Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom

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WSPU poster by Hilda Dallas, 1909. Votes For Women.jpg
WSPU poster by Hilda Dallas, 1909.

Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom was a movement to fight for women's right to vote. It finally succeeded through two laws in 1918 and 1928. It became a national movement in the Victorian era. Women were not explicitly banned from voting in Great Britain until the Reform Act 1832 and the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. In 1872 the fight for women's suffrage became a national movement with the formation of the National Society for Women's Suffrage and later the more influential National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). As well as in England, women's suffrage movements in Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom gained momentum. The movements shifted sentiments in favour of woman suffrage by 1906. It was at this point that the militant campaign began with the formation of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). [1]


The outbreak of the First World War on 4 August 1914 led to a suspension of party politics, including the militant suffragette campaigns. Lobbying did take place quietly. In 1918 a coalition government passed the Representation of the People Act 1918, enfranchising all men over 21, as well as all women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications. This act was the first to include almost all adult men in the political system and began the inclusion of women, extending the franchise by 5.6 million men [2] and 8.4 million women. [3] In 1928 the Conservative government passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act equalizing the franchise to all persons over the age of 21 on equal terms.


Until the 1832 Great Reform Act specified 'male persons', a few women had been able to vote in parliamentary elections through property ownership, although this was rare. [4] In local government elections, women lost the right to vote under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. Single women ratepayers received the right to vote in the Municipal Franchise Act 1869. This right was confirmed in the Local Government Act 1894 and extended to include some married women. [5] [6] [7] By 1900, more than 1 million single women were registered to vote in local government elections in England. [8]

Both before and after the 1832 Reform Act there were some who advocated that women should have the right to vote in parliamentary elections. After the enactment of the Reform Act, the MP Henry Hunt argued that any woman who was single, a taxpayer and had sufficient property should be allowed to vote. One such wealthy woman, Mary Smith, was used in this speech as an example.

The Chartist Movement, which began in the late 1830s, has also been suggested to have included supporters of female suffrage. There is some evidence to suggest William Lovett, one of the authors of the People's Charter wished to include female suffrage as one of the campaign's demands but chose not to on the grounds that this would delay the implementation of the charter. Although there were female Chartists, they largely worked toward universal male suffrage. At this time most women did not have aspirations to gain the vote.

There is a poll book from 1843 that clearly shows thirty women's names among those who voted. These women were playing an active role in the election. On the roll, the wealthiest female elector was Grace Brown, a butcher. Due to the high rates that she paid, Grace Brown was entitled to four votes. [9]

Lilly Maxwell cast a high-profile vote in Britain in 1867 after the Great Reform Act of 1832. [10] Maxwell, a shop owner, met the property qualifications that otherwise would have made her eligible to vote had she been male. In error, however, her name had been added to the election register and on that basis she succeeded in voting in a by-election – her vote however was later declared illegal by the Court of Common Pleas. The case, however, gave women's suffrage campaigners great publicity.

Outside pressure for women's suffrage was at this time diluted by feminist issues in general. Women's rights were becoming increasingly prominent in the 1850s as some women in higher social spheres refused to obey the gender roles dictated to them. Feminist goals at this time included the right to sue an ex-husband after divorce (achieved in 1857) and the right for married women to own property (fully achieved in 1882 after some concession by the government in 1870).

The issue of parliamentary reform declined along with the Chartists after 1848 and only reemerged with the election of John Stuart Mill in 1865. He stood for office showing direct support for female suffrage and was an MP in the run up to the second Reform Act.

Early suffragist societies

In the same year that John Stuart Mill was elected (1865), the first ladies' discussion society, Kensington Society, was formed, debating whether women should be involved in public affairs. [11] Although a society for suffrage was proposed, this was turned down on the grounds that it might be taken over by extremists.

However, later that year Leigh Smith Bodichon formed the first Women's Suffrage Committee and within a fortnight collected nearly 1,500 signatures in favour of female suffrage in advance to the second Reform Bill. [12]

The Manchester Society for Women's Suffrage was founded in February 1867. Its secretary, Lydia Becker, wrote letters both to Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and to The Spectator . She was also involved with the London group, and organised the collection of more signatures. Lydia Becker reluctantly agreed to exclude married women from the "Married Women's Property Act" reform demand. [13]

However, in June the London group split, partly a result of party allegiance, and partly the result of tactical issues. Conservative members wished to move slowly to avoid alarming public opinion, while Liberals generally opposed this apparent dilution of political conviction. As a result, Helen Taylor founded the London National Society for Women's Suffrage, which set up strong links with Manchester and Edinburgh. In Scotland one of the earliest societies was the Edinburgh National Society for Women's Suffrage. [14]

Although these early splits left the movement divided and sometimes leaderless, it allowed Lydia Becker to have a stronger influence. The suffragists were known as the parliamentarians.

In Ireland, the Dublin Women's Suffrage Association was established in 1874. As well as campaigning for women's suffrage, it sought to advance women's position in local government. In 1898, it changed its name to the Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association.

Formation of a national movement

Women's political groups

A handbill complaining about sexual discrimination during the movement. Suffragette handbill.jpg
A handbill complaining about sexual discrimination during the movement.

Although women's political party groups were not formed with the aim to achieve women's suffrage, they did have two key effects. Firstly, they showed women who were members to be competent in the political arena and as this became clear, secondly, it brought the concept of female suffrage closer to acceptance.

The Primrose League

The Primrose League was set up to promote Conservative values through social events and supporting the community. As women were able to join, this gave females of all classes the ability to mix with local and national political figures. Many also had important roles such as bringing voters to the polls. This removed segregation and promoted political literacy amongst women. The League, however, did not promote women's suffrage as one of its objectives.

The Women's Liberal Associations

Although there is evidence to suggest that they were originally formed to promote female franchise (the first being in Bristol in 1881), WLAs often did not hold such an agenda. They did, however, operate independently from the male groups. They became more active when they came under the control of the Women's Liberal Federation, and canvassed all classes for support of women's suffrage and against domination.

There was significant support for woman suffrage in the Liberal Party, which was in power after 1905, but a handful of leaders, especially H. H. Asquith, blocked all efforts in Parliament. [15]

Pressure groups

The campaign first developed into a national movement in the 1870s. At this point, all campaigners were suffragists, not suffragettes. Up until 1903, all campaigning took the constitutional approach. It was after the defeat of the first Women's Suffrage Bill that the Manchester and London committees joined together to gain wider support. The main methods of doing so at this time involved lobbying MPs to put forward Private Member's Bills. However such bills rarely pass and so this was an ineffective way of actually achieving the vote.

In 1868, local groups amalgamated to form a series of close-knit groups with the founding of the National Society for Women's Suffrage (NSWS). This is notable as the first attempt to create a unified front to propose women's suffrage, but had little effect due to several splits, once again weakening the campaign.

WSPU poster 1914 Cat and Mouse Act Poster - 1914.jpg
WSPU poster 1914

Up until 1897, the campaign stayed at this relatively ineffective level. Campaigners came predominantly from the landed classes and joined together on a small scale only. However, 1897 saw the foundation of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) by Millicent Fawcett. This society linked smaller groups together and also put pressure on non-supportive MPs using various peaceful methods.

Pankhursts and suffragettes

Founded in 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was tightly controlled by the three Pankhursts, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928), and her daughters Christabel Pankhurst (1880–1958) and Sylvia Pankhurst (1882–1960). [16] It specialized in highly visible publicity campaigns such as large parades. This had the effect of energizing all dimensions of the suffrage movement. While there was a majority of support for suffrage in parliament, the ruling Liberal Party refused to allow a vote on the issue; the result of which was an escalation in the suffragette campaign. The WSPU, in contrast to its allies, embarked on a campaign of violence to publicize the issue, even to the detriment of its own aims. [17]

The Cat and Mouse Act was passed by Parliament in an attempt to prevent suffragettes from becoming martyrs in prison. It provided for the release of those whose hunger strikes and forced feeding had brought them sickness, as well as their re-imprisonment once they had recovered. The result was even greater publicity for the cause. [18]

The tactics of the WSPU included shouting down speakers, hunger strikes, stone-throwing, window-smashing, and arson of unoccupied churches and country houses. Historian Martin Pugh says, "militancy clearly damaged the cause." [19] Whitfield says, "the overall effect of the suffragette militancy, however, was to set back the cause of women's suffrage." [20] Historian Harold Smith, citing historian Sandra Holton, has argued that by 1913 WSPU gave priority to militancy rather than obtaining the vote. Their battle with Liberals had become a "kind of holy war, so important that it could not be called off even if continuing it prevented suffrage reform. This preoccupation with the struggle distinguished the WSPU from that by the NUWSS, which remained focused on obtaining women's suffrage." [21]

Smith concludes:

Although non-historians often assumed the WSPU was primarily responsible for obtaining women's suffrage, historians are much more skeptical about its contribution. It is generally agreed that the WSPU revitalized the suffrage campaign initially, but that it is escalation of militancy after 1912 impeded reform. Recent studies have shifted from claiming that the WSPU was responsible for women's suffrage to portraying it as an early form of radical feminism that sought to liberate women from male-centered gender system. [22]

First World War

The greater suffrage efforts halted with the outbreak of World War I. While some activity continued, with the NUWSS continuing to lobby peacefully, Emmeline Pankhurst, convinced that Germany posed a danger to all humanity, persuaded the WSPU to halt all militant suffrage activity.

Parliament expands suffrage 1918

During the war, a select group of parliamentary leaders decided on a policy that would expand the suffrage to all men, and to most women. Asquith, an opponent, was replaced as prime minister in late 1916 by David Lloyd George, a longtime supporter of women’s suffrage.

During the war a serious shortage of able-bodied men ("manpower") occurred, and women were required to take on many of the traditional male roles. With the approval of the trade unions, "dilution" was agreed upon. Complicated factory jobs handled by skilled men were diluted or simplified so that they could be handled by less skilled men and women. The result was a large increase in women workers, concentrated in munitions industries of highest priority to winning the war. This led to a new view of what a woman was capable of doing, at the same time the anti-suffrage hostility caused by pre-war militant tactics declined. All the major women's groups strongly supported the war effort. Pacifism existed on the left of politics, especially in the trade unions, but did not play a major role in creating opposition to women's suffrage. Until now suffrage was based on occupational qualifications of men. Millions of women were now meeting those occupational qualifications, which in any case were so old-fashioned that the consensus was to remove them. For example, a male voter who joined the Army might lose the right to vote, which was an intolerable result. In early 1916, suffragist organizations privately agreed to downplay their differences, and resolve that any legislation increasing the number of votes should also enfranchise women. Local government officials proposed a simplification of the old system of franchise and registration, and the Labour cabinet member in the new coalition government, Arthur Henderson, called for universal suffrage, with an age cutoff of 21 for men and 25 for women. Most male political leaders showed anxiety about having a female majority in the new electorate. Parliament turned over the issue to a new Speakers Conference, a special committee from all parties from both houses, chaired by the Speaker. They began meeting in October 1916, in secret. A majority of 15 to 6 supported votes for some women; by 12 to 10, it agreed on a higher age cut off for women. [23] Women leaders accepted a cutoff age of 30 in order to get the vote for most women. [24]

Finally in 1918, Parliament passed an act granting the vote to women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities. About 8.4 million women gained the vote. [25] In November 1918, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was passed, allowing women to be elected into the House of Commons. [25] By 1928 the consensus was that votes for women had been successful. With the Conservative Party in full control in 1928, it passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act that extended the voting franchise to all women over the age of 21, granting women the vote on the same terms as men, [26] [27] although one Conservative opponent of the bill warned that it risked splitting the party for years to come. [28]

Women in prominent roles

WSPU founders Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst.jpg
WSPU founders Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst was a key figure gaining intense media coverage of the women's suffrage movement. Pankhurst, alongside her two daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, founded and led the Women's Social and Political Union, an organisation that was focused on direct action to win the vote. Her husband, Richard Pankhurst, also supported women suffrage ideas since he was the author of the first British woman suffrage bill and the Married Women’s Property Acts in 1870 and 1882. After her husband’s death, Emmeline decided to move to the forefront of the suffrage battle. Along with her two daughters, Christabel Pankhurst and Sylvia Pankhurst, she joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). With her experience with this organisation, Emmeline founded the Women's Franchise League in 1889 and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. [29] Frustrated with years of government inactivity and false promises, the WSPU adopted a militant stance, which was so influential it was later imported into suffrage struggles worldwide, most notably by Alice Paul in the United States. After many years of struggle and adversity, women finally gained suffrage but Emmeline died shortly after this. [30]

Another key figure was Millicent Fawcett. She had a peaceful approach to issues presented to the organisations and the way to get points across to society. She supported the Married Women's Property Act and the social purity campaign. Two events influenced her to become even more involved: her husband’s death and the division of the suffrage movement over the issue of affiliation with political parties. Millicent, who supported staying independent of political parties, made sure that the parts separated came together to become stronger by working together. Because of her actions, she was made president of the NUWSS. [31] In 1910–1912, she supported a bill to give vote rights to single and widowed females of a household. By supporting the British in World War I, she thought women would be recognised as a prominent part of Europe and deserved basic rights such as voting. [32] Millicent Fawcett came from a radical family. Her sister was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson an English physician and feminist, and the first woman to gain a medical qualification in Britain. Elizabeth was elected mayor of Aldeburgh in 1908 and gave speeches for suffrage. [33]

Emily Davies became an editor of a feminist publication, Englishwoman's Journal . She expressed her feminist ideas on paper and was also a major supporter and influential figure during the twentieth century. In addition to suffrage, she supported more rights for women such as access to education. She wrote works and had power with words. She wrote texts such as Thoughts on Some Questions Relating to Women in 1910 and Higher Education for Women in 1866. She was a large supporter in the times where organisations were trying to reach people for a change. [34] With her was a friend named Barbara Bodichon who also published articles and books such as Women and Work (1857), Enfranchisement of Women (1866), and Objections to the Enfranchisement of Women (1866), and American Diary in 1872. [35]

Mary Gawthorpe was an early suffragette who left teaching to fight for women's voting rights. She was imprisoned after heckling Winston Churchill. She left England after her release, eventually emigrating to the United States and settling in New York. She worked in the trade union movement and in 1920 became a full-time official of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. In 2003, Mary's nieces donated her papers to New York University. [36]


Whitfield concludes that the militant campaign had some positive effects in terms of attracting enormous publicity, and forcing the moderates to better organize themselves, while also stimulating the organization of the antis. He concludes:

The overall effect of the suffragette militancy, however, was to set back the cause of women's suffrage. For women to gain the right to vote it was necessary to demonstrate that they had public opinion on their side, to build and consolidate a parliamentary majority in favour of women's suffrage and to persuade or pressure the government to introduce its own franchise reform. None of these objectives was achieved. [37]

The Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst Memorial in London was first dedicated to Emmeline Pankhurst in 1930, with a plaque added for Christabel Pankhurst in 1958.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Women being given the right to vote, a statue of Millicent Fawcett was erected in Parliament Square, London in 2018. [38] [ deprecated source ]


A suffragette arrested in the street by two police officers in London in 1914 Suffragette arrest, London, 1914.jpg
A suffragette arrested in the street by two police officers in London in 1914

See also

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Historiography of the Suffragettes

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Further reading

Greenwood Harrison, Patricia (2000). Collecting Links: The British and American Woman Suffrage Movements, 1900–1914. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Crawford, Elizabeth (1999). The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866–1928. London: UCL Press.
Crawford, Elizabeth (2013). The Women's Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland: A Regional Survey. Routledge.
Griffin, Ben (2012). The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain: Masculinity, Political Culture and the Struggle for Women's Rights. Cambridge University Press.
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