Did the Suffragettes help or harm the cause of women’s suffrage?

A telegram sent to Churchill from ‘a Manchester Suffragette’ congratulating him on his engagement in 1908 and expressing the hope that his fiancee could convince him to support votes for women. View the full document here.

The first known attempt to get votes for women was in 1832. However, the right to female suffrage did not develop into a mass movement until the mid-1800s. In 1867 the vote was extended to include many working class men but women of any class were still denied the vote. In 1884 the vote was extended to the majority of men but still not to women even though women often played a key role in running local party branches, campaigning in elections and in roles such as School Boards.

Many different individuals and organisations supported women's suffrage. There were political parties, especially the Labour Party, which committed itself to full equality in 1912. There were also many individual politicians within the three main political parties (Liberal, Conservative and Labour). There were also many women's suffrage groups. Men and women of all social classes supported (and opposed) female suffrage. However, the best-known campaigners were the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), formed in 1897 and led by Millicent Fawcett, and The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), formed in 1903 and led by Emmeline Pankhurst.

Suffragists (NUWSS)

In 1897 the various supporters of women’s suffrage came together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Millicent Fawcett led the NUWSS, or Suffragists. It was a large organisation with over 500 branches. The NUWSS contained many individuals with differing views but all agreed that their action should be law abiding and constitutional. In practice this meant writing letters and petitions, lobbying MPs, demonstrations and similar methods. Despite their activity, progress was slow. Many Bills involving some mention of female suffrage went before Parliament in the years up to 1906 but none were passed.

The English suffragette and educational reformer Dame Millicent Fawcett, (1847 - 1929), addressing a meeting in Hyde Park as president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, an office she held from 1897 to 1919. (Wikimedia Commons)

Suffragettes (WSPU)

By that time there was a new group campaigning for women’s suffrage. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia were frustrated with the lack of achievement as a result of the NUWSS’s constitutional action. In 1903 she and other militants formed the women’s Social and political Union (WSPU). These militants took a more radical approach. They began by disrupting a Liberal Party meeting in 1905. The Suffragettes did not believe only in direct action. They were known for some imaginative campaigns, such as chartering a boat and unveiling a banner in the river Thames opposite Parliament, or chalking Suffragette slogans on pavements.

However, it was their more violent direct action which gained publicity. There were many examples of this. One was an attempt to force their way in to the House of Commons. There were many instances of damage to property such as smashing shop windows. There were physical attacks on government ministers and even arson. One of the most famous incidents came in 1913 when the suffragette Emily Davison was killed trying to pin a banner on the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby.

It was sensational publicity of course, but did it help or harm the cause? It is very difficult to say and historians still do not agree. What they do know is that from 1906-1914 the suffragists and the Suffragettes campaigned for female suffrage. For much of the time they worked together and supported each other. However, they sometimes clashed, usually when the NUWSS felt that the WSPU went too far with their violent protests.

There is little doubt that in popular memory the Suffragettes are generally given the greatest share of the credit for the vote. However, many historians believe this is unfair.  To begin with, they point to the sheer scale and range of activity of the NUWSS by 1914. Another factor was that the NUWSS leader Millicent Fawcett was in talks with the Labour Party in 1914 with a view to supporting them against the Liberals in elections. This seriously worried the Liberal leaders and it seems likely that some sort of measure might have been passed in 1914 or soon after.

In the event, the First World War broke out in 1914 and put the issue of female suffrage on hold. Women worked in factories and in many other vital jobs including munitions. In some versions of this story women were rewarded for their war work in 1918 with the Representation of the People Act which gave the vote to women over 30 if they were married to a registered voter or if they owned property. Historians have pointed out that it was generally young working class women who did the war work and they did not get the vote. It may have been more the case that women’s work in the war was used by opponents of female suffrage as a reason to drop their opposition.

Investigation page

The sources

Notes for teachers

Find out more