Votes for women: did suffragettes really win women the vote?

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Author: Rob Salem
Date: Sept. 2009
From: Hindsight(Vol. 20, Issue 1)
Publisher: Philip Allan Updates
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,501 words
Lexile Measure: 1370L

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In 1649 a group of women petitioned Parliament for an equal share in 'the freedoms of the state'. Parliament's reply was that they were represented in political affairs by their husbands and that the women should 'go home and meddle with your housewifery. It is fitter for you to be washing your dishes.' The petitioners may have been ahead of their time, but 250 years later many men, and some women, too, still agreed with that response. Women (over the age of 30) finally won the vote in 1918, the culmination of some 50 years of concerted campaigning by women's suffrage groups. The year 2009 marks the centenary of the first suffragette hunger strikes and historians continue to argue whether it was the militant suffragettes, the suffragists or the First World War that was most responsible for gaining women the vote.

Nineteenth-century progress

The women's suffrage movement in Britain began in earnest in the 1860s. By the time the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded by the Pankhursts in 1903, the educational, legal and political position of women had improved dramatically without the need for militancy. Girls received compulsory, free elementary education and a privileged minority could even go to university. Women could sue for divorce and keep control of their own wealth when married. Women could become Poor Law Guardians and they could vote for and stand as candidates for district, parish and church councils.

In 1897, the newly formed National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) gathered 250,000 signatures for a petition to support a women's suffrage bill, which passed its second reading in the House of Commons. This evidence of remarkable progress suggests that sooner or later, with continued campaigning, women would be granted the vote in general elections.

The WSPU and early militancy

However, for one group of suffrage supporters, the WSPU, reform was happening too slowly. Militancy was their answer and this initially involved heckling ministers and campaigning at by-elections. By 1906, they had acquired the name 'suffragettes' from a critical Daily Mail article. In that same year, Millicent Fawcett, leader of the NUWSS, even argued that the WSPU 'have done more during the last twelve months ... than we have been able to accomplish in the same number of years'. Women's Sunday in June 1908 was perhaps the peak of such admiration. Three hundred thousand people attended a suffragette-organised demonstration in Hyde Park to convince Asquith, the new prime minister, that women did indeed want the vote. Asquith, however, was still not convinced. A new phase of militancy began, characterised by window-smashing, technical offences to get arrested, and hunger-striking.

Such tactics proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they achieved immense publicity, so that the issue of women's suffrage could hardly be ignored by politicians and public alike. On the other hand, they changed the nature of opposition to the movement by giving opponents a reason to be hostile (beyond their entrenched view that women and men belonged to 'separate spheres'). The Women's National Anti-Suffrage League was set up just 3 weeks after the first window-smashing and collected over 330,000 signatures for an anti-suffrage petition.

Despite this growth in opposition, the Liberal government still agreed to draft a Conciliation Bill after the January 1910 general election. Obviously, the WSPU were not the only campaigners for women's suffrage at the time, and so it is difficult to work out how influential the suffragettes were compared to the suffragists. However, the fact that the Liberals were prepared to consider giving women the vote suggests that militancy might well have had a positive impact.

Later militancy

The WSPU truce was interrupted on 18 November 1910 by the infamous Black Friday. The police behaved with unprecedented brutality towards the suffragette demonstrators, which attracted some public sympathy for the women. The truce resumed with more promises and a second general election--but broke down again in November 1911, because the WSPU felt betrayed by Asquith's actions. The militancy that followed included large-scale window-smashing, arson and other attacks on property. Mass hunger-striking led to the notorious Cat and Mouse Act of 1913, which seriously weakened the militant campaign, and the apparent 'martyrdom' of Emily Davison at the 1913 Derby evoked a great deal of public sympathy but little change in popular attitudes to the cause.

Parliamentary reaction

It was this final phase of militancy that can really be said to have hindered women's suffrage, especially in Parliament. Despite widespread support for women's suffrage in the Liberal Party, the Liberals could not be seen to give in to political violence, because they were dealing with industrial unrest and a volatile situation in Ireland at the same time. The fact that the 1911 Conciliation Bill passed its second reading by 255 votes to 88 (during the truce) but was defeated the following year by 222 to 208 provides strong evidence that WSPU militancy alienated many MPs. As Lord Robert Cecil, a supporter of the 1912 Conciliation Bill stated in its debate:

   The cause of Woman Suffrage is not as strong in
   this House today as it was a year ago...Everyone
   knows that the reason is purely and simply that
   certain women have broken the law in a way we
   all deplore ...

Three weeks earlier, Ramsay MacDonald, a Labour MP sympathetic to women's suffrage, had described militancy as 'childishness masquerading as revolution'.

Public reaction

The public response to militancy is harder to determine with certainty. Press attacks against militancy chimed with widespread hostility to the destruction of property and the endangering of life (despite WSPU claims that this was never intended). Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, an active suffragist and editor of Votes for Women, recalled of 1912 that he 'took the view that the window-smashing raid had aroused a new popular opposition, because it was for the first time an attack on private property'. The historian June Purvis's claim that 'the Suffragettes roused the country to a passionate discussion about women's status and inequality in society' may well be true but does not necessarily imply that the nation responded favourably to the cause.

NUWSS influence

The failure of the Conciliation Bills was partly caused by Liberals fearing that a new female electorate would vote disproportionately for the Conservative Party. Similarly, the Conservatives feared that a wider suffrage bill that included more men would benefit the Liberals. As a result of what the NUWSS saw as the betrayal of government promises, the union agreed to a pact with the Labour Party in 1912 and set up the Election Fighting Fund. This contributed to the Liberals losing eight seats at by-elections before the outbreak of war. Votes lost to Labour allowed Conservatives to win. This would prove dangerous to the Liberal Party if the pattern continued at the general election due in 1915.

Meanwhile, the NUWSS continued to grow in size as well as influence. Over 50,000 suffragists gathered at Hyde Park at the end of their Pilgrimage in 1913. In 1914, they boasted 496 branches and over 54,000 members, with a further 40,000 non-paying 'Friends of Women's Suffrage'. In comparison, the WSPU had around 90 branches but, unfortunately for historians, did not keep membership figures. Interestingly, the militancy for which the suffragettes are famed was carried out by only a few hundred in any one year. This does not, however, prove that the WSPU was insignificant. It has been argued, plausibly, that the publicity caused by the suffragettes led to the growth in support for the NUWSS, because those who could not stomach the violence were at least driven to support the wider suffrage movement.

Asquith weakens?

On 20 June 1914, 6 weeks before the war broke out, Asquith met a deputation of East London working-class women led by Sylvia Pankhurst. Asquith said of this meeting: 'I have listened with the greatest interest.... if [women's suffrage] has to come, we must face it boldly.' He was not converted to the cause, but it certainly marked a beginning of a change in his attitudes. Both the meeting itself and his comments might suggest Asquith was preparing to save face and adopt a clear pro-suffrage policy for the following year's general election, having already suffered at the hands of the NUWSS-Labour pact. After all, the WSPU no longer appeared to be such a threat, due to the success of the Cat and Mouse Act, and a large majority of Liberals favoured giving women some measure of franchise. This argument would imply that women's suffrage was delayed by the war.

The First World War

Within a week of the declaration of war on Germany the government had agreed to release the remaining suffragette prisoners in return for the WSPU suspending political activity and helping the war effort. Both the NUWSS and the WSPU divided on whether to support the war, but Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and other suffragettes certainly played a significant part in the recruitment drive. However, it was the contributions to the war effort of the masses of ordinary, non-political women, rather than the political campaigners that seemed to influence the media and impress the MPs who finally gave women the vote in 1918. The absence of militancy definitely helped, as did the formation of a coalition government, which reduced fears of one party gaining too much from women's suffrage.

The replacement of Asquith with the pro-suffragist Lloyd George as prime minister from the end of 1916 and the need for an electoral reform bill to enfranchise the returning soldiers added to the significance of the war in enfranchising women.


On balance, the First World War certainly affected the timing of women gaining the vote, but it is impossible to tell whether it acted as a catalyst or a delay. The arguments had been largely won before the war, thanks to the long-term campaigning of the suffragists, the changing role of women in society and the short-term publicity of the suffragettes, which served to make the issue one that could not be ignored. However, in gaining that publicity, the suffragettes gave many MPs the perfect excuse to deny women the vote.

In the February 2007 issue of BBC History, C. J. Bearman argued forcefully against the view that the WSPU 'was a mass movement, that militancy won the vote, that forcible feeding outraged public opinion, and that [the WSPU] enjoyed popular support'. He criticised June Purvis, for uncritically accepting WSPU 'propaganda lies, exaggerations and suppressions'. In the same issue, Purvis hit back at Bearman for failing to mention violence towards women and for labelling militancy as 'terrorism'. She, in turn, mocked him for relying on newspaper accounts, 'all filtered through a male gaze that thought the women were irrational, even crazy'. Certainly, both historians make the mistake of drawing general conclusions from specific examples and of being selective with evidence. However, what the barbed and personal nature of this clash goes to show is just how much history really matters and that the argument about whether the suffragettes won the vote for women is far from being resolved.

Key terms





votes for women


Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested at a demonstration outside Buckingham Palace in January 1914


Extract from an article about the WSPU in the Nottingham Guardian, 12 December 1907:

The women canvass in the rain and engage in competition for open-air audiences. Women draw up lists of speakers and look after the arrangements for vehicles. They carry sandwich boards, they distribute leaflets and they roar through megaphones and look up all the vacant dates of all the meeting rooms they can find. It may not be 'womanly' but it is done and no Parliamentary candidate can afford to ignore the fact.

Quoted in Votes for Women by Diane Atkinson, 1988


'Votes and violence' by W.K. Haselden, Daily Mirror, 2 July 1909


The death of Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, in June 1913, caused by injuries received when running in front of the King's horse on Derby Day, had been a turning point in public opinion. Vast, sympathetic crowds lined the route of the funeral cortege. [This was] Captured on film that was shown around the world, [and] a general feeling developed that the struggle should end.

'Radical fighters in a just cause' by June Purvis, BBC History Vol. 8, No. 2, February 2007


The funeral procession of Emily Davison, 14 June 1913


Pankhurst claims to have won over public opinion scarcely seem consistent with the growing hostility shown by the crowds at their meetings, the defeat of their candidate at the Bow and Bromley by-election in 1912, and the deep gulf between them and workingclass women. Always a small organization, the WSPU repeatedly sprit until it became a mere rump of those who were willing to give unquestioning loyalty to the Pankhursts.

From 'Votes for Women' by Martin Pugh, in Peter Catterall (ed.) Britain 1867-1918, 1994


Extract from a statement by Emmeline Pankhurst, 10 February 1913:

We are not destroying Orchid Houses, breaking windows, cutting telegraph wires, injuring golf greens, in order to win the approval of the people who were attacked. If the general public were pleased with what we are doing, that would be a proof that our warfare is ineffective. We don't intend that you should be pleased.

Quoted in Rise Up, Women!: Militant Campaign of the Women's Social and Political Union, 1903-14 by Andrew Rosen, 1974


Extract from a speech in London by Carrie C. Catt, an American suffrage campaigner, June 1913:

However unwise, British suffragettes have pursued a militant policy. We who know them as women of education know that their motives are based on loyalty and devotion to women's suffrage. Since the recent outbreaks of arson, the agitation created by the British government against the suffragettes has led to world-wide discussion on the question of women's suffrage. The women's suffrage movement owes to these women a tremendous obligation for the seizing of public attention and the public discussion now taking place.

* 1 What can we learn from Source B about the early stages of WSPU campaigning?

* 2 Study Source C. What was the purpose of this cartoon? Use details of the illustration and your own knowledge to explain your answer.

* 3 Some historians and contemporaries have argued that Emily Davison did not intend to commit suicide at the Derby. Use the internet to research the evidence for and against this argument. Do not view the footage of the incident until the end of your research. Was Davison's death suicide or an accident?

* 4 Study Sources E and F and the last paragraph of this article. How useful are Sources E and F as evidence of the impact of Emily Davison ' s death? Explain your answer.

* 5 Does it matter that most of the historians who question the value of the WSPU campaign are male and most of those who defend the suffragettes are female?

* 6 'The suffragettes hindered rather than helped the women's suffrage movement.' How far do the sources in this article support this statement? Use details from the sources and your own knowledge to explain your answer.


The women's suffrage campaign

1792        Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of
            the Rights of Women

1832        Henry Hunt introduces the first
            petition for women's suffrage to

1867        J. S. Mill's amendment to the Second
            Reform Bill defeated

1887        Lydia Becker forms the first
            Committee of Members of

Oct 1897    NUWSS founded

Oct 1903    WSPU founded

Oct 1905    First act of suffragette militancy
            (by Christabel Pankhurst and Annie

June 1908   Women's Sunday

July 1909   Marion Wallace Dunlop becomes the
            first suffragette hunger striker

Nov 1910    WSPU truce broken by Black Friday

Nov 1911    Failure of Second Conciliation Bill
            ends WSPU truce

May 1912    NUWSS pact with Labour

Jan 1913    Amendment to Franchise Bill
            declared unconstitutional

Apr 1913    Cat and Mouse Act passed

June 1913   Emily Davison dies after the Derby

Mar 1914    Mary Richardson slashes the Rokeby

June 1914   Asquith meets deputation of ELFS

May 1915    Coalition government formed

Oct 1916    Speaker's Conference set up

Dec 1916    Lloyd George becomes prime

Feb 1918    Representation of the People Act
            given royal assent


Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A208884289