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Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom

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WSPU poster, by Hilda Dallas 1909

Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom as a national movement began in 1872. Women were not formally prohibited from voting in the United Kingdom until the 1832 Reform Act and the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act. Both before and after 1832 establishing women's suffrage on some level was a political topic, although it would not be until 1872 that it would become a national movement with the formation of the National Society for Women's Suffrage and later the more influential National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. Little victory was achieved in this constitutional campaign in its earlier years up to around 1905. It was at this point that the militant campaign began with the formation of the Women's Social and Political Union.

The outbreak of the First World War led to a halting of almost all campaigning, but some argue that it was the competence of women war workers that led to the extension of the franchise to single women over the age of 30 in 1918; providing they were householders, married to a housholder or if they held a university degree. . Universal suffrage for all adults over 21 years of age was not achieved until 1928.

Women had the franchise in local government, school boards (see London School Board), and health authorities from the late nineteenth century. Their successes in these areas contributed to their acquiring parliamentary suffrage.


  • 1818 - Jeremy Bentham advocates female suffrage in his book "A Plan for Parliamentary Reform"
  • 1832 – Great Reform Act - confirmed the exclusion of women from the electorate.
  • 1851 - The Sheffield Female Political Association is founded and submits a petition calling for women's suffrage to the House of Lords.
  • 1865 – John Stuart Mill elected as an MP showing direct support for women's suffrage.
  • 1867 – Second Reform Act - Male franchise extended to 2.5 million
  • 1883 – Conservative Primrose League formed.
  • 1884 - Third Reform Act - Male electorate doubled to 5 million
  • 1889 - Women's Franchise League established.
  • 1894 – Local Government Act (women who owned property could vote in local elections, become Poor Law Guardians, act on School Boards)
  • 1897 – NUWSS formed (led by Millicent Fawcett).
  • October 1903 – First meeting of WSPU (led by Emmeline Pankhurst)
  • 1905 – Militancy began ( Christabel Pankhurst interrupted a Liberal Party meeting and spat at a policeman).
  • February 1907 – NUWSS " Mud March (Suffragists)" – largest open air demonstration ever held (at that point)- over 3000 women took part In this year, women were admitted to the register to vote in and stand for election to, principal local authorities.
  • 1908 - in November of this year, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, a member of the small municipal borough of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, was selected as mayor of that town, the first woman so to serve.
  • 1907, 1912, 1914 – major splits in WSPU
  • 1905, 1908, 1913 – 3 phases of WSPU militancy (Civil Disobedience – Destruction of Public Property – Arson/Bombings)
  • 5 July 1909 – Marion Wallace Dunlop went on the first hunger strike – was released after 91 hours of fasting
  • September 1909 – Force feeding introduced to resistors in prisons
  • 1910 – Lady Constance Lytton disguised herself as a working class seamstress, Jane Wharton, and was arrested and endured force feeding to prove prejudice in prisons against working class women. Lady Lytton was instrumental in reforming conditions in prisons. The force feeding probably shortened her life considerably
  • February 1910 – Cross-Party Conciliation Committee (54 MPs). Conciliation Bill (that would enfranchise women) passed its 2nd reading by a majority of 109 but Asquith refused to give it more parliamentary time
  • November 1910 – Herbert Henry Asquith changed Bill to enfranchise more men instead of women
  • 18 November 1910 – Black Friday
  • October 1912 - George Lansbury, Labour MP, resigned his seat in support of women's suffrage
  • February 1913 – David Lloyd George's house burned down by WSPU (he had previously supported the movement in private – but it wasn't until after the war he could justify his support for votes for women).)
  • April 1913 – Cat and Mouse Act passed, allowing hunger-striking prisoners to be released when their health was threatened and then re-arrested when they had recovered
  • 4 June 1913 – Emily Davison walked in front of, and was subsequently trampled and killed by, the King’s Horse at the Epsom Derby.
  • 13 March 1914 – Mary Richardson slashed the Rokeby Venus painted by Diego Velázquez in the National Gallery with an axe, protesting that she was maiming a beautiful woman just as the government was maiming Emmeline Pankhurst with force feeding
  • 4 August 1914 – First World War declared in Britain. WSPU activity immediately ceased. NUWSS activity continued peacefully - The Birmingham branch of the organization continued to lobby Parliament and write letters to MPs.
  • 1918 – The Representation of the People Act of 1918 enfranchised all women over the age of 30. This was probably so that women would not outnumber men in the voting process and most women over 30 were married so it was hoped they would vote as their husbands told them to. Equally, the Liberal government hoped that women over 30 would be more responsible with their votes; as a result those who worked hardest for the vote in factories in the War were subsequently denied it.
  • 1928 – Women received the vote on equal terms as men (over the age of 21) as a result of the Representation of the People Act 1928

The seed of political feminism


The following quote may serve to vividly portray the environment within which political feminism arose in the United Kingdom. This passage is excerpted from a treatise on international commercial law from a section describing conditions under which a person may be considered unfit to enter into a commercial contract. Following the discussion of individuals unfit due to "want of understanding" - covering minors as well as "lunatics and drunkards" is a heading covering individuals unfit due to "want of free-will": married women.

By marriage, the personal identity of the woman is lost. Her person is completely sunk in that of her husband, and he acquires an absolute mastery over her person and effects. Hence her complete disability to contract legal obligations; and except in the event of separation by divorce, or other causes, a married woman in the United Kingdom cannot engage in trade.

Leone Levi, International Commercial Law, 1863

Early political movement

Both before and after the 1832 Reform Act there were people who advocated that women should have the right to vote. After the Reform Act's enactment the MP Henry Hunt argued that any woman who was single, a tax payer and had sufficient property should be allowed to vote. One such wealthy woman, Mary Smith, was used in this speech as an example.

Lily Maxwell was the first woman to vote in Britain in 1867 after the Great Reform Act of 1832. The act had explicitly excluded all women from the voting in national elections by using the term "male" rather than "person" in its wording. Maxwell, a shop owner, met the property qualifications that otherwise would have made her eligible to vote had she been male. In error, however, her name had been added to the election register and on that basis she succeeded in voting in a by-election - her vote however was later declared illegal by the Court of Common Pleas. The case, however, gave women's suffrage campaigners great publicity.

The Chartist Movement, which began in the late 1830s, has also been suggested to have included supporters of female suffrage. There is some evidence to suggest William Lovett, one of the authors of the People's Charter wished to include female suffrage as one of the campaign's demands but chose not to on the grounds that this would delay the implementation of the charter. Although there were female Chartists, they largely worked toward universal manhood suffrage. It must be noted that at this time most women did not have aspirations to gain the vote.

Outside pressure for women's suffrage was at this time diluted by feminist issues in general. Women's rights were becoming increasingly prominent in the 1850s as some women in higher social spheres refused to obey the sex roles dictated to them. Feminist goals at this time included the right to sue an ex-husband after divorce (achieved in 1857) and the right for married women to own property (fully achieved in 1882 after some concession by the government in 1870).

The issue of parliamentary reform declined along with the Chartists after 1848 and only reemerged with the election of John Stuart Mill in 1865. He ran for office showing direct support for female suffrage and was an MP in the run up to the second Reform Act.

Early suffragist societies

In the same year that John Stuart Mill was elected, the first Ladies Discussion Society was formed, debating whether women should be involved in public affairs. Although a society for suffrage was proposed, this was turned down on the grounds that it might be taken over by extremists.

However, later that year Leigh Smith Bodichon formed the first Women's Suffrage Committee and within a fortnight collected 1,500 signatures in favour of female suffrage in advance to the second Reform Bill.

The Manchester Suffrage Committee was founded in February 1867. The secretary, Lydia Becker, wrote letters both to Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and to The Spectator. She was also involved with the London group, and organized the collection of more signatures.

However, in June the London group split, partly a result of party allegiance, and partly the result of tactical issues. Conservative members wished to move slowly to avoid alarming public opinion, while Liberals generally opposed this apparent dilution of political conviction. As a result, Helen Taylor founded the London National Society for Women's Suffrage which set up strong links with Manchester and Edinburgh.

Although these early splits left the movement divided and sometimes leaderless, it allowed Lydia Becker to have a stronger influence.

The formation of a national movement

Women's political groups

A handbill complaining about sexual discrimination during the movement.

Although women's political party groups were not formed with the aim to achieve women's suffrage, they did have two key effects. Firstly, they showed women who were members to be competent in the political arena and as this became clear, secondly, it brought the concept of female suffrage closer to acceptance.

The Primrose League

The Primrose League was set up to promote Conservative values through social events and supporting the community. As women were able to join, this gave females of all classes the ability to mix with local and national political figures. Many also had important roles such as bringing voters to the polls. This removed segregation and promoted political literacy amongst women.

The Women's Liberal Associations

Although there is evidence to suggest that they were originally formed to promote female franchise (the first being in Bristol in 1881), WLAs often did not hold such an agenda. They did, however, operate independently from the male groups. They became more active when the came under the control of the Women's Liberal Federation, and canvassed all classes for support of women's suffrage.

External groups

The campaign first developed into a national movement in the 1870s. At this point, all campaigners were suffragists, not suffragettes. The term suffragette is only used to describe those who used violent protest, although the term is widely misused to describe all campaigners. Up until 1903, all campaigning took the constitutional approach. It was after the defeat of the first Women's Suffrage Bill That the Manchester and London committees joined together to gain wider support. The main methods of doing so at this time involved lobbying MPs to put forward Private Member's Bills. However such bills rarely pass and so this was an ineffective way of actually achieving the vote.

In 1868, local groups amalgamated to form a series of close-knit groups with the founding of the National Society for Women's Suffrage (NSWS). This is notable as the first attempt to create a unified front to propose women's suffrage, but had little effect due to several splits, once again weakening the campaign.

Up until 1897, the campaign stayed at this relatively ineffective level. Campaigners came predominantly from the landed classes and joined together on a small scale only. However, 1897 saw the foundation of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) by Millicent Fawcett. This society linked smaller groups together and also put pressure on non supportive MPs using various peaceful methods.

The so-called Cat and Mouse Act was passed by the British government in an attempt to prevent suffragettes from obtaining public sympathy; it provided the release of those whose hunger strikes had brought them sickness, as well as their re-imprisonment once they had recovered.

During World War I, a serious shortage of able-bodied men ("manpower") occurred, and women were required to take on many of the traditional male roles. This led to a new view of what a woman was capable of doing. Political movement towards women's suffrage began during the war and in 1918, the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed an act granting the vote to: women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities. Finally, women in the United Kingdom achieved suffrage on the same terms as men in 1928.

Prominent women roles

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Fawcett, Emily Davies, Emmeline Pankhurst and her children, Mary Richardson Barbara Bodichon and many others helped bring about suffrage.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was an English physician and feminist, the first woman to gain a medical qualification in Britain. She was elected mayor of Aldeburgh in 1908 and gave speeches for suffrage.

Emmeline Pankhurst was an important figure in the women's movement because of her participation in numerous organizations. Emmeline Goulden was married to a lawyer who supported women suffrage ideas since he was the author of the first British woman suffrage bill and the Married Women’s Property Acts in 1870 and 1882. After her husband’s death, Emmeline decided to take a stand and come out into the limelight with the support of her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, by joining the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies ( NUWSS). With her experience with this organization, later, Emmeline founded the Women’s Franchise League in 1889 and the Women’s Social and Political Union ( WSPU) in 1903. After many years her and other women's efforts paid off and women gained suffrage but Emmeline died shortly after this.

A reformer, feminist, and suffragist named Millicent Fawcett was also important to the women's suffrage movement in Britain. She had a peaceful approach to issues presented to the organizations and the way to get points across to society. She supported the Married Women’s Property Act and the social purity campaign. Two events influenced her to become even more involved: her husband’s death and the division of the suffrage movement. Millicent made sure that the parts separated came together to become stronger by working together. Because of her actions, she was made president of the NUWSS. In 1910-1912, she supported a bill to give vote rights to single and widowed females of a household. By supporting the British in World War I, she thought women would be recognized as a prominent part of Europe and deserved basic rights such as voting.

Emily Davies, became an editor of a feminist publication, Englishwoman’s Journal. She expressed her feminist ideas on paper and was also a major supporter and influential figure during the twentieth century. In addition to suffrage, she supported more rights for women such as access to education. She wrote works and had power with words. She wrote texts such as Thoughts on Some Questions Relating to Women in 1910 and Higher Education for Women in 1866. She was a large supporter in the times where organizations were trying to reach people for a change. With her, was a friend named Barbara Bodichon who also published articles and books such as Women and Work (1857), Enfranchisement of Women (1866), and Objections to the Enfranchisement of Women (1866), and American Diary in 1872.

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