You know about the suffragettes, right? You know they fought, and eventually won, women the right to vote alongside men. You know the mum from Mary Poppins was one. You can sing the whole of Sister Suffragette, with appropriately strident dance moves.
But you might also be a bit hazy on the details. Plenty of us know that we ought to be grateful to those women, without knowing exactly why. You might have been told, the way my mum always has, that you must vote as soon as you have the chance – “because of the suffragettes”.
So let’s hitch up our petticoats and have a little march through history, shall we? Here’s everything you need to know.
Let’s start with the basics – what does ‘suffrage’ actually mean?
‘Suffrage’ means having the right to vote in public, political elections. So ‘women’s suffrage’ means women having the right to vote, while ‘universal suffrage’ means giving everyone the right to vote, regardless of their gender, race, social status, education level or wealth.
(Not age though. If you know an eleven year-old who has strong opinions, afraid they’ll be waiting a while yet.)
So hang on, women weren’t allowed to vote? Like, at all?
Nope. In 1832, the first petition to grant women the right to vote was presented in Parliament by a woman called Mary Smith. It was rejected – at the same time as The Great Reform Act was passed, confirming that women definitely, definitely weren’t allowed to vote. Just to rub it in.
Another 34 years passed before MP John Stuart Mill tried again to change the law, and again failed, which prompted people up and down the country to form suffrage societies and start campaigning to make themselves heard. Time and again, suffragettes presented petitions to parliament and had their efforts rejected, ignored or mocked – but the movement grew and grew in pace and power, as more women joined the cause.
The term ‘suffragette’ was first used in 1906 by the Daily Mail (and it wasn’t meant to be flattering to women – some things never change). By the time the First World War started in 1914 the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies had over 50,000 official members and more funding than the Labour Party, with loads more unofficial supporters taking their own course of action.
What did they actually do?
At first the suffragettes were peaceful, holding meetings and signing petitions to try to get their point across. But some began to think that only direct action would really change anything. After decades of unsuccessful campaigning, famous suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, along with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, formed a breakaway group (the Women’s Social and Political Union) which kicked their protests up a gear and became louder, angrier and more forceful.
Known as the ‘militant’ suffragettes, these women adopted the slogan ‘Deeds not words’ and began staging rowdy, headline-grabbing stunts in the name of votes for women. They chained themselves to railings, smashed windows, started fires and defaced public property in an attempt to make themselves noticed – and more than a thousand were arrested in the process. In prison many continued their protest by going on hunger strikes, which led to them being brutally, and often dangerously, force-fed.
Who were they?
Although many of the most famous suffragettes were, like Mrs Banks, well-to-do women who had the time and resources to join the campaign, plenty were also working class with money to earn and children to support who were risking much more than just their social reputation by protesting. And some were even men.
But despite having some male support on their side, the suffragettes met with plenty of abuse and sexist ridicule. They were declared ‘unladylike’ and ‘unnatural’, accused of everything from robbing men of their masculinity to going against God himself. Watching the awesome, angry crowds assembled at the women’s marches earlier this year, it’s kind of incredible to think that 100 years ago just being a woman with an opinion was enough to brand you a freak of nature. Threatened much, guys?
The other kind of battle
A turning point came for the suffragettes with the outbreak of World War One. While Britain’s men were sent abroad to fight, more than a million women stepped into their place and took over running the country’s factories, farms and public services. Pay was low, the work was hard and conditions were pretty horrible – but naturally, they still bossed it.
Many people think that it was their effort during the war that finally ‘proved’ women deserved the vote (don’t get us started on that). But while it was an important step in the struggle, truth was plenty of men still expected women to head straight back into the kitchen once the war was over.
What happened at the horse races?
If you know one story about the suffragettes, it’s probably this one – on 4th June 1913, a militant suffragette named Emily Wilding Davison went to the Epsom Derby, climbed under a railing, and ran onto the track in the midst of the race, holding a ‘Votes For Women’ sash in the suffragette colours – green, white and purple. Throwing herself in front of a horse named Anmer, who was owned by King George V., Davison was violently trampled underfoot and later died from her injuries.
Nobody knows if she meant to die that day, or just attract royal attention with a dramatic public statement, but her desperate act became one of the defining points of suffragette history.
…and they won in the end, right?
Correct! But you knew that. Because – spoiler alert – tomorrow, women up and down Britain will go to the polling station and vote, the way they have for 99 years now. Women will be elected to new seats in Parliament, and the next generation of women (you) will be able to look at them and think, ‘yeah, I could do that.’ A woman may, or may not, continue being our prime minister. Leslie Knope happened. The suffragettes abso-bloody-lutely won.
But what you might not know is that reaching true voting equality actually took far longer. In 1918, the UK vote was granted to women (yay!) over the age of 30 (oh) – and only if they were married to a man who could vote, owned property, or had been to university (sigh). Women could also be elected to parliament from 1918, but it took until 1928 for ALL women over 21 to be able to vote.
Meanwhile around the world, the fight was far from over. In the United States, women of colour weren’t given the right to vote across all states until 1965. NINETEEN SIXTY-FIVE. The Beatles were in the charts by then. Your grandmother had a mini skirt. In Switzerland, it was 1971 before women were granted the right to vote – and astonishingly, 1991 before it applied to all local elections too.
And of course, even in your lifetime the fight has continued. It was only two years ago that women in Saudi Arabia finally had the right to vote and run for election. Love Yourself by Justin Beiber was in the charts. You had a fluffy keyring.
So let’s remember never to take those votes for granted. Because thousands of women fought, and many died, for your right to register to vote the moment you turn 18 (then have champagne and cake to celebrate). And until then you can still shout, good and loud, about the issues that matter to you – petition, protest, persist. Because if the suffragettes taught us one thing, it’s that angry women get things done.
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Image: Suffragette (movie)