation Bill. This bill aimed to extend the vote to over one million land owning women in Britain. Many women were outraged and the Women’s Social and Political Union took direct action.

The women of the WSPU chained themselves to railings, smashed windows and disrupted public meetings. The women’s Union was unpopular at the time and over 200 protesters were arrested. Others were assaulted and viciously manhandled by a large crowd of onlookers. As a result of Black Friday, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was forced to promise a bill devoted to women’s suffrage. It would be David Lloyd George, Asquith’s successor as Prime Minister, who would eventually introduce women’s suffrage legislation.

The Cat and Mouse Act

The Prisoners Act of 1913, also known as the Cat and Mouse Act, was an Act of Parliament, passed by Herbert Asquiths’s Liberal government, that outlawed force feeding in prisons.  The Act allowed those on hunger strike to be temporarily discharged from prison for illness, and then re-imprisoned when they regained their health. The Liberal government’s aim with the Act was to suppress the Women’s Social and Political Union as a threat to society. Yet the Act was difficult to enforce: the police found it hard to re-arrest those who were pardoned from prison as suffragettes would either leave Britain or go into hiding.

The Act was referred to as the Cat and Mouse Act because it was thought that the police were playing with the Suffragettes much like a cat plays with a mouse. The Act caused profound WSPU resentment toward Prime Minister Asquith. The Prisoners Act did little to deter the Suffragettes from their activities. One year later, in 1914, the First World War broke out and most women devoted themselves to their country in its time of need. This put a temporary halt to the Suffragette movement, but they would prevail in their efforts years later.

The Representation of the People Act 1918

After the war ended in November 1918 the Representation of the People Act was overwhelmingly passed in the House of Commons.  This act gave women with property, over the age of thirty, the right to vote. This was a conservative start but it was a milestone in the campaign to gain suffrage for women. Its passing was enabled by public recognition of the great work women had carried out during the Great War. This epic win for the Suffragettes snowballed into further future women’s rights measures.

The legacy of the Suffragettes is still evident today through the struggle for equal rights.  Even though much has been overcome up to the present day, there is still room for improvement in equal rights.  In 2012 activist Helen Pankhurst is still campaigning for the platforms of her great grandmother Emmeline Pankhurst.

Women’s rights have come a long way over the last one hundred years and are still evolving. The Suffragettes of the early twentieth century shaped today’s society and their impact on equal rights legislation persists, now and for the future.

Women’s movement during the 19th century

In the nineteenth century women had no place in national politics. They could not stand as candidates for Parliament. They were not even allowed to vote. It was assumed that women did not need the vote because their husbands would take responsibility in political matters. A woman’s role was seen to be child-rearing and taking care of the home.

As a result of the industrial revolution many women were in full-time employment, which meant they had opportunities to meet in large organized groups to discuss political and social issues.

Organized campaigns for women’s suffrage began to appear in 1866 and from 1888 women could vote in many local council elections. When parliamentary reform has been debated in 1867, John Stuart Mill proposed an amendment that would have given the vote to women on the same terms as men but it was rejected by 194 votes to 73. The campaign gained momentum after this.

Nineteenth century feminists talked about “The Cause”. This described a movement for women’s rights generally. It had no particular political focus. But by the close of the century the issue of the vote became the focus of women’s struggle for equality.

The movement to gain votes for women had two wings, the suffragists and the suffragettes.

The suffragists had their origins in the mid nineteenth century, while the suffragettes came into being in 1903.

The Suffragists

In 1897, various local women’s suffrage societies formed the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett. The NUWSS wanted the vote for middle class property-owning women. They believed they would achieve their end using peaceful tactics – non-violent demonstrations, petitions and the lobbying of MPs. Fawcett believed that if the organisation was seen to be intelligent, polite and law-abiding then women would prove themselves responsible enough to participate fully in politics.

The leadership of the suffragists was exclusively middle class but some of the more radical members recognised early on that the movement needed the support of working class women. The issue of the franchise was drawing women of various sections of society together and giving them an identity which they had lacked until that time.

By 1900 there was already evidence that many Members of Parliament had been won over. Several Bills in favour of women’s suffrage gained considerable support in Parliament, though not enough to pass. Some believed it was only a matter of time until women would gain the vote.

At the end of 19 th century due to the inequality between women and men, men had the right to vote while women didn´t.
Only a few countries of the north of Europe and New Zeeland had accepted the women right to vote
“We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”

She was born in 1858, and she founded The Women’s Franchise League, promoted not only the breaking of the law but also hunger strikes in female prisons.

In 1881, the Isle of Man gave women who owned property the right to vote. In 1893, the British colony of New Zealand, granted women the right to vote. The colony of South Australia did the same in 1894 and women were able to vote in the next election, which was held in 1895. South Australia also permitted women to stand for election alongside men. In 1899 Western Australia enacted full women’s suffrage, enabling women to vote in the constitutional referendum of 31 July 1900 and the 1901 state and federal elections. In 1902 women in the remaining four colonies also acquired the right to vote and stand in federal elections after the six Australian colonies federated to become the Commonwealth of Australia. Discriminatory restrictions against Aboriginal people, including women, voting in national elections, were not completely removed until 1962.

The first European country to introduce women’s suffrage was the Grand Duchy of Finland, then part of the Russian Empire, which elected the world’s first women Members of Parliament in the 1907 parliamentary elections. Norway followed, granting full women’s suffrage in 1913.

In Romania, starting in 1929, women who met certain qualifications were allowed to vote in local elections. After the Constitution from 1938, the voting rights were extended to women for general elections by the Electoral Law 1939. Women could vote on equal terms with men, but both men and women had restrictions, and in practice the restrictions affected women more than men. In 1946, full equal voting rights were granted to men and women.
Feminism in the 19th-century
19th-century feminists reacted to cultural inequities including the pernicious, widespread acceptance of the Victorian image of women.
Was an statistician who founded modern nursing and tried to reform the society.
Florence Nightingale

The suffragettes

The suffragettes, a name given to them by the newspaper The Daily Mail, were born out of the suffragist movement. Emmeline Pankhurst, who had been a member of the Manchester suffragist group, had grown impatient with the middle class, respectable, gradualist tactics of the NUWSS. In 1903 she decided to break with the NUWSS and set up a separate society. This became known as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

suffragettes christabel pankhurst

Mrs Pankhurst believed it would take an active organisation, with young working class women, to draw attention to the cause. The motto of the suffragettes was deeds not words and from 1912 onwards they became more militant and violent in their methods of campaign. Law-breaking, violence and hunger strikes all became part of this society’s campaign tactics.

In 1907 the Women’s Social and Political Union itself split into two groups after Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel came into conflict with other members of the WSPU’s executive body. Those who left formed the Women’s Freedom League, while the Pankhursts and their supporters established an even tighter grip on the workings of the WSPU.

The three groups disagreed over tactics but their message was consistent and they regularly worked together. Despite opposition, the argument for women’s suffrage seemed to be winning support. By 1909 the WSPU had branches all over the country and published a newspaper called Votes for Women which sold 20,000 copies each week. The NUWSS was also flourishing, with a rising membership and an efficient nation-wide organisation.

The rough treatment of many suffragettes arrested and jailed during the course of their protests also won the suffrage cause increasing sympathy and support from the public. The commendable behaviour of the suffrage movement during the war – suspending their protests for the sake of national unity – also proved that the women were far from unreasonable.

Summary of the suffrage movement

Historians debate the effectiveness of the different groups in the struggle for women’s suffrage. Some modern historians argue that the influence of NUWSS has not been given enough credit. Membership of this organisation remained high throughout the period. Many women who became alienated from the suffragettes because of their militancy switched allegiance to the suffragists.

Even more controversial is the role of the WSPU. At the time, and ever since, there have been divisions of opinion: some argue that its activities were critical in keeping The Cause high on the political agenda; others believe that its violent tactics actually delayed votes for women by its “irresponsibility” in attacking private property.

When World War I broke out in 1914 the whole suffrage movement immediately scaled down and even suspended some of their activities in the face of a greater threat to the nation.

On 4 June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison travelled to Epsom Downs to watch the Derby, carrying two suffrage flags – one rolled tight in her hand, the other wrapped around her body, hidden beneath her coat. She waited at Tattenham Corner as the horses streamed past, then squeezed through the railings and made an apparent grab for the reins of the king’s horse, Anmer. In the Manchester Guardian in the next day, an eyewitness reported: “The horse fell on the woman and kicked out furiously”. News footage shows racegoers surging on to the track to find out what had happened.

Davison suffered a fractured skull and internal bleeding, and as hate mail against her poured in to the hospital, she remained unconscious. She died four days later. Thousands of suffragettes turned out on the London streets dressed in white, bearing laurel wreaths for her funeral. They marched four abreast behind purple banners, urging them all to fight on.

There has always been speculation about Davison’s intentions. The return train ticket she was carrying, for instance, offered as evidence that she didn’t mean to die. But there’s no doubt she was prepared to make dangerous sacrifices for women’s rights. As Fran Abrams writes in her book Freedom’s Cause, Davison had been imprisoned repeatedly for her suffrage work, had gone on hunger strike and been force fed numerous times.

In 1912, when she and a large number of other suffragettes were imprisoned in Holloway, there was what Davison referred to as a siege – the doors of women’s cells were broken down by guards – and she determined that one big tragedy might save her sisters. Davison threw herself over a balcony, was caught by some netting, then immediately tried again, launching herself down an iron staircase. This led to two cracked vertebrae, and a thwack to the head, but the authorities were unmoved. She and the other women continued to be force-fed, regularly and brutally.

In a movement defined by acts of daring, Davison’s bravery was extraordinary. A hundred years later, votes for women are long since won in most countries – though not all – and the feminist revolution continues. Campaigners worldwide fight for equal political representation, an end to women’s poverty, freedom from sexual violence, control over our own bodies, and – ultimately – for that most basic, yet radical, demand: for women to be treated as human beings. A century after Davison’s funeral programme declared “She died for women,” what can today’s feminists learn from the suffragettes?

Demands of the suffragettes


Find your voice, and use it

The dearth of women in public life today is often attributed to a lack of confidence, and the suffragettes sometimes struggled with this too. Margaret Wynne Nevinson, an avid campaigner, once wrote she felt a “dizzy sickness of terror” the first time she stood up to speak publicly, outside a gasworks in south London in 1906. There were shouts of derision as hundreds of men crowded around her, and she almost succumbed to stage fright before hearing a voice whisper: “Go it, old gal, you’re doing fine, give it ’em.”

This echoes the recollections of Kitty Marion, an actor as well as a suffragette. The first time she sold the Votes for Women newspaper in Piccadilly Circus, Marion wrote, “I felt as if every eye that looked at me was a dagger piercing me through and I wished the ground would open up and swallow me. However, that feeling wore off and I developed into quite a champion.”

Sweetness is overrated

Women were bound by feminine ideals at the start of the last century – expected to be submissive, nurturing, self-effacing – and we still are today. The suffragettes weren’t having it. As Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the militant suffragettes, once said, “We threw away all our conventional notions of what was ‘ladylike’ and ‘good form’, and we applied to our methods the one test question: will it help?”

This was echoed by Fred Pethick-Lawrence, who fought strongly for women’s votes alongside his wife – who was also called Emmeline. In his 1911 book, Women’s Fight for the Vote, he offered a rallying cry. “Nothing has done more to retard the progress of the human race than the exaltation of submission into a high and noble virtue,” he wrote. “It may often be expedient to submit; it may even sometimes be morally right to do so in order to avoid a greater evil; but submission is not inherently beautiful – it is generally cowardly and frequently morally wrong.”

Take strength from the haters

Anyone who writes about feminism online knows there can be a nasty response, and the suffragettes received hate mail too. In Joyce Marlow’s essential anthology, Votes for Women, from which many of these recollections are taken, she includes a letter sent to Hugh Franklin, a male suffrage activist, which has a strikingly familiar tone. “We would give you and old Mother Pankhurst (the fossil-worm) Five Years Penal Servitude and then burn you both together. YOU ARE A DIRTY TYKE AND DANGEROUS MADMAN.” (All emphases the writer’s own.)

But it wasn’t just hate mail they had to contend with. Rats would be let loose into suffrage meetings, while rotten eggs and fish were pelted at the women. Nevinson once wrote that they kept their eyesight largely as a result of the huge hats that were then fashionable, the wide brims saving them “from hard missiles and the cayenne pepper blown at us from bellows”.

Their detractors were often very powerful. Winston Churchill described the militant movement as a “copious fountain of mendacity”, while Arthur Conan Doyle opted for “female hooligans”. The only useful response was to take strength from the insults. The current deputy editor of the New Statesman, Helen Lewis, has written that today “the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism”, which mirrors Rebecca West’s reflections on events of a century ago. “The real force that made the suffrage movement was the quality of the opposition,” wrote West. “Women, listening to anti-suffrage speeches, for the first time knew what many men really thought of them.”

Accept that those haters will include other women

In a male-dominated society, women are often brought up to identify with men, to see men’s views and rights as paramount, and so it’s not surprising that many women oppose their own liberation. In the suffrage era the most prominent was Queen Victoria, who once wrote a letter stating she was “anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad wicked folly of ‘Woman’s Rights’, with all its attendant horrors, on which [my] poor sex is bent”.

There were a number of thriving anti-suffrage groups, including the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage, run by one Mrs Frederic Harrison, who stated: “Women have to destroy a women’s movement.” It rarely feels right to celebrate female failure, but in Harrison’s case let’s make an exception.

Fortune favours the brave

After a meeting of 30,000 suffragettes in 1906, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence said she had “never met anyone so fearless as were these young girls. I never saw a suffragette, under menace of violence, otherwise than cool and collected.”

Such bravery was necessary, as the women often faced serious violence. On 18 November 1910, for instance, a date which became known as Black Friday, Emmeline Pankhurst led 300 women to the House of Commons in a peaceful protest. There, they were met by police, and reported being beaten and sexually assaulted. One woman, quoted in Marlow’s anthology, said: “Constables and plain-clothes men who were in the crowd passed their arms round me from the back and clutched hold of my breasts in as public a manner as possible, and men in the crowd followed their example … My skirt was lifted up as high as possible, and the constable attempted to lift me off the ground by raising his knee. This he could not do, so he threw me into the crowd and incited the men to treat me as he wished.” She later had to seek medical attention for the bruising on her chest.

Over the course of the militant campaign, around 1,000 suffragettes were imprisoned in the UK, and many went on hunger strike and had to contend with the torturous process of force feeding. In 1913, the Cat and Mouse Act was brought in, a cruel law which meant suffragettes could hunger strike to the point of emaciation, be let out of prison to recover, recalled to serve a little more of their sentence, on and on, until the term was served.
The suffragettes kept going, despite the opposition and immediate consequences. Abrams describes a London action in the early 1910s when, “on two separate days, at a preordained time and with no warning, hundreds of smartly dressed women from Oxford Street to Whitehall, all along Piccadilly and Bond Street, produced hammers … and laid waste to hundreds of square feet of shop frontage.” Emmeline Pankhurst was one of 220 protesters arrested. Modern feminists might balk at some of the suffragettes’ more destructive actions, but their audacity is inspiring.

Christabel Pankhurst at Trafalgar Square, 1908. Photograph: Mary Evans Picture Library

Publicity is power

The suffragettes were a creative whirlwind, constantly devising new ways to catch the attention of politicians and the public. On one occasion, two women posted themselves as human letters to Downing Street; on another, suffragettes boarded a boat, and sailed towards the terrace of parliament, where 800 people had gathered for tea. Once in clear view, they unveiled two banners, the first with details of their upcoming demonstration, the second stating: “Cabinet ministers especially invited.”

A report in the Daily Express, in 1909, told of the young suffragette Miss Muriel Matters, who “sailed aloft from Hendon in the diminutive basket of a cigar-shaped dirigible balloon, for the very latest thing in suffragist dashes to Westminster”. Matters dropped leaflets as she flew, finally returning to earth near Croydon, helped “by a friendly though rather startled farmer”.

The suffragettes staged a census boycott in 1911, during which women stayed out all night, on the basis: “If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted.” Some took to Wimbledon Common in horse-drawn caravans, others spent the night rollerskating around the Aldwych Rinkeries – the venue was kept open especially – and Davison hid herself in a broom cupboard in the House of Commons, with a small picnic of lime juice and meat lozenges. (Many years later, Tony Benn secretly put up a plaque in this cupboard, in tribute to Davison’s extraordinary contribution to democracy.)

If you’re trying to create a popular movement, you obviously need to be popular, and the suffragettes were: an estimated half a million people attended their Hyde Park demonstration in 1908. It was the publicity campaigns and the strength of the central message that brought them there, as well as the fact that being a suffragette must have looked exciting, a revolutionary approach to female life. There’s often tension today between those who deliver feminism with humour and those who prefer unfiltered anger – the suffragettes showed that both are necessary.

Strength through solidarity

There were often major splits in the suffrage movement but there was also enough solidarity to keep the mission afloat. One strong example arose in 1906, when Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the leader of the non-militant side of the movement, wrote to the Times in support of the militants. “I take this opportunity of saying that in my opinion,” she wrote, “far from having injured the movement, they have done more during the last 12 months to bring it within the realms of practical politics than we have been able to accomplish in the same number of years.” It was a generous statement from the woman whose conscientious campaigning, over the course of many years, is often credited with being the essential force in the fight for the vote.

Many of the suffragettes also recognised that women could be oppressed by factors beyond their sex, and went to great lengths to support their sisters. For instance, when Lady Constance Lytton was imprisoned in 1909, and quickly released, she was determined to expose the fact that working class suffragettes had faced much more brutal treatment than her. She therefore disguised herself as Jane Warton, a seamstress, travelled to Liverpool and staged a protest; she was imprisoned and force fed eight times, proving her point. This experience did her health no favours, and she went on to suffer a heart attack in 1910 and a series of strokes, but wasn’t deterred. Lytton’s dedication was such that she once carved a large “V” for “votes” into her own breast, and she continued to campaign for the suffrage cause until her death in 1923.

Never give up

Many feminsts today complain of burnout and fatigue over problems that seem to stretch ahead intractably. The suffragettes must have felt the same at times. Histories often focus on the last 20 years or so of the struggle, but women fought for the vote for more than a century, with Mary Wollstonecraft helping to kick off the campaign in 1792, in Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with a reference to the need for women’s political representation. Forty years later, in 1832, the first petition for the women’s vote was presented to the Commons, and over the course of the next century campaigners kept up the pressure – reinventing and re-energising their fight, and passing the baton from woman to woman. They were finally granted the vote on the same terms as men in 1928.

Accept victory – nothing else

There are often arguments today about who should represent feminism, but the suffrage fight suggests we need the whole spectrum: the rabble-rousers, theorists, dogged campaigners, sympathetic politicians, those whose wit draws women to the cause, those whose anger keeps them motivated, and those who quietly, conscientiously chip away at issues that make others give up in despair. We need those who refuse to see any conceivable option but victory. Women like the one who wrote to the Daily Telegraph in 1913. “Sir, Everyone seems to agree upon the necessity of putting a stop to Suffragist outrages; but no one seems certain how to do so. There are two, and only two, ways in which this can be done. Both will be effectual. 1. Kill every woman in the United Kingdom. 2. Give women the vote. Yours truly, Bertha Brewster.”

Fashion, feminism and politics has always been heated territory, and the suffragettes knew this and they used it for their cause. Instead of deploying a strategy of resistance by refusal, they chose resistance through reversal. They sought to effect change not by challenging contemporary fashion and ideals of femininity, but by conforming to them. Haunted by the stereotypical image of the “strong-minded woman” in masculine clothes, pebble-thick glasses and galoshes created by cartoonists, they chose instead to present a fashionable, feminine image.

The suffragettes took care to “appeal to the eye” – particularly when in full glare of media attention on parade or demonstrating. In 1908, one of their newspapers, Votes for Women, declared: “The suffragette of today is dainty and precise in her dress.” Five years later, sellers of the Suffragette were requested to “dress themselves in their smartest clothes”.

Watch the movie



Sources :





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.