Sufferagists and Sufferagettes


The idea that women should not vote was generally accepted until the late 19th century. It was assumed that married women were represented by the votes cast by their husbands. However, women were allowed to vote in local council elections but not in parliamentary elections, on the grounds that only men should have a say in issues of national and imperial importance.

Pressure for change began with the establishment of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897, under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett. Members, known as 'suffragists', were mainly middle-class women who believed in non-violent methods of persuasion,such as peaceful demonstrations, petitions and lobbying MPs. More radical such as Emmeline Pankhurst, who was a former suffragist, and her daughter Christabel, formed the Women's Social and Political Union in 1903 known asd 'suffragettes'

The Women's Social and Political Union attracted both working- and middle-class support and used more militant tactics than the NUWSS. Its aim was to attract publicity and put pressure on Parliament through attacks on well-known institutions and the disruption of political meetings and other prominent male-dominated public activities. In 1913, suffragette Emily Davison was killed when she threw herself under the King's horse at the Epsom Derby.

The suffragettes attracted hostility but also a degree of sympathy for their strength and endurance. Suffragettes who were imprisoned for their activities went on hunger strike, leading the authorities to resort to force-feeding. This gave the movement valuable publicity and depicted the Liberal government of the day as unreasonably harsh. The suffragettes gained support when they suspended their campaign on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

In 1918 the Representation of the People Act. The act was passed mainly due to growing pressure to give the vote to all working-class men, in recognition of the fact that many who had served in the armed forces were not householders. Women over the age of 30, who were householders or wives of householders, were granted the vote at the same time.

Some historians have argued that the quiet, undramatic work of the suffragists has not been given its due, and that the violent methods of the suffragettes alienated potential supporters. Another line of argument is that the willingness of women to serve in vital industries during the war, filling the gaps left by men on military service, persuaded the government of their fitness for the vote. However, the vast majority of female war workers were younger, unmarried women, who did not benefit directly from the 1918 legislation.