How the battle for female suffrage in Britain was won
Did suffragette violence hasten victory? How critical to the campaign were the Pankhursts? And why did many women not want the franchise? Four expert historians – Jad Adams, Julia Bush, June Purvis and Fern Riddell – answer the big questions on female suffrage
Can the passing of the Representation of the People Act in 1918 – which, for the first time, gave some women the vote – be attributed to the suffrage campaign, the First World War, or other factors?
Julia Bush: The suffrage campaign and the First World War both contributed to the timing and specific content of the 1918 act. However, it was probably inevitable that a century of democratisation, accompanied by growing government involvement in education and social welfare reform, would eventually encompass votes for women.
Long-term, peaceful pressure from the organised suffrage campaign helped move this change slowly forward. The war, combined with prewar suffragette militancy, initially delayed suffrage legislation. But by 1917–18 it was generally accepted that serving soldiers had earned the right to vote. As a result, when legislation was passed in 1918, it enfranchised all men over the age of 21, and also gave the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification.
Older women were included less because of their war work than because politicians hoped they would provide conservative ballast within the new mass electorate, reinforcing the stability of a society threatened by war and the spectre of Bolshevism.
Jad Adams: The act was part of a wave of national enfranchisements that started in 1893 with New Zealand and which was largely completed by Switzerland in 1971. Britain was no pioneer. Seven countries had enfranchised women before Britain, and at least another seven enfranchised in the same year, 1918.
The most important common factor in the enfranchisements of women was the re-evaluation of national identity in the face of catastrophes such as war, revolution or independence struggles. Old ideas had to be rejected and the nation reformed. This is what happened in Britain in the wake of the sacrifices of the First World War, with the granting of universal male suffrage and a limited franchise for women.
June Purvis: Some historians claim that it was women’s war work during the First World War that won the vote, ignoring the fact that working-class women under 30 who staffed the munitions factories were not included in the 1918 act. Others suggest that the war itself made progress possible, with minimal involvement from suffrage organisations.
Fear of a militant suffragette revival was a significant factor in the granting of the vote. The prewar suffrage campaign transformed women’s perception of themselves and the public’s perception of women.
Fern Riddell: The act was passed partly due to the spectre of the return of suffragette violence. Having overseen the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)’s arson and bombing campaign before the war, Emmeline Pankhurst acted as a British diplomatic envoy to Russia in 1917. She persuaded the British government to send her to speak as one violent revolutionary leader to another. Russia granted female suffrage in July 1917, and it was clear that the intense violence of the WSPU, which stopped after the outbreak of the First World War, could begin again if British women did not get the vote.
What did women feel the vote could bring them, long-term?
JB: Women’s aspirations varied, then as now. Most suffragists hoped that the vote would improve their lives by increasing their autonomy, whether within marriage or as single women. However, the desire for individual self-fulfillment was often tempered, and sometimes submerged, by a strong sense of gendered responsibility.
Middle-class women hoped that the vote would strengthen their role as carers and moral guardians within their own families and throughout the wider society of Britain and its empire. For poorer women, the vote also represented a route towards the economic security that was an essential underpinning for successful family life. Working-class suffragists realised that government legislation was needed to supplement trade union efforts to improve living standards.
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JA: Both constitutional suffragists and militant suffragettes believed the national vote was the key which would lead to a nation in which all the moral impurities of society were legislated away.
The leading suffragette Christabel Pankhurst coined the slogan ‘votes for women and chastity for men’ and, in her book The Great Scourge and How to End It, promoted the franchise as a response to syphilis. Pankhurst believed that, if women had political power, men could be obliged to behave with the same restraint expected of Victorian ladies: having sex with only one person and then only after marriage. It was simplistic notions like this that appalled female commentators such as journalist Eliza Lynn Linton and led them to say that if women really thought they were going to impose polite drawing room manners on political life they had better not have the vote.
JP: The lack of the vote was seen as the most significant symbol of women’s inferior status in society. Once the vote was won, it was felt that all kinds of inequalities that women experienced would be swept away.
Has the role of the Pankhurst family been exaggerated in the fight for women’s suffrage?
JP: No. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, the co-leaders of the WSPU, were charismatic and powerful speakers who, with their cry of ‘Rise up, women!’, encouraged thousands of women to demand their democratic right to the parliamentary vote in a mass movement unparalleled in British politics.
JB: The role of the Pankhurst family holds unjustified sway within most popular representations of the suffrage movement and has also been exaggerated by some historians. The Pankhursts' iconic leadership repelled as well as attracted many contemporaries, and the escalating violence of the militant campaign made it impossible for the prewar government to ‘surrender’ to suffragist pressure. On the other hand, the glamour and excitement of the Pankhursts left an indelible mark on women’s history and on the history of popular protest.
On the podcast | June Purvis considers the roles of Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst in the fight for women’s suffrage in Britain:
JA: The Pankhursts had a strong personal following, rather like the Booth family who founded the Salvation Army. Their message incorporated parades, a uniform, strict discipline, the expulsion of ‘heretics’, willingness to go to extremes and dominance by one family. All this went with a vibrant millennial message: effectively a promise of paradise if followers made sufficient sacrifices.
But neither the Pankhursts nor the Booths originated the doctrine for which they expected such sacrifices. They marketed existing beliefs in a vibrant and eye-catching way. The Pankhursts did not create the women’s suffrage movement any more than the Booths created Christianity.
FR: The Pankhursts have dominated the history of the suffrage movement in Britain, and also the history of the WSPU. Christabel Pankhurst orchestrated hundreds of arson and bomb attacks from Paris. But the stories of the women who actually carried these out have never been told. Their sacrifices are an integral part of the suffrage fight. These are the women we should be remembering on the centenary of the vote.
How much popular support did the ‘votes for women’ campaign command in the years leading up to 1918?
JA: There was widespread sympathy for the principle that at least some women should have the vote, and a general public acceptance that it would come eventually. That said, there was no enthusiasm.
A favourable majority was secured in the House of Commons in 1897. There was no parliamentary time allotted, but the Conservative leader of the house, Arthur Balfour, said any further electoral reform measure would have to include women’s suffrage. As the proposition was an extension of Liberal ideas of democracy, it did not help that two Liberal prime ministers of the time, William Gladstone and HH Asquith, were both bitterly opposed to votes for women, despite their parties being generally in favour.
JP: As with most progressive causes, there were more men and women opposed to women’s suffrage than in favour of it. It is estimated that nearly half a million women signed anti-suffrage petitions before 1914. The membership of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which included both men and women, was about 50,000 at this time. That of the WSPU, which was women only, was about 5,000 or less.
JB: There are many ways of gauging support for the suffrage campaign, none of them very reliable. It’s important to acknowledge not only gender differences but also the variables of social class, region and religion. Suffragists and anti-suffragists both carried out primitive opinion polls, producing contradictory results to support their own campaigns.
It seems likely that a ‘silent majority’ of men and women held fluctuating opinions, attaching less importance to the whole issue than politicians and campaigners but responding either positively or negatively to the polarising impact of suffragette militancy.
So did suffragette violence help or hinder the campaign?
JB: The First World War released suffragette militants from a political cul-de-sac of their own making. While a minority of women (and some men) were inspired by the bravery and determination of the most militant women, many others recoiled in horror from violence against property, which seemed likely to inflict eventual personal injury. It is clear that the prewar Liberal government was negatively influenced by suffragette violence.
Prejudices against ‘irrational’ female voters were reinforced, and even those politicians who favoured enfranchisement were reluctant to respond to pressure exerted by suffragette extremists.
FR: We haven’t paid enough attention to the sheer scale of the suffragette violence. During its height, in one month alone, there were 52 violent attacks including 29 bombs and 15 arson attempts on churches, railway stations, post offices, banks, newspaper offices and even MPs' homes. Until we fully comprehend the full impact of these actions, we can’t begin to understand what it did to the suffrage campaign as a whole.
JP: Too much emphasis is given to suffragette violence and not enough to state violence against women campaigning for their democratic right to the parliamentary vote. Even when campaigning peacefully, suffragettes could be roughly handled by the police, imprisoned, or forcibly fed if they went on hunger strike. Forcible feeding was a brutal, life-threatening and degrading operation, performed by male doctors on struggling female bodies. Many of the women experienced it as a form of instrumental rape.
Damage to property did not make the suffragettes popular but they always observed the strict orders of the WSPU leadership never to endanger human life. They did not kill or harm anyone. Since argument had failed to persuade an obdurate Liberal government to grant women the vote, some were prepared to adopt the violent methods that men had used successfully in the past when campaigning for their enfranchisement. Banned from attending Liberal party meetings and holding their own, the suffragettes were outside the constitution with no legitimate forms of protest.
JA: Some things they did disgusted the public, such as the slashing of the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery. The suffragette who did this thought it would aid the cause, but the logic escaped art lovers. Starting fires in theatres and planting bombs in churches endangered lives. By the end of the campaign, the authorities feared that a suffragette would be seriously injured by members of the public outraged at their vandalism.
On the positive side, in the early 20th century, suffragette violence kept the issue of votes for women on the agenda. It could otherwise easily have been subsumed under the furore over Ireland, labour unrest and German military expansion.
When they were finally given the vote, how did women feel about not being granted an equal franchise to men?
JA: The act of 1918 was a settlement with the people of a country that was still engaged in a major war. Britons had a lot to be concerned about and the issue of votes for women wasn’t high on the list. In this climate, supporters were happy that suffrage had been achieved, even if it was limited.
You’ve got to remember that an equal franchise would have entitled more women to vote than men. That prospect was unpalatable to a lot of people so the compromise of offering the vote to some women over 30 was generally deemed acceptable. This meant that the women who had done most for the war effort – those under 30 – were excluded from the ballot. That very fact qualifies the idea that war work earned women the vote.
JP: Both the suffragists of the NUWSS and the suffragettes of the WSPU had campaigned for votes for women on the same terms as it was, or would be granted to men. This did not happen with the 1918 act and both groups felt let down. However, they knew that the sex discrimination that had prevented all women from being granted the vote had been broken and that it would not be too long before women won enfranchisement on equal terms with men.
JB: There was disappointment within the suffrage movement over the restriction of women’s voting rights in 1918, which related both to age and income. However, there was no public outcry. Instead, both suffragists and anti-suffragists turned enthusiastically to the task of organising newly enfranchised women and testing out their influence upon social reform agendas.
The demand for an equal franchise was never silenced during the first decade of votes for women. Suffragists eventually found themselves pushing at an opening door, since only 10 MPs voted against the 1928 bill to give women the same voting rights as men. The vote was won, at least partly, because female voters had proved themselves harmless!
How did people feel about New Zealand – then a British colony – giving the vote to women 25 years before Britain?
JB: Suffragists drew inspiration from the enfranchisement of New Zealand women, and valued their visible support at many public marches and meetings. However, anti-suffrage women argued that the colonial New Zealand experience was irrelevant to the debate over women’s participation in Britain’s imperial government. A strong current of imperialism flowed through both suffrage and anti-suffrage campaigns, with an emphasis upon motherhood at its heart. British suffragists saw the success of New Zealand’s social welfare programme as evidence of female voters' potential to enhance imperial power.
On the other hand, anti-suffragists believed that New Zealand’s healthy women and children proved the suitability of women for local government only. Social welfare was women’s business, while military and imperial affairs belonged emphatically to the male parliament at Westminster.
JA: Feelings were mixed. From one point of view, the New Zealand achievement was seen to be the harbinger of widespread enfranchisements. On the other hand, what were colonials doing possessing a right that had been denied British women? It was particularly objectionable to society ladies like Millicent Fawcett that native women should be given the vote. Her position was now inferior, as she said, to “that of the Maori women of New Zealand who have more power in developing and moulding the future of the empire than we have in England. Why should the Maori women be in a superior position to that held by the women of England?”
Why did it take so long for British women to get the vote?
JA: Did it take that long? In Britain female ratepayers got the vote for municipal elections in 1869 – they would have to wait less than 50 years to receive the parliamentary vote. And that delay wasn’t due to rabid opposition but because where was no agreement on which women should get the vote.
By the 1890s there was a majority for women’s suffrage in the House of Commons. A narrow franchise based on the ownership of property would primarily benefit the Conservatives in general elections; a wider franchise of ratepayers would benefit the Liberals. The breakthrough came when the NUWSS made a deal with the new but fast-growing Labour party in 1912 to support Labour candidates, particularly in seats held by Liberals with unsatisfactory records on women’s suffrage.
JP: There are two main reasons. First, the two leading political parties – the Liberals and the Tories – sought party advantage from a female suffrage measure and could not agree on the grounds for such legislation.
Second, for the major part of the 20th-century suffrage campaign, the Liberal Herbert Asquith, a staunch opponent of votes for women, was the prime minister. Even in 1920, he still expressed his contempt for female voters, describing the women on the voting register in Paisley, Scotland, as “a dim, impenetrable… element – of whom all that one knows is that they are for the most part hopelessly ignorant of politics, credulous to the last degree and flickering with gusts of sentiment like a candle in the wind”.
JB: The length of the suffrage campaign is evidence of the depth of resistance from male politicians, sometimes linked to opportunist calculations about the electoral impact of female voters. Both male and female opposition to votes for women was fundamentally due to deep-seated views on separate gender roles and their importance to a stable and civilised society. Such views were reinforced by late 19th-century concerns over national and imperial strength, in an era of increasing economic and strategic rivalry among the world powers.
Did women see any immediate changes to their lives as a result of the act?
JA: Not really. As 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill pointed out– when, in 1867, he proposed votes for women in parliament – there was no justice in denying women the vote. It was an easy concession to grant because it would make no difference. He realised that women would vote with their families or class, rather than with their gender. And so it proved.
JP: There was much more legislation that changed women’s lives after 1918 than before. On 21 November 1918, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Bill was passed, making women eligible to stand for parliament on equal terms as men. In doing so, it allowed women between the ages of 21 and 30 to stand for election to a parliament they could not themselves elect.
The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, in principle, abolished disqualification by sex or marriage for entry to the professions and universities, and the exercise of any public function. The following year, 200 women were appointed magistrates.
Also in 1919, the Industrial Courts Act allowed women to sit on courts of arbitration on issues such as workplace pay and conditions. The 1922 Infanticide Act eliminated the charge of murder for a woman guilty of killing her child when it was shown that she was suffering from the effects of her confinement. Then, in 1923, the Matrimonial Causes Act relieved wives of the necessity to prove desertion, cruelty or other faults in addition to adultery as grounds for divorce.
JB: An unprecedented amount of social reform legislation was passed during the decade after the 1918 act, but this does not prove a causal link. The social welfare agenda of the organised women’s movement was finally addressed during the 1920s, and women’s legal status also improved. However anti-suffrage women had always argued that male politicians could be persuaded to support their reform agenda without conceding the vote.
Non-political women’s organisations continued to press effectively for policy reform, both before and after the vote was won. Meanwhile many former suffragists were disappointed by their failure to transform the male institution of parliament, and by the defeat of important campaigns to improve women’s employment opportunities.
June Purvis is emeritus professor of women’s and gender history at the University of Portsmouth. She has written extensively on the suffragette movement, including Christabel Pankhurst: A Biography (published by Routledge in January)
Jad Adams is a fellow of the School of Advanced Study, University of London and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His most recent book is Women and the Vote: A World History (OUP, 2014)
Julia Bush is a former senior lecturer in history at the University of Northampton. Her books include Women Against the Vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain (OUP, 2007)
Fern Riddell is a historian specialising in sex and suffrage. She is a consultant on the BBC One documentary How Women Won the Vote
This article was first published in the February 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine