The Flag of the WSPU - The Suffragettes, whose motto was "Deeds not Words"
The Flag of the WSPU - The Suffragettes, whose motto was "Deeds not Words"

THE BIG QUESTIONHow was British society changed,1890-1918?
HEADLINE QUESTIONSWhat was the social, political and legal position of women in the 1890s?What were the arguments for and against female suffrage?How effective were the activities of the suffragists and the suffragettes?What happened to the issue of votes for women during the war?How did women contribute to the war effort?
CONTENT THAT YOU NEED TO KNOWThe social, economic and political position of women in the 1890s;The campaign to win women the vote;Millicent Fawcett and the founding of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897;The Pankhursts and the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903;The leaders’ tactics and activities of the two groups including the use of violence;The effectiveness of the different tactics and the reactions of the authorities including Lloyd George and Asquith;The attempts to get a bill for women’s suffrage through Parliament;The situation regarding votes for women in 1914;The contribution of women during the First World War, including women in employment;The 1918 Representation of the People Act.

SKILLS THAT YOU NEED TO DEVELOPEvaluation of image and text based sources of evidence;To use contemporary evidence to answer questions about: motivation; propaganda; purpose; reliability;Comparisons of sources in terms of their reliability and usefulness;Weighing up evidence into groups that support and oppose a statement;Recall relevant and specific own knowledge that can be used to help explain and contextualise contemporary sources.

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What were the arguments for and against women’s suffrage?
In the second half of the nineteenth century women gained more rights.
The Married Women’s Property Acts gave them control of their property after they were married.
Girls had to go to school. Women were admitted to universities.
Women gained the vote in local government elections.
New employment opportunities opened up after the inventions of the telephone and the typewriter and the opening of department stores.

But there were many opponents of votes for women.
Voting in 1900 was according to the household franchise. As only men were regarded as the head of a family, women were not allowed to vote.
Women were believed to be too weak to take part in politics.
They would be easily confused and would be unable to make up their minds, or would vote for the best looking candidate.
  • Men argued that the sexes were different and had different roles in society. Women’s role was to look after children and the home; men’s was to take decisions.
  • Queen Victoria was completely against votes for women.
  • Women did not fight in the armed forces.
  • Political parties were worried that giving women the vote would help their opponents

How did women reply?

  • Women had to pay taxes just like men, but had no say in how the taxes were spent.
  • Many women were also highly educated, but were denied the vote, while the most uneducated man could vote.
  • Men were quite prepared to trust a woman doctor with their lives, but would not trust them to vote.
  • In 1904 women in Australia were allowed to vote.

How effective were the activities of the suffragists and the suffragettes

The Suffragists

  • Millicent Garrett Fawcett formed the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1897. This brought together 500 local organisations with more than 50,000 members, many of them men.
  • Millicent Fawcett became the President of the NUWSS. The NUWSS used peaceful and constitutional methods to try to win the vote for women.

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Why was the WSPU (Women's Social and Political Union AKA The Suffragettes) set up?
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  • Emmeline Pankhurst decided in 1903 to form an organisation for women within the Labour Party.
  • The Women’s Social and Political Union was founded at a meeting on 10 October 1903 in Emmeline Pankhurst’s house.
  • From 1903 to 1905 the members of the WSPU spoke at many Labour Party meetings in Lancashire.
  • The main speakers were Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia,
  • After a meeting in Oldham, Annie Kenney a factory worker, came forward and joined the Union. She became one of the few working class members of the WSPU.

Why did the WSPU begin a campaign of disruption in 1905?

  • The most important reason was the failure to make any progress using peaceful and legal methods.
  • From 1905 to 1908 the Suffragettes disrupted meetings, distributed leaflets, chained themselves to railings, shouted slogans at Westminster and picketed the houses of leading politicians.
  • From 1908 protests became more violent. Suffragettes began to throw stones at windows and cars. Some windows in Downing Street were broken.
  • Cabinet ministers, including the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith were attacked.
  • Suffragettes were arrested and put in prison. They began to go on hunger strike and were force-fed.

Why did the suffragettes suspend action in 1910?

  • In 1910, the Liberals introduced a Conciliation Bill which would have given the vote to some women.
  • Emmeline Pankhurst supported the Bill and called off all activities.
  • The Bill and a second Conciliation Bill both failed because the Liberals were afraid that votes for women would benefit the Toties.
  • The greens on golf courses were attacked with acid and many had the slogan ‘Votes for Women’ burnt into them.
  • The orchid house and tea-rooms at Kew Gardens were wrecked.
  • Two railway stations, Saunderton and Croxley Green were burned down.
  • Suffragettes managed to plant two bombs in a house belonging to Lloyd George and destroyed part of it.
  • The increased violence also brought to an end any co-operation between the WSPU and the NUWSS.
  • The WSPU became completely isolated and its members followed the instructions of the Pankhursts without question.
  • In 1912 Suffragette tactics became even more violent and many moderates left the WSPU.

The reactions of the authorities

  • The government decided on the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge) Bill.
  • This allowed the Home Secretary to release Suffragettes who went on hunger strike if their health suffered.
  • They had to agree to certain conditions and could be re-arrested if they did not.
  • At first, the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ appeared to solve the problem.
  • But Suffragettes soon began to pretend to be ill to get themselves released.
  • Once out of prison they began to campaign again. Emmeline Pankhurst was released and re-arrested six times in 1913.

The 1913 Derby

  • Emily Wilding Davison ran onto the Derby course at Tattenham Corner and stood in front of the King’s horse Anmer.
  • She was seriously injured and an emergency operation on her had failed to save her life.
  • Davison’s actions had not been approved by the WSPU, but she was turned into a martyr and given a heroine’s funeral.
  • One theory at the time was that she was attempting to commit suicide for personal reasons and not for the Suffragette cause.
  • It is also possible that she was not trying to commit suicide as she bought a return ticket.
  • Davison was a leading Suffragette, however, and was well known to the Pankhursts.
  • During 1913 and 1914 many houses were destroyed, Oxted Railway Station, Cambridge University Football Pavilion, Yarmouth Pier, Bath Hotel in Felixstowe and several churches.
  • A painting in the National Gallery was slashed in June 1913 and two paintings were attacked at Burlington House.
  • The Rokeby Venus was slashed by Mary Richardson in the National Gallery on 10 March 1914.

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Did the Suffragettes help the women’s cause?

  • The WSPU was a small, exclusive and secret organisation. It had about 4,000 members who were organised into cells. Most members were educated middle class or even upper class women.
  • Instructions were sent out from the centre. From 1912 it was run dictatorially by Emmeline Pankhurst. She ordered the extreme violence of the years 1913 and 1914.
  • The Suffragettes certainly attracted public attention. At first many men supported the Suffragettes, but opinion turned against them from 1908 and there were anti-Suffragette rallies. Suffragettes were sometimes attacked by crowds.
  • However, there were several attempts to pass laws giving women the vote from 1910 to 1912. The Suffragettes suspended their actions an a number of occasions during these years.
  • After 1912, the government was reluctant to give into demands for votes for women because it would appear that they were giving in to terrorism.
  • At the outbreak of war the Suffragettes suspended all actions. Emmeline Pankhurst urged her members to support the war effort.
  • The government ordered the release of all prisoners. There were more than 1,000.
  • But Christabel Pankhurst continued to publish ‘The Suffragette’ throughout the war and this may have been a reason for women gaining the vote in 1918. The government wanted to avoid the Suffragettes restarting their campaign.

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How did women contribute to the war effort?

  • Before the First World War many women worked. The most common job was Domestic Service.
  • About 2,000,000 women worked as Domestic Servants. Many women also worked in Textiles and in the Sweated Trades.
  • Women were normally paid two-thirds of a man’s wage and hardly ever got the chance of promotion.
  • During the First World War (1914 to 1918), 10,000,000 British people joined the armed forces. This left many jobs to be done at home. Because of this about 2,000,000 women began to work for the first time.
  • Many women had always worked, but for the first time many middle class women took jobs. But this did not happen immediately

The outbreak of war

  • At first women were not really affected by the war. In 1914 they were asked to knit socks and scarves for the soldiers and not much else.
  • The Suffragettes stopped all their action when war broke out, but nothing happened. Emmeline Pankhurst urged her followers to support the war in any way they could.
  • A group of women led by Elsie Inglis, who volunteered to go to France and work as nurses, was turned down by the army.
  • In July 1915 the Suffragettes, led by Christabel Pankhurst organised a Right to Work March in London.
  • By the end of the year, the situation was very different, as more and more men joined the Army and more and more munitions were needed, more and more women were needed to take their places.

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Munition Recruitment Poster 1914-1918
Munition Recruitment Poster 1914-1918

  • By the end of 1915 2,500,000 men had volunteered for the army.
  • New factories opened to produce planes, weapons and ammunition.
  • Munitions work could be very dangerous and very unpleasant. But many women gave up their jobs as domestic servants for the wages in munitions factories.
  • New factories opened to produce planes, weapons and ammunition, many women began to work in these.
  • In 1916 Conscription was introduced. This meant that even more women were needed. For the first time women began to be recruited into the armed services.

Women in the armed forces

  • The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) was used as nurses, by 1918 there were about 45,000, and the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD) were used as drivers and secretaries.
  • In January 1917 the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps was set up, followed by the Women’s Royal Naval Service and the Women’s Royal Air Force.

Did women gain equality with men during the war?

  • Women were paid less than men, and men complained about the use of women workers.
  • In 1915 there were strikes against the use of women workers. Some men complained of 'dilution', unskilled women taking over the jobs of skilled men.
  • When the war ended most women were sacked and their jobs were given to men. There was a big campaign to persuade women to give up their jobs and go back to being housewives.

BUT there were some changes
  • Women had more freedom after the war. Clothing became much simpler. Trousers became acceptable for the first time
  • Women got the vote at 30 in 1918, but only if they were householders or married to a householder. In 1928 they got the vote at 21. The first woman MP was elected in 1919.