Votes for Women! A brief history of the heroic fight for women's suffrage in the UK

Written by Sophie Holbourne

When you go to your local polling station to vote, what goes through your mind?

Who will I vote for? Will my vote actually make a difference to the outcome?

Do you ever think about the importance of voting? Or the fight that men and women had to go through in order to gain universal suffrage? I first discovered the intrigue behind the suffrage movement in GCSE history, and I was inspired and absolutely loved the topic. This was furthered by my experiences with the Libertea project for Girlguiding LaSER.

The sad truth is that as a society, the UK did not have universal suffrage until 1928. That's just over 90 years ago. The suffrage movement began in the 1800s, when in 1866 a petition was presented in government with 1500 signatures campaigning for women’s suffrage. Before the 1800s, women had little to no rights. It wasn't until 1870 that the Married Women's Property Act was passed, giving married women the right to own their own property and money. Prior to this, any property a woman might have had was legally owned by her father and then her husband once she was married!

The fight for suffrage was generally split between two major groups, the suffragists (National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies) and the suffragettes (Women's Social and Political Union). There was one major difference between these two groups: the suffragists were peaceful and passive; the suffragettes were militant and violent. The suffragists took part in silent protests and were formed in 1897 and led by Millicent Fawcett. The suffragettes were formed when some women had different ideas about how to convey their message and branched out from the suffragists and formed their own group in 1903. Led by Emmeline Pankhurst, they took the law into their own hands because they believed it was the only way to get their voices heard. Both groups made great sacrifices campaigning for women's suffrage and contributed hugely to the cause.

I was utterly baffled when I discovered that there was actually a Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League who were campaigning against women’s rights. This was a women’s group, formed in 1908, campaigning against women’s suffrage. Their reasons for this varied, but they managed to gather 337,018 signatures on an anti-suffrage petition!

In the early 1900s, the fight for women's suffrage escalated to bombing postboxes, window-smashing and serving time in prison. The time they served in prison didn’t stop them from campaigning further. Legally, political prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothes; however, prisons would not allow this because they didn’t consider the suffragettes to be political prisoners. Outraged, the suffragettes went on hunger strikes within prisons. One famous suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison, was arrested on ten separate occasions and went on hunger strike seven times. In response to the hunger strikes, prisons enforced a policy of force-feeding. Emily was force fed on forty-nine occasions.

Once news of the force-feeding came out, the government were forced to put a stop to it. What they did was pass the Cat and Mouse Act 1913 which decreed that when on hunger strike, the woman was allowed to go home to recover. The police would then have to chase them to come back to prison to finish their sentence.

One of my favourite facts about the fight for suffrage is that on the night of the 1911 census, Emily Wilding Davison hid in the broom cupboard of the Houses of Parliament. As a result, her last known address was the Houses of Parliament. Sadly, Emily passed away in 1913. She famously went to the Epsom Derby and attempted to pin a ‘votes for women’ sash on the king’s horse. This was with the sole aim to have the sash on the horse when it crossed the finish line. But it went terribly wrong, and she got hit by the horse and sadly died in hospital 4 days later.

As a result, The Suffragette magazine commemorated her with an angel on the front page. She died a martyr. There is footage of the march to her funeral where thousands of people attended.

In 1914, the First World War was declared and the suffragettes stopped campaigning to fill the jobs left vacant by the men who had gone away to fight in the war. They would make the weapons and bullets for the men to use in battle. They even reduced the circulation of their magazine in recognition of the war.

I find this inspirational. Despite all of the oppression the government enforced on these women, they put that aside for the good of the country. That in itself is just brilliant

— Sophie Holbourne

You can find out more about women in the First World War here.

The actions of women during this time have been argued to have been crucial to the success of the war. In part as a sign of gratitude to the roles that women played in the war, the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918. It stipulated that women over the age of 30 and men over the age of 21 could now vote. This was a major moment in the fight for the vote. It was the first time women could vote in elections!

However, despite their hard work, women still weren’t considered equal to men. Their fight continued until 1928 when another Representation of the People Act was passed giving universal suffrage to men and women over the age of 21. In 1929, they could use their vote for the first time in what is now called the Flapper Election.

The fight for the vote was finally won. However, the fight for equality is still raging on even in 2019. Women in Saudi Arabia were not granted the vote until 2011, and were not even allowed to drive until a law was passed in 2018.

So next time you visit your local polling booth, whether it be for a general or local election, spare a thought for those who made it possible for you to voice your opinion in a world where it could have been so different if it hadn’t been for the actions of the suffragettes.

If you want to find out further information on the fight for women’s rights, the films Suffragette with Meryl Streep (About the fight for women's suffrage in 1912) and Made in Dagenham (A dramatization of the 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham car plant, where female workers walked out in protest against sexual discrimination) are based on real life events and are absolutely brilliant films.

Girlguiding LaSER have extended the period for purchasing Libertea badges! Download the pack and order the badges here.

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