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The campaign for women's suffrage: key figures

Use these short biographies to learn about some of the key suffragists, suffragettes and other figures in the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Suffragists and suffragettes

Millicent Fawcett

Millicent Fawcett was born in 1847 and married the Liberal MP Henry Fawcett in 1867. She began a writing and speaking career – discussing women's education and women's suffrage, among other issues. After the death of Lydia Becker, Fawcett emerged as the suffrage movement's leader and presided over a committee that eventually became the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897. Fawcett found support among middle-class and university women as well as working-class women who preferred the NUWSS's peaceful, legal campaigning methods.

Fawcett recognised the positive effect of the First World War on the suffrage campaign and encouraged campaigners to accept the compromise of women over 30 being enfranchised. She resigned as president of the NUWSS in 1919 but was still heavily involved with the organisation, rechristened as the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC). She campaigned for the legal profession to be opened to women, for example. She died in 1929.

Photograph of Millicent Fawcett

Millicent Fawcett

This photograph shows Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who chaired the NUWSS (National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies) and led the constitutional women’s suffrage campaign.

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Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst was born in 1858 in Lancashire. Both her parents were advocates of equal suffrage for men and women. In 1878, Emmeline began to work for the women's suffrage movement and later met Dr Richard Pankhurst, a radical lawyer and advocate for the suffrage cause. They married in December 1879.

On Richard's death in 1898, Emmeline took as job as a registrar of births and deaths. Her work exposed her to the life stories of many working-class women and her conviction grew that if society was to progress, women needed to be lifted out of their subordinate position. In Manchester in 1903, Emmeline founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, were also key campaigners for women’s suffrage.

While the WSPU is known for its militant campaigning, the important part Emmeline took in the non-militant aspect of the campaign – travelling up and down the country speaking at rallies for women's suffrage – should not be forgotten.

On the outbreak of the World War One, Emmeline called a halt to militant activities and later openly declared the support of the WSPU for the government in the time of war. She supported subscription and campaigned for women to participate in war work.

Emmeline died in June 1928. The second Representation of the People Act became law in July that year and in 1930, the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin unveiled a statue of her, close to the Houses of Parliament, commemorating her lifetime's campaign.

Photograph of Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst flanked by numerous police officers

Emmeline Pankhurst is shown in this photograph, flanked by police officers, during the WSPU’s militant campaign for women’s suffrage.

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Christabel Pankhurst

Christabel Pankhurst was born in 1880. Her parents, Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst, were both passionate campaigners for women's suffrage. Christabel herself became actively involved in the suffrage movement in 1902 and helped to found the WSPU in 1903.

Christabel was an energetic speaker in the early years of peaceful campaigning but began to feel that a confrontational approach was necessary if women's suffrage was to be won, particularly as it would raise public awareness of the cause. WSPU actions became increasingly militant and, after 1912, arson and window-breaking replaced the more symbolic actions of earlier campaigns. At the outbreak of World War One, all suffragette activities were suspended and WSPU energies were directed towards helping the war effort.

Christabel was also editor of The Suffragette newspaper and stood for election in 1918 as a candidate for the Women's Party.

Her work in the campaign for women's suffrage was recognised in 1936 when she was made a DBE. She died in 1958.

Photograph of Christabel Pankhurst

Photo of Christabel Pankhurst sitting at her desk with an isuse of The Suffragette newspaper hanging off the edge. To her left is a sofa with piles of books and demonstration materials

This photograph shows Christabel Pankhurst in early 1913.

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Emily Davison

Emily Davison was born in 1872 and, after studying at Oxford University, became a teacher. She joined the WSPU in 1906 and took part in militant action. Her actions included arson, assault and obstruction and while in prison she went on hunger strike and suffered force feeding and solitary confinement. After attempting suicide while in Holloway prison, Davison claimed she did so because she felt a 'tragedy was wanted'.

Davison is best remembered for her final protest, which caused her death. At the Epsom Derby in June 1913, she threw herself in front of the King's horse which knocked her down. She died of her injuries four days later without ever regaining consciousness. It is not known whether she intended to commit suicide.

Photograph of Emily Davison

Photo of Emily Davison on her graduation dat

Emily Davison is shown here during her graduation from Oxford University. The photograph was released after her death in 1913.

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Sophia Duleep Singh

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, became a suffragette shortly after returning to Britain from a trip to India in 1903. While there, Duleep Singh heard the call of the Indian nationalists to ‘Awaz doh’ (‘Give us a voice’). Back in Britain, she recognised a similar momentum within the suffrage campaign and was drawn to support the cause.[1]

Her contribution to the campaign was wide-ranging. Duleep Singh not only sold WSPU publications outside of her home at Hampton Court Palace, but also led a 400-strong demonstration to parliament on a day that later became known as ‘Black Friday’, and participated in the Women’s Tax Resistance League, whose slogan was ‘No Vote, No Tax’. Her activism led to clashes with the law – and her refusal to pay taxes brought multiple prosecutions, where some of her valuable possessions, such as a diamond ring, pearl necklace and gold bangle, were impounded.

Photograph of Sophia Duleep Singh selling The Suffragette

Photograph of Sophia Duleep Singh selling The Suffragette

Sophia Duleep Singh often sold the newspaper The Suffragette outside her home in Hampton Court Palace.

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Maud Arncliffe Sennett

Maud Arncliffe Sennett was born in 1862 and became interested in the women's suffrage movement in 1906. She was a member of a number of suffrage organisations including the Women's Freedom League (WFL) and the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Maud documented the suffrage campaign in a series of scrapbooks. 37 volumes of her scrapbook were donated to the British Museum (and now belong to the British Library) by her husband after she died in 1936.

Explore volumes one and five.

'Why I want the vote', by Maud Arncliffe Sennett in The Vote

Why I want the vote

Inset photograph of Maud Arncliffe Sennett from a journalistic piece she wrote titled 'Why I want the vote'.

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Dora Thewlis

Dora Thewlis, a mill worker from Yorkshire, took part in a mission to break into the Houses of Parliament in March 1907. She was only 16 at the time. Newspapers became fascinated by Dora's story and her arrest. She appeared on the front page of the Daily Mirror and her story was followed, from day-to-day, by many other newspapers and magazines. Some days after her arrest, it was reported by the girl's parents that she had been brought up in an atmosphere of socialism and that they supported her actions, demanding that she received the same punishment as other suffragettes – imprisonment – despite her age.

Photograph of the arrest of Dora Thewlis

Photograph of the arrest of Dora Thewlis, 1907

This photograph documents the arrest of 16-year old Dora Thewlis, when she and other members of the WSPU attempted to break into the Houses of Parliament, in March 1907. 

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Kitty Marion

Katherine Schafer was born in Germany in 1871. Moving to London, she found work as a dancer in 1889 and adopted the name Kitty Marion. The vulnerability of women in the theatre profession was one of the factors that prompted Kitty to join the WSPU. She took part in a deputation to the Prime Minister Asquith in 1908 and was first arrested the following year. She was sentenced to a year's hard labour and went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed while in prison. She served seven prison terms in total, including three years for setting fire to the Grandstand at Hurst Park racecourse in 1913. She left Britain during World War One for a new life in America and died in New York in 1944.

Photograph of Kitty Marion selling Birth Control Review

Photo of Kitty Marion selling issues of Birth Control Review on the streets of New York

After settling in New York during World War One, Kitty Marion began to campaign for birth control. She is pictured here, selling Birth Control Review.

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Politicians

Herbert Asquith

Herbert Asquith was born in 1852. He became an MP for the Liberal party in 1886 and was both Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer before becoming Prime Minister in 1908.

While several leading parliamentary figures supported women's enfranchisement, Asquith strongly objected to it. This made him unpopular with both the NUWSS and the WSPU. Suffrage campaigners objected to the fact that, as Chancellor, he was able to decide how much tax women should pay while still denying them political representation.

Asquith held the position of Prime Minister until 1916. During this time, he introduced a variety of radical reforms and was often in conflict with the House of Lords. He died in 1928.

Keir Hardie

Keir Hardie was born in Lanarkshire in 1856, and from the age of 11 worked in the mines. His early experiences led to him becoming not only a socialist and trade unionist, but also the founder of the UK’s Labour party in 1900.

From the 1890s, Hardie consistently advocated for women’s right to vote. He was a close friend of the Pankhursts, and publicly supported the suffrage campaign. Under the pseudonym of ‘Lily Bell’, Hardie wrote a series of articles for the journal Labour Leader discussing the position of women in society. He delivered speeches at meetings, attended rallies and provided support for suffrage leaders, continuing this work until his death in 1915.

Within the Labour Party, Hardie’s zeal for championing women’s rights was often met with irritation, and members accused him of being more accessible to the suffragettes than he was to the trade unions. Yet, in 1912 – and after Hardie’s resignation – Labour became the first political party to incorporate female suffrage into their manifesto.

David Lloyd George

David Lloyd George was born in 1863 in Manchester and grew up in Pembrokeshire. In 1890 he began his political career as a Liberal MP for Caernarfon Boroughs in Wales – a seat which he held for the next 55 years – and served as Chancellor of the Exchequer (1908) and Minister of Munitions (1914). Following Asquith’s resignation in 1916, Lloyd George became Prime Minister. He is noted for introducing major social reforms, such as the first state pensions and raising the school leaving age to 14.

Lloyd George’s position on the suffrage movement is not straightforward. In his first decade as an MP, he argued that female suffrage would hinder the Government in its aims. Later, he made public statements in favour of women’s suffrage, yet Christabel Pankhurst argued that ‘he is always betraying us’. Pankhurst and other suffragettes held him responsible for the Liberal party's collapsed attempts to make progress in extending the franchise. In 1913 suffragettes led an arson attack on Lloyd George’s newly-built house in Walton Heath.

Under Lloyd George’s government, the Representation of the People Act was passed in parliament in February 1918 – extending male suffrage alongside a limited franchise for women.

Anti-suffragist campaigners

Mary Humphrey Ward

Mary Humphrey Ward was born in 1851. She married Thomas Humphrey Ward, an academic, in 1872 and published her first book Millie and Olly in 1881. Her many subsequent books established her as one of Britain's most popular novelists of the time.

In 1908, she was approached by anti-suffragist Lord Cromer and became the President of the Anti-Suffrage League. During the following years she played an important role in the campaign to prevent women being given the vote. Her autobiography A Writer's Recollections was published in 1918 and she died in 1920.

NUWSS pamphlets

Anti Suffrage Arguments

This pamphlet from 1912 responds to anti-suffrage arguments.

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Footnotes

[1] Anita Anand, 'Sophia Duleep Singh: princess and suffragette', British Library (06/02/2018)

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