Suffragettes – The Women who changed the world (19th – 20th century in Britain)

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Today it may seem perfectly reasonable to have the right to vote or a job or even to participate in politics, but in the recent past, and in the 19th century in particular, the female population was neglected in almost every expression of participation in public life. The place of women in the countries of the West, the countries of high civilization and beyond, taking care of children and her husband. Voting for women was not an option, as it was believed that their husbands could do it for them. After all, how could a woman possibly be kept in her marriage if she did not hold the same views as her husband? The explosion of the Industrial Revolution opened up jobs in factories for women as well, which made it possible for them to have even a meager voice in their lives. This article is dedicated to those women who decided otherwise, who took a bold step forward, who resisted the status quo that had been enforced for centuries and shaped the future we know today of women’s status.



The 19th century for Britain was a period of general upheaval. The rise of colonialism, the spread of empire, the threat of Germany and even the course of the Industrial Revolution were some of the events that had shaken the public consciousness of Britain. Yet none of the aforementioned upset the male population as much as the early movements for women’s rights. The Victorian period of the 19th century was marked by numerous movements, efforts, rallies and struggles to claim the basic rights for women which coalesced into the core of Human Rights. Victoria called this endeavor “The Woman Question” (Brigitte Remy-Hebert). The issue to which the Queen referred was encapsulated by group debates about the nature, political capacity, moral character and place of women in society. The greatest impact of the movements occurred during periods of collective confusion for the country, such as the period of the 1848 Revolution, the disruption of industrial change with strikes and workers’ rights in factories and the rise of the Empire of England in the late 19th century.



The movement for the right to vote was started by the so-called “Suffragettes”. It is important to understand the differentiation between feminists and suffragettes. The term “Suffragettes” comes from the Latin word “Suffragium” which meant the right or privilege of voting in Ancient Rome. The term is now identified with the Suffragettes, who owe their name to the derogatory mockery of the Daily Mail which called them “Suffragettes”. There is also the term “Suffragist” which generally denotes those who, of any gender, support the right to vote. In Britain in the 19th century this term was associated with the political movement “Women’s Social and Political Union”.

The general ideology of the Suffragettes movement has its foundations in the political philosophy of the Enlightenment and in the 19th century Liberalism that opposed capitalism of laissez-faire. It was inspired by two prominent figures who reshaped the course of equality. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) and John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1876). Wollstonecraft has gone down in history as the “Mother of Feminism” and this is because her contribution through her writing on the course of women’s status was decisive in the following decades. During the Enlightenment in both England and France, the “Human Rights” were discussed, which were established in the first phase with the French Revolution. Wollstonecraft identified with the French revolutionaries of 1789 as she proposed that Enlightenment ideas be applied to women too. Her masterpiece “Vindications of the Rights of Women” is the equivalent of the Feminist Manifesto, completed in 1792 in response to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand- Périgord (Brigitte Remy-Hebert), Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of France, who had excluded French women from the civil rights of the people of France. In Wollstonecraft’s eyes, women were rational beings no less capable of intellectual and political advancement than men. She stood for gender equality and no for the superiority of women over men. She was aimed at the population of women who were not essentially helpless, charming and unintelligent as they were portrayed by the majority portion of the population. Her work is a silent protest against the subjugation of women by the supposedly “natural” hierarchies of societies in which the cornerstone was education. Reflecting Enlightenment ideals, Wollstonecraft regarded the key to achieving self-respect and equality as the education of women, so that they could rely on their own mental and physical strength for the future of themselves, their children and their husbands. The ideals that Wollstonecraft advocated and put forward essentially encapsulate the whole philosophy of Feminism that were heard a century later when they were carried out by the Suffragettes.

John Stuart Mill is one of the most important male figures who played a role in the feminist and later Suffragette movement. When the first pamphlets for the emancipation of women from men began to circulate in Britain in the 19th century, John Stuart Mill published “The Subjection of Women” in 1869. With subordination and slavery as key points of the book, Mill generalized the theme of emancipation through people’s unwilling and controlled choice of decisions. He advocated that each individual being, whether called a man or a woman, should decide for themselves regard their own integrity and safety. No one should be anyone’s peer and the state, or better yet, the newly formed nation should support citizens and even encourage them to make their own decisions. In this way, Mill also justified the right to vote for women.

Both Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, although far apar chronologically, set the context for one of the most important social changes in the great nations of Europe. They shared a fundamental theoretical premise: “the human attributes of men and women and the consequent social injustice involved in their unequal treatment (Brigitte Remy-Hebert, 2).



The 19th century in Britain was closely associated with the reign of Victoria, one of England’s most famous queens, during whose reign the greatest social and political changes for Britain occurred. As far as women were concerned, this period was described as the domestic age – the age of the home as B.R. Hebert underlines – embodied by Victoria herself, who had come to represent the classic kind of femininity centered on family and motherhood. She was nicknamed the “Angel in the House” because she was presented as devoted to her husband and submissive to him. The standard of woman in Victoria’s time was therefore surrounded by meekness, grace, charm, naivety and passivity. Particularly with the turn of issues to middle-class women’s work, a “separate sphere” of ideology was created which advocated that a respectable woman’s place was exclusively in the home, providing care for her husband and children. This ideology was further reinforced by religion, which preached that the “superiority of women” was best seen and best suited to the home. Thus, responsible for fertility and childcare, the woman as a subordinate political being ensured what God himself had sent to humans: fertility. For this reason, Victoria had 10 children. This stereotypical propaganda from the crown and the church itself will not last long, only a few decades, when it is fundamentally dismantled by the rising movements.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, family portrait, painting at home at Windsor Castle in Berkshire (Edwin Henry Landseer, 1840)



In the year 1865 a small group of women rallied around the Kensington Society, in which issues concerning the place of women in society were discussed. The members of the organization were predominantly single women, with aspirations in education and medicine (John Simkin, 1997). In 1865 the focus on the discussion was the Second Reform Act of 1867 (also known as The Representation of the People Act 1867). The question they were trying to answer was “Is it desirable to extend parliamentary enfranchisement to women, and if so, under what conditions? (John Simkin, 1997). Barbara Bodichon and Helen Taylor wrote a thorough report based on women’s right to vote in parliamentary elections. This report reached the hands of Henry Fawcett and John Stuart Mill, two of the advocates of women’s rights. Mill added an amendment to the Reform Act of 1867 that gave women equal political rights with men. The amendment so upset Parliament that Edward Kent Kerslake, a Conservative MP for Colchester, openly started in the House of Commons that the main reason he opposed Mill’s amendment was because he had not met any women in Essex who agreed with women’s s right to vote. Lydia Becker, Helen Taylor and Frances Power Cobbe decided to collect signatures in Colchester that would reveal whether or not Kerslake’s view was actually valid. These women collected 129 signatures from women who were willing to sign in favour and delivered it to Parliament. Despite the proof of the signatures, the law was rejected by 196 votes to 73 (John Simkin, 1997).

This inequitable treatment and predicament led to the founding of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage (LSWS), in 1867, the first organized society of Suffragettes. It was led by John Stuart Mill with founding members Helen Taylor, Frances Power Cobbe, Lydia Becker, Millicent Fawcett, Barbara Bodichon, Jessie Boucherett, Emily Davies, Francis Mary Buss, Dorothea Beale, Anne Clough, Lilias Ashworth Hallett, Louisa Smith, Alice Westlake, Katherine Hare, Harriet Cook, Catherine Winkworth, Kate Amberley, Elizabeth Garrett, Priscilla Bright McLaren and Margaret Bright Lucas (John Simkin, 1997).


In 1868 the first LSWS pamphlets were printed with Harriet Taylor’s article entitled “The Enfranchisement of Women” on the front page. During the 1870s several meetings and public speeches were held in the high streets of England’s towns and cities with women’s claim to the vote at their core. But general disillusionment came when none of these actions were reciprocated, which led to the final shot being fired, expressed through the militancy and astute daring of subsequent generations.

A few years later, in 1903, Emmeline Pankhursh and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, created the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). This period, particularly for Manchester, where the organization was born, was pivotal, as the trade union and socialist upheaval among workers had intensified. The WSPU focused its activities on supporting the vote for women within the workers’ ideology. Desiring immediate change and vigilance, the Suffragettes embarked on a violent approach called the “Arson Campaign”. From 1909 onwards violence spread, with churches, pavilions, shops and mailboxes being burned. Quickly the practice evolved into a riot. In just 18 months, property worth more than £500,000, was destroyed. The most significant event on this approach came in 1913 when Emily Wilding Davidson stormed the racecourse, grabbed the reins of the King’s horse in an attempt to stop the race and died instantly from successive injuries. Emily is mourned as the first Suffragette martyr in the history of women’s claim to emancipation. (Brigitte Remy-Hebert).

A WSPU meeting (from left to right: Christabel Pankhurst, Jessie Kenney, Nellie Martel, Emmeline Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard)

The collective female frustration, combined with the numerous forms of violence that occurred, led to the reaction of the police and prison officials. Many women were imprisoned on the grounds of disobedience by the police officers, who were confronted daily by many women who went on hunger strike for several days. As a result of this, and because there were so many imprisoned women, the government enacted a coercive swearing-in law called the “Cat and Mouse Act” under which it allowed the release of prisoners who had been weakened by the hunger strike, but then allowed their re-arrest when they regained their strength. These events brought the Suffragettes into the public spotlight, which ended when the country entered the trajectory of World War I.

In 1918, the year World War I ended, and after four years of women contributing to the work of providing ammunition, medical care for the fallen and psychological support for the children left behind by the soldiers, it was the first time in the history of England that women were allowed to vote in elections. A year earlier the House of Commons accepted the women’s voting rights clause in the Representation of the People Bill by 385 votes to 55. Women who were registered on the local government register and over thirty years of age gained the right to vote. 8.5 million women voted in the following year’s elections. The right granted to women, however, was still limited, which is why the next decade is the successive struggle for universal suffrage and ultimately equal political rights. For the female population of England, 1928 was a year of vindication as the Conservative Party, with the equalization of the other two parties, brought about the Universal Suffrage Act. With this legislation women in Britain finally had equal political rights with men. (Rita Kennedy)

The combativeness of women in the 19th and early 20th centuries helped to turn the page of women’s history. The corporations, demonstrations and vandalism that followed 1905 were mostly the main symbolism leading to the path to equality. The ideology embodied by the Suffragettes influenced the way feminists active in the suffrage movement perceived themselves. The internalization of aspects of the dominant ideology about the nature of femininity by feminists themselves and their awareness of the importance of not violating these norms made the opposition to feminism both subtle and effective; feminists who violated cultural norms of femininity by their dress or manner of behavior were attacked in terms of their gendered selves. The adoption of combative tactics by a growing section of the women’s suffrage movement after 1905 forced the government to take women’s suffrage seriously, but also to find appropriate ways of punishing the illegal activity of ‘wild women’. The arrest and imprisonment of articulate middle-class women created unprecedented problems for the institutions of social control, many of which centred on prevailing perceptions of the passive and feminine nature of women. Women themselves suffered physical and psychological humiliation and deprivation, which was also partly a function of the prevailing ideology. Combativeness was an important factor in the granting of the vote to women after 1918, but it is less certain that combativeness represented a real challenge to ideological and social control. All the constraints of femininity as an ideologically controlled gender category still persist, although the specific content may differ from the conceptions of femininity prevalent at the turn of the century. Feminists today continue to walk the fine line between actively participating in changing elements of women’s structural position and continuing to fulfill cultural norms of femininity. (Rosamund Billington, 2018).



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