Women’s Right to Vote: A Painful Struggle
This week I thought I’d talk about women’s right to vote here in the UK. When it happened, how it came about and the women who made it happen.
Until started looking I didn’t know much about women’s history in general. I think it speaks volumes how little women’s history is taught at school. I learned about the Battle of Hastings, the reign of Henry VIII and enough to get the gist about how both world wars came to be. But very very little about women’s history.
Being born and raised in Wales I remember learning about Queen Boudicca. She was a Celtic queen who led a revolt against the Roman invasion, but she’s the only one who stands out. I also recall something about the woman who threw herself in front of the King’s horse (who I now know was Emily Davison) but I didn’t know why she did it until I started to look into women’s history.
Suffragettes vs Suffragists
So when most people think about getting women’s right to vote, the women’s suffrage movement, they instantly think about the suffragettes. This is probably because of the film starring Carrey Mulligan, Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham-Carter. But did you know that they were only half the story?
When I saw that The Winding Wheel theatre in Chesterfield was putting on a lecture on Women’s Suffrage, I thought it was a great chance to learn more so off I went.
The main takeaway from the lecture was that there were two separate groups of women trying to get women the vote, the suffragists led by Millicent Fawcett, and the more infamous suffragettes led by Emmeline Pankhurst.
In 1897 lots of different supporters of women’s suffrage came together and formed the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). They were a peaceful group who strongly believed in peaceful protest. They preferred to advance their cause through petitions, rallies and publications. Not much momentum came from the activities of the NUWSS, a few bills were put before parliament but nothing was passed. There were 53000, overwhelmingly middle-class members of various suffrage societies united under one banner.
Millicent Fawcett became the president of the NUWSS in 1897. She was not in favour of the militant activities of the suffragettes (below). In 1871 she started Newnham College, Cambridge, one of the first English university colleges for women.
Catharine Alderton was the first female mayor of Colchester, first female member of Essex council and stood for parliament twice.
The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) were the group that became known as the suffragettes. They were a much more extreme group than the NUWSS. They were frustrated with the lack of progress that had been made in getting women’s right to vote. The WSPU were an exclusively female group who believed in deeds, not words.
Their members set post boxes on fire or poured acid into them as well as breaking windows and setting empty houses on fire.
Probably the most famous suffragette was Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the WSPU. She and her daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela were all prominent figures in the suffrage movement.
Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse at 1913 Epsom Derby and was killed, and became the first martyr in the movement for women’s right to vote.
Even though their cause was noble, a lot of women broke the law during the fight for women’s right to vote. There were over 1300 arrests between 1906 and 1914 and when they were sent to prison they went on hunger strike. When they were released from prison hunger strikers were given medals by the WSPU.
Terrified that the women’s suffrage movement would get a martyr, the authorities force fed the women. It bordered on torture.
The Cat and Mouse Act – The Prisoners Act 1913
So worried were the goverment that a woman would die on hunger strike, they passed the Prisoners Act 1913, more commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act. Basically the act allowed women who were close to death on hunger strike to be released on license. Once they were better they’d go back to prison where the whole process would start again.
So when did Women’s Right to Vote come to Pass in the UK?
In 1918, the first women were given the right to vote. They had to be over the age of 30 and own property to be eligible, it wasn’t full equality where voting was concerend, but it was a step in the right direction. The age was set to 30 because if women had been allowed to vote from the age of 21, they would have outnumbered the men who were allowed to vote because of the war.
It wasn’t until 1928 when women over the age of 21 were allowed to vote. This is when they were given the same voting rights as men. So some women have been able to vote in the UK for less than 100 years.
How did the UK Compare to the Voting Rights of Women in 0ther Countries?
Women in New Zealand have held the right to vote since 1893, Australia 1902 and Austria in 1918. Shockingly women from some middle-eastern countries have only been give the right to vote in recent years. In Bahrain women’s right to vote has been in place since 2002, Qatar since 1999 and Saudi Arabia as recently as 2015. I’m quite appalled at how long it has taken for some countries to allow their women to vote.
I’m interested to know how you feel about the women’s suffrage movement. Do you think that women would have got the right to vote without the miltitant suffragettes? Should they be labelled terrorists for their violent acts? It’s a really interesting period of UK history, and I’d love to discuss it with you in the comments 🙂
You may also enjoy: