What is the difference between the suffragists and the suffragettes?

Who were the suffragists and suffragettes, and what are the key differences between them?

In 1928 all British women over the age of 21 were granted the right to vote in political elections. Women’s suffrage societies – groups who campaigned for the right to vote – began to emerge in Britain in the mid-19th century. Those involved in the first wave of the campaign are known as suffragists. Suffragists believed in peaceful, constitutional campaign methods. In the early 20th century, after the suffragists failed to make significant progress, a new generation of activists emerged. These women became known as the suffragettes, and they were willing to take direct, militant action for the cause.

The suffragists

In 1866, a group of women organised a petition that demanded that women should have the same political rights as men and gathered over 1500 signatures in support of the cause. The women took their petition to Henry Fawcett and John Stuart Mill, two MPs who supported universal suffrage. Mill drafted an amendment to the Second Reform Bill that would give women the same political rights as men and presented it to parliament in 1867. The amendment was defeated, however, by 196 votes to 73.

In the wake of this defeat the London Society for Women's Suffrage was formed and similar women's suffrage groups were founded all over Britain. In 1897, 17 of these individual groups joined together to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Fawcett.

NUWSS pamphlets

NUWSS tree with branches showing the society's regionality

From an acorn, stamped with the date ‘1867’, grows the many branches of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies.

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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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The NUWSS adopted a peaceful and non-confrontational approach. Members believed that success could be gained by argument and education. The organisation tried to raise its profile peacefully – and legally – with petitions, posters, leaflets, calendars and public meetings. By 1914 the NUWSS had grown to approximately 54,000 members. Almost all of its leaders and most of its members were middle or upper class, and largely they campaigned for the vote for middle-class, property-owning women. However, working-class women joined the NUWSS, too, and some members recognised that they needed the support of all women.

Maud Arncliffe Sennett's scrapbook, volume 1

Maud Arncliffe Sennett's scrapbook from 1907

'Fourteen reasons for supporting women's suffrage', published by the NUWSS.

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NUWSS pamphlets

Why Working Women Want the Vote

In the NUWSS’s aim to win over working-class women, they set out to persuade them that they needed the vote to protect their interests as wives, mothers and workers.

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The suffragettes

From the perspective of some campaigners, the suffragists failed to achieve votes for women by peaceful, ‘respectable’ methods. Many disillusioned women began to advocate a more militant approach. These groups became known as the suffragettes, and they adopted the motto 'Deeds not Words'.

In Manchester in 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. The organisation grew to include branches all over Britain and involved more working-class women. The WSPU adopted militant, direct action tactics. They chained themselves to railings, disrupted public meetings and damaged public property. In 1913, Emily Davison stepped out in front of the King's horse at the Epsom Derby. Her purpose remains unclear, but she was hit and later died from her injuries.

Suffragettes were arrested and imprisoned, but continued their protest in prison by hunger strike. Although initially they were fed by force, in 1913 the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act was passed in parliament. Commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act, this allowed prison authorities to release hunger-striking women prisoners when they became too weak, and re-arrest them when they had recovered. Emmeline Pankhurst was jailed and released on 11 occasions.

Maud Arncliffe Sennett's scrapbook, volume 1

Maud Arncliffe's scrapbook vol 1. Page 2

'Women demand the right to vote, the pledge of citizenship and basis of all liberty': Member's card for the Women's Social and Political Union.

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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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Held by© Archive PL / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1907 a split occurred in the WSPU, leading to the formation of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). Unhappy with Emmeline Pankhurst’s approach – particularly the advocacy of violent actions – the WFL favoured peaceful lawbreaking such as demonstration, disruption and refusal to pay taxes and complete the census. In spite of the clashes of opinion over tactics, the NUWSS, WSPU and WFL continued to work together on certain elements of the campaign. Distinctions between the groups and their members are not always straightforward.

Maud Arncliffe Sennett's scrapbook, volume 5

Maud Arncliffe Sennett's scrapbook, vol 5

Poster for a public meeting held by the West Sussex branch of the Women's Freedom League in 1908.

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Right of Petition pamphlet

WFL constitution

The constitution of the WFL sets out how they hoped to secure female suffrage.  

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Like the NUWSS, the suffragettes also used posters, pamphlets, public meetings and marches in their campaign. The WSPU sold 20,000 copies of their newspaper, Votes for Women, each week.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, the suffragettes and suffragists stopped their campaign in support of the government's war effort. In 1918 – after the war – some women were given voting rights.

Custodia Honesta pamphlet

Custodia Honesta pamphlet back cover

Advertisement for Votes for Women, the weekly newspaper published by the WSPU, printed on the back cover of a pamphlet about forcefeeding and the treatment of political prisoners.

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