The campaign for suffrage - a historical background

Today, all British citizens over the age of eighteen share a fundamental human right: the right to vote and to have a voice in the democratic process. But this right is only the result of a hard fought battle. The suffrage campaigners of the nineteenth and early twentieth century struggled against opposition from both parliament and the general public to eventually gain the vote for the entire British population in 1928.

Who took part in the campaign?

The first women's suffrage bill came before parliament in 1870. Soon after its defeat, in 1897, various local and national suffrage organisations came together under the banner of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) specifically to campaign for the vote for women on the same terms 'it is or may be granted to men'. The NUWSS was constitutional in its approach, preferring to lobby parliament with petitions and hold public meetings.

In contrast, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), formed in 1903, took a more militant view. Almost immediately, it characterised its campaign with violent and disruptive actions and events.

Together, these two organisations dominated the campaign for women's suffrage and were run by key figures such as the Pankhursts and Millicent Fawcett. However, there were other organisations prominent in the campaign, including the Women's Freedom League (WFL). These groups were often splinter groups of the two main organisations.

What did they campaign for?

Before the first of a series of suffrage reforms in 1832, only 3% of the adult male population were qualified to vote. For the most part, the right to vote depended on how much you earned and the value of your property. For this reason, the majority of people who were able to vote were both wealthy and male. Throughout the 1800s, campaigners fought to extend the franchise and some concessions were made in 1867 and 1884. However, under these reforms women were still denied the vote and an increasing number of groups began campaigning for just that.

Campaigners for women’s suffrage initially wanted the vote for women on the same terms as it was granted to men. This is because many of the original campaigners for women’s suffrage were female middle class homeowners. Their priority was that the franchise should be extended to women of their own status rather than to all women. This version of reform did not include either working class men or women but, eventually, universal suffrage – votes for all – became the goal of the campaign.

Why were they campaigning?

The inability to vote meant that Victorian women had very few rights – their disenfranchised status became a symbol of civil inequality. Campaigners wanted the vote to be granted to women as they felt that too often the law was biased against women and reinforced the idea of women as subordinate to men. For example, until 1882, a woman’s property often reverted to her husband on their marriage. Even after the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, the situation was not much improved – women now had to pay taxes on the businesses the new law permitted them to own but did not have any say in how those taxes were spent. Campaigners felt that the best way to achieve equal status with men, in society and in the home, would be to get the vote and participate in the parliamentary process.

How did they campaign?

The campaign for women's suffrage took several forms and involved numerous groups and individuals. The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), formed in 1897, was constitutional in its approach. This meant that it campaigned peacefully and used recognised ‘political’ methods such as lobbying parliament and collecting signatures for petitions. The group also held public meetings and published various pamphlets, leaflets, newspapers and journals outlining the reasons and justifications for granting women the vote. Members of the NUWSS and other such organisations were known as 'suffragists'.

In order to gain publicity and raise awareness, the more militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), formed in 1903, engaged in a series of more violent actions. They chained themselves to railings, set fire to public and private property and disrupted speeches both at public meetings and in the House of Commons. Members of the WSPU and other militant groups such as the Women's Freedom League were known as 'suffragettes'.

Many suffragettes went to prison as a result of their actions and their campaigns did not always stop there – whilst in prison, they often chose to go on hunger strike to continue gaining publicity for their cause and as a result were sometimes force fed. One of the most infamous suffragettes was Emily Davison who, in 1913, threw herself in front of the King's horse at the Epsom Derby. She later died of her injuries and became a martyr to the cause.

When did this happen?

As a result of campaigns dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, some women were finally granted the vote in 1918. However, many women were still excluded from the franchise - the Representation of the People Act enfranchised all males and women over the age of 30 who already had the right to vote in local elections. 8,400,000 women were enfranchised. Universal franchise was finally granted with the Equal Franchise Act of 1928.