Coronavirus (Covid-19): Latest updates and information
Skip to main content Skip to navigation

The campaign for female suffrage


1870s to 1914 - economic and social change for many women

• economic

the ‘white blouse’ occupations – opportunities for earning own income (not necessarily the same as a ‘living’)

• social

greater geographical mobility through the ownership and use of a bicycle

if married, the overall national phenomenon of smaller size of families but

many working-class wives still laboured under the ‘double bind’ of paid work (necessary because of inadequacies in male ‘breadwinner wage’), homemaking and a large family.

• By the late1870s, the achievements of 19c. feminism were considerable

divorce reform

rights to the custody of children

first MWPA

local govt. vote: extended (1895) to working-class women by the removal of property qualifications

extension of formal education at all levels to women

increased occupational opportunities, particularly in some professions

repeal of the CD Acts

raising of the age of consent to 16


Why there was a need for women’s parliamentary suffrage or, given that there was a need, why did their full enfranchisement take so long?


Suffrage campaign

• Began in 1860s after the defeat of J.S. Mill’s amendment (calling for female suffrage) to the Second Reform Bill,

• suffrage societies established in London and the regions - first regional one in Manchester

London society – conformed to middle-class norms of feminine behaviour

Northern societies – Lydia Becker – campaigned for improvements to women’s working conditions, welfare provisions, as well as the suffrage

• provincial and metropolitan groups federated into National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS) in 1868

campaign tactics were moderate - public meetings and seeking press support.

• By the 1880s, they were organising large public meetings nationwide demanding female enfranchisement, which they expected to be granted by the 1884 Reform Act (did not happen)

• NSWS split

• factions reconciled and by 1897 National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett suffragists

• 1890s – women’s rights = a matter of intense public and political debate

• WFL (Women’s Franchise League) - set up 1889 by Elizabeth Wolstenhome-Elmy

campaigned for the suffrage for all women, irrespective of their marital status

• WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) suffragettes

Set up1903 by women members of the Manchester ILP, including the Pankhursts and Teresa Greig

• 1908 Women’s Anti-Suffrage League, Men’s Committee for Opposing Female Suffrage

• by 1914, the principal suffrage groups were


by 1914, lots of smaller suffrage groups including Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society, Artists’ Franchise League, Actresses’ Franchise League

• outbreak of WWI - initial major economic distress for working women - much unemployment until women’s war work instituted

• reaction of suffrage campaigners to WWI

WSPU abandoned militancy and supported the war effort

NUWSS concentrated on relief work (nursing and social care) believed campaigners’ responsible behaviour would be rewarded by the suffrage

• 1918 Representation of the People Act

partial female parliamentary suffrage (wives of men on local electoral registers and all women over 30 who were on local electoral registers)

8.5 million British women were enfranchised, compared with nearly 13 million men, women voters now represented 39.6 per cent of the potential Parliamentary electorate but approximately 5 million remained unenfranchised

• 1928 extension of suffrage to all adult women - the ‘flapper’ vote

female electorate extended to 15 million, or 52.7 per cent of total electorate (Pugh, p. 313)

women’s right to the parliamentary franchise

political arguments

• centred equality and representation

• equality based on ideals of humanism, universalism, and (in some cases) communitarian socialism - women, as humans, had a natural right to play a full and equal part in public life

• representation - suffragists argued that British political philosophy which depicted it as a nation of representative govt. was unjustified

19c. British government actually tyrannical and despotic because it ignored those who did not have the parliamentary franchise, i.e women and the propertyless

ethical arguments

• justice

• women’s moral superiority - based on women’s special qualities (as opposed to equality) as moral guardians and carers

after 1900, also by the ideology of motherhood whereby the well-being of the nation was validated by women’s role as mothers

• independence - suffragists argued that women’s independence was a virtue and that full participation in politics would enable women to exercise their potential in full and avoid claims that they were ‘parasites’ on men

• property - as middle-class property holders

1884 Reform Act extended parliamentary franchise to working class men but still excluded property-owning women

• NB There were complex inter-relationships between these arguments - the same women might articulate all strands simultaneously or separately - that they did so reflected tensions in contemporary society between rights and duties, equality and sex difference

physical force/militancy

• associated with the WSPU and their slogan ‘Deeds not Words’ but

• meaning of militancy was a complex one which has been explored by historians

• militancy had many different forms,

it varied in intensity and elicited a range of reactions from the press, the suffrage community as a whole, and the WSPU

not all militants were involved in violent protest which led to imprisonment

militancy could mean taking part in large-scale public processions and meetings

this implied a strong commitment to the cause, particularly for working-class women – danger of losing their jobs

NUWSS members both attended meetings of and contributed funds to the WSPU

NB complex relationship between the pre-WWI campaigns and how they were written subsequently, eg Ray Strachey’s The Cause (1926) – stressed heroism of militants

• c.1900-1914 widespread publicity in the press and more active promotion of the cause by suffragists

WSPU and the WFL engaged in militant demonstrations

1906 General Election, WSPU members disrupted political meetings by heckling ‘Votes for Women’, and were arrested

between then and 1914, women’s suffrage was constantly in the press

by 1909, militant suffragettes were taking extreme measures to press their case

1912 Derby Day - death of suffragette Emily Davidson

violence against property, arson, chaining to buildings

hunger strikes when in prison - wanted political prisoner status (1913 Cat and Mouse Act)

theatricality in the campaign

• theatricality - ambiguous phrase- suggests drama, public presence but also artificiality and triviality (Tickner - suffrage publicity material must be seen as part of the ‘real’ political history of the time)

• suffragists skilled in the use of propaganda, with emphasis on visual culture and spectacle to gain public prominence for their cause and to deflect criticism

• used banners, songs, plays, posters; dress and clothing very important in their imagery

demonstrations with a dramatic input

1910 processions in London - marchers carried highly decorative banners – women’s needle skills: embroidery, applique

leaders dressed themselves as famous women from history – Strachey: a touch of medieval ‘pageantry’ in the modern world

1913 Pilgrimage - a major public demonstration - provinces to London - provincial suffragists dressed in national costume; lots of banners and bands (NUWSS)

• suffrage caravans (NUWSS, WFL) toured the country, recruiting and publicising the cause

• WSPU adopted ‘colours’ green, white, violet– Give Women the Vote - produced merchandise in these colours for sale – items designed and priced to appeal to women of all classes

why gaining the suffrage took so long

• by the late 1870s, feminist campaigners believed that

their successes meant that they had proved the validity of their case and

granting of the parliamentary suffrage would be achieved quickly

why did it take 50 years?

1. parliamentary suffrage not the over-riding interest of feminists in the late 19c.; campaigners active in lots of other areas - cf. J.S. Mill’s comments in Subjection

2. hostility to female enfranchisement was strong until 1908

political skills of Asquith so great that his leadership delayed granting of the franchise to women

3. women’s parliamentary enfranchisement was the demand men were not willing to concede

up to 1912, the Labour Party, although it supported women’s activity in local government, was ambiguous about female suffrage

the Liberal Party was divided in its support

4. feminist campaigners agreed more on other feminist issues than on the suffrage, where there were clashes were over tactics and politics, rather than the issue of the vote

5. splits on tactics and politics


NUWSS - moderates who supported any political candidate who favoured

female suffrage but see below

WSPU - militants - internal splits - broke from Labour movement in 1907 but

some suffragettes stayed with Labour



liberalism - emphasised individual rights, active citizenship, social

responsibility - these were compatible with women’s ideas of responsibility to

their families and the wider community

socialism - included ILP, Fabians - class struggle rather than debates on women’s oppression; argued for co-operation rather than individual rights

women under pressure to chose party or suffrage

female socialists put party first and challenged gender inequalities as part of

their party political work

Women’s Liberal Federation put interests of Liberal Party first

NUWSS - 1912 abandoned Liberal Party, made alliance with Labour Party -

and gave more attention to needs of working women

6. disagreements amongst campaigners about how extensive the female franchise should be; single women only?

Becker and Fawcett did not demand parliamentary vote for married women

Others saw exclusion of married women as contributing to the legal state of coverture

Should vote be subject to property qualifications?

early campaigners wanted vote on same basis as men, i.e. property franchise

1867, 1884 legislation widened male franchise so that many working-class men could vote but women with property could not

7. class and race in suffragist campaigns

apparent ‘sisterhood’ amongst all women challenged by class and political loyalties

tensions on how women related to each other

women’s rights movement had middle-class origins, often radical, reforming wealthy provincial families and/or small non-conformist groups - Quakers or Unitarians

but from 1890s onwards suffrage supporters included working-class women

initially campaigned for improved working conditions

radical, Northern working-class suffragists, e.g. Selina Cooper and Ada Nield Chew, demanded vote and a wide range of women’s rights, including equal pay, birth control and child allowances

after 1912, NUWSS (had middle-class roots) made positive efforts to recruit working-class women

by 1914, support for the suffrage came from women of all classes

WSPU offered a range of ‘militant’ activities for women from all social classes to engage in

Race - issue of eligibility for the suffrage was discussed only in terms of white women- significant in the period of British imperialism

8. female suffrage - mass movement lacking mass formal support from women –

Sandra Holton: 1900-1918 formal membership or participation in the suffrage movement was not a typical activity amongst women

other women’s mass organisations, Mothers’ Union (400,000 members), Girls’ Friendly Society (240,000 members)

9. alternative ways for women to express their political ideas

auxiliary groups in the main political parties, e.g. women’s section of Liberal Party (150,000 members, 1912), Primrose Dames (Conservatives) nearly half a million women members

formal membership of a political auxiliary did not mean members supported the female suffrage

married women in political auxiliaries generally not involved in campaigns for or against the female suffrage;

feared support for it would prejudice other feminist campaigns

Women’s Co-operative Guild - forum for working-class women

wanted improvement of domestic conditions, such as divorce and maternity

attempted to turn them into ‘political’ questions, e.g. gave evidence to Royal Commission on Divorce


The protracted campaign for women’s enfranchisement has encouraged dramatic accounts, emphasising progress from oppression to liberation. Nonetheless, however important the gaining of the suffrage was to individuals and to campaigning groups, it was achieved without a fundamental re-assessment of attitudes by men or women. Conventional attitudes to women’s role in society were not revolutionised by their enfranchisement. The focus moved away from women and citizenship and towards the social, and even domestic, position of women.