This week, Hope, the Lego Suffragette arrived at the University. Hope is in Worcester as part of her nationwide tour which tells the story of women’s suffrage in Britain, celebrating the women who fought for the right to vote over one hundred years ago. But just who were the suffragettes? Anna Muggeridge, a doctoral student and Associate Lecturer in the History Department lets us know:
The history of who could vote in Britain is complicated. The 1832 Reform Act first stated in law that voters had to be ‘male persons’, but this did not mean that all men were were able to vote. In order to vote, a man had to own property worth at least £10, an enormous sum of money at the time.
By the mid-nineteenth century, feminists had started to protest the exclusion of women from the current voting laws. This was part of the wider women’s movement, which featured numerous campaigns for changes in the law to give women equal rights. As a result, by the turn of the twentieth century, women could own property, vote in local elections, and attend university—all things they had not been able to do fifty years earlier. But they still could not vote in parliamentary elections, and it was around 1900 that the British suffrage movement was taking action.
In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was founded, led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett. In the years leading up to the First World War, the NUWSS campaigned for women to be given the right to vote through peaceful, legal means, for example organising petitions and leading marches across the country to raise awareness of their cause. It became the largest women’s suffrage organisation, with around 100,000 members nationwide by 1914.
Mrs Fawcett’s insistence that the NUWSS was for ‘law-abiding’ suffragists grew as a result of the actions of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel in 1903. The WSPU became increasingly militant in its tactics as the decade progressed. While at first, they simply interrupted political meetings, heckling politicians to support women’s enfranchisement, by the 1910s they became famous for chaining themselves to railings, smashing windows, bombing buildings and setting fire to letterboxes and even politicians’ houses, all to try to effect a change in the law which would give women the vote.
The Pankhursts were always insistent that the ‘suffragettes’, as they were first disparagingly dubbed by the Daily Mail, would never endanger life through their actions—they attacked houses that were known to be empty, for instance. But their treatment at the hands of the authorities was harsh. Imprisoned for their actions, many went on hunger strike demanding to be classified as political prisoners, so they were brutally force-fed. And, in 1913, WSPU member Emily Wilding Davison died after being trampled by the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. Her actions are still not fully understood today, but historians believe that she was attempting to pin a rosette in the suffragette colours—purple, white and green—on the horse.
Although various Reform Acts had increased the male electorate, Britain still had a property-based voting system and only those who owned or rented property above a certain value could vote. This excluded a significant proportion of working-class men, as well as all women. Adult suffrage organisations campaigned for universal adult rights to vote on a residency qualification—essentially what we have today. Some suffragettes believed that women should support a property-based right to vote system first, then work towards full adult suffrage. But others opposed this, claiming it would leave the poorest, men and women, voteless.
No agreement could be reached, and there was something of a stalemate among suffrage campaigners when the First World War broke out in 1914. War highlighted that many men who were serving in the forces, fighting and possibly dying for their country, still did not have the right to vote. It was acknowledged that this situation had to be rectified, and that any new right to vote bill could no longer exclude women entirely, not least because, while the WSPU had ceased campaigning for the duration of the war, there was a fear among some politicians that once the war was over, their militancy would return.
After intense parliamentary negotiations, a compromise was reached. Men would be allowed to vote at 21 (reduced to 19 if they had served in the forces, although conscientious objectors could not vote for ten years) on a residency qualification. Women, meanwhile, would have to wait until they were 30, and even then meet a property qualification. About eight million women were able to vote when the Representation of the People Act passed on 6 February 1918, though about seven million women remained voteless. They would have to wait until 1928, when women were allowed to vote on equal terms with men.
The granting of the vote to women—and indeed men—was a slow and incremental process. The tactics suffragettes used were divisive, and not always supported even by some other proponents of women’s suffrage. While some women were prepared to go to prison and even die for ‘the cause’, others worked tirelessly for decades in less celebrated roles, working for the vote through legal means. But as we head towards another General Election, Hope reminds us what a privilege it is to vote, and that so many fought for our right to do so. So why not come and have your photo taken with her, #StandWithHope, and then register to vote?
Anna Muggeridge Works in the History Department which offers the undergraduate qualification History BA (hons) and the postgraduate qualification History MA and History MRes.