It’s easy to forget some of the privileges that we have in modern day society – having a political voice being one of them. Today marks 100 years since women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote – these women had to be householders who ‘occupied premises of a yearly value of not less than £5’. It wasn’t until 1928 that women over the age of 21 could vote and 1969 saw legislation passed in Parliament allowing both women and men the vote from the age of 18, with effect from 1970.
So now seems like a timely opportunity to honour some of the prominent women who paved the way for the political change and opportunity that we enjoy today…
Best known for ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ written in 1792, in which she argues that ‘women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education.’ She goes on to suggest that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and discusses a social order that has its foundations based on reason. Wollstonecraft died in 1797 at the age of 38. Sadly her reputation was destroyed after the publication of her husband, Godwin’s memoirs in 1798. Godwin revealed Wollstonecraft’s illegitimate children, love affairs, and suicide attempts. Her work is however regarded today as one of the earlier attempts to encourage equality for women.
After the turn of the twentieth century the ‘feminist movement’ was born.
‘Suffragettes were members of women’s organisations in the late-19th and early-20th centuries which advocated the extension of the ‘franchise’, or the right to vote in public elections, to women. It particularly refers to ‘militants’ in the UK such as members of the ‘Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Suffragist is a more general term for members of the Suffrage movement, particularly those advocating ‘Women’s Suffrage’. (via Wikipedia)
Emmeline Pankhurst was a founding member of the Women’s Social and Political Union – WSPU (1903). Pankhurst encouraged pacifist beginnings to this movement, but later advocated more direct action. Arrested several times, Pankhurst spent time in prison. Hunger strikes were commonly encouraged amongst arrested suffragettes as a tactic to gaining media coverage and thus better conditions for the suffragettes.
I shall never while I live forget the suffering I experienced during the days when those cries were ringing in my ears. – Emmeline Pankhurst
Her tireless campaigning helped secure the parliamentary changes of 1918 that gave women over the 30 the right to vote. Her daughters Christabel and Sylvia were also prominent figures in the Women’s movement. Pankhurst continued to campaign for Women’s rights until her health deteriorated. She died in 1928 at the age of 69.
– Mary Wollstonecraft (left) & Emmeline Pankhurst –
Known as someone whose reputation preceded her, Davison was also an active member of the WSPU. Direct action was what she was known for – she spent time in prison and was brutally force fed. She died on June 4th 1913 at Epsom racecourse, where she was trampled after allegedly attempting to attach a suffragette sash to the horse belonging to King George V. This was seen by many as a selfless act that served to increase the positive reputation of the suffragette movement globally.
Born in 1878 in Manchester. She was nicknamed ‘The General’ as she would wear military style uniform, including an officers cap, whilst leading marches for women’s votes. She was known to be very daring and famously sneaked in through the front door of 10 Downing Street. She also spent time in prison (whilst pregnant!) and was a key organiser of many key events, including the Trafalgar Square rally in October of 1908. She died of a stroke in 1949 at the age of 70.
Sophia Duleep Singh
Goddaughter of Queen Victoria, Singh joined the WSPU in 1909 at the age of 33. Initially she kept a low profile (probably due to her royal connections) but became much more prolific within the movement in subsequent years. In 1928 she became president of the ‘Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship’, after the death of founder Emmeline Pankhurst. Despite direct action, Singh was never arrested, some say this is because she was watched by Royal administration who did not want her to become a martyr. She continued to campaign for Women’s rights until her death in 1948.
– Emily Davison, Flora Drummond & Sophia Duleep Singh –
Born in 1847, Fawcett was a suffragist. She was a tireless campaigner but avoided much of the controversy associated with direct action. Fawcett was leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). She held this post until 1919 after which she dedicated her time to writing books. She also focused much of her energy to improving educational opportunities for women – which harks back to Mary Wollstonecraft’s suggestion that women only ‘appear’ to be inferior to men due to a lack of education.
Fawcett is considered to be ‘instrumental’ in gaining the vote for over 6 million Women over the age of 30 in 1918.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ‘Representation of the People Act’ in 1918, a statue of Fawcett is to be erected in Parliament Square, London.
Today it was also announced that Fawcett has won the BBC Radio 4 poll for the most influential woman of the past 100 years.
– Millicent Fawcett, about 1870. Image via Hulton Archive/Getty Images –
The image often portrayed of suffragettes is of placard holding well dressed determined looking women, but there is a darker side to this movement. Many individuals who were involved in the campaigns for women’s rights were ostracised from their communities; marriages broke down, jobs were lost and careers destroyed, children were taken away – it was an absolute tragedy. If imprisoned for voicing their opinions or engaging in direct action, there was a free for all of abuse, including groping, being force-fed (sometimes through their rectums) and beaten. These women really suffered and all whilst not knowing if their efforts would ever come to fruition.
They soon had me on the bed and firmly held down by the shoulders, the arms, the knees and the ankles. I felt a man’s hands trying to force my mouth open, his fingers trying to press my lips apart — getting inside. I felt I should go mad; like a poor wild thing caught in a steel trap.
– Sylvia Pankhurst –
This is why it is our responsibility to vote.
This is why we need to educate our daughters, sons, neighbours and anyone else who will listen about the history of what so many women suffered and died for.
This is why these women, amongst others, should be named and honoured.
If you’ve not see it yet, we recommend you watch the film ‘Suffragette’. Here’s the trailer. And if you do have young children and would like to introduce them to the history of the Suffragette movement, we recommend this book on Emmeline Pankhurst (Annabel’s 7 year old daughter Leanora’s copy is pictured above).