Originally Posted by BBC
The votes-for-women movement exploded in popularity the UK in 1903 – hence this year’s centenary celebrations – but the story of the campaign begins before the reign of Queen Victoria.
In 1832, Lord Grey piloted the highly controversial Great Reform Act through Parliament. It was meant to extend the franchise – but used the word “male” instead of “people”, excluding women from the vote. The first leaflet advocating votes for women appeared in 1847, and suffrage societies began to crop up throughout the country.
Twenty years later, John Stuart Mill led an unsuccessful attempt to secure votes for women in the Second Reform Act. That defeat led to the founding of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage.
The following year Richard Pankhurst, an MP and Manchester lawyer, made a fresh attempt to win votes for women. His wife and daughter, Emmeline and Christabel, went on to become the two most important figures in the movement.
The first country to give the vote to women was New Zealand in 1893, a move which acted as a major fillip to British campaigners. Australia took nine more years to do the same.
Frustrated by no sign of reform at home, the leading campaigners of the day took matters in to their own hands. On 10 October 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union – its members soon be nicknamed the suffragettes – held its inaugural meeting, and declared that the situation was so serious it would have to pursue extreme measures of civil disobedience.
Women began chaining themselves to railings, and within five years the campaign had extended to smashing windows.
The most determined – and the first to be jailed – were Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kennedy. They disrupted a Liberal Party meeting, got themselves arrested and then refused to pay fines so their jailing created headlines.
By 1911, the UK had witnessed the first act of suffragette arson (orchestrated by Christabel) and two years later Emily Davison died at the Derby as she rushed out to bring down the King’s horse.
In Parliament, pressure for change was led by some liberal MPs, who were the leading figures in a suffrage committee.
But away from the reasoned debate of Westminster, prisons filled with women prepared to go to jail for the right to vote. The civil disobedience continued behind bars, with many women force-fed to prevent them hunger striking.
While the authorities tried to present them as insane, their families campaigned for the inmates to be given political status, including the right to wear their own clothes, study and prepare their own food.
World War I proved to be the turning point for the campaign.
The suffragettes effectively put on hold their campaign of civil direct action in the interests of national unity. As men went to the Western Front, women proved how indispensable they were in the fields and armaments factories.
By 1918, no government could resist and the Representation of the Peoples Act allowed women over 30 the right to vote. It would take a further 10 years to abolish the age qualification and put men and women on an equal footing.
To mark the centenary of the votes-for-women movement, a National Archives exhibition emphasises that the suffragettes were not all well-to-do Edwardian women, as history popularly has it.
At its height it became one of the few political movements in the history of Britain to cut across all classes – for no woman could vote, regardless of her position.
Many of the upper-middle class women jailed for suffragette protests found themselves sharing prison with the poorest in society, an experience which greatly influenced much of their future politics.
Suffragette in the family
Annette Ure, a business analyst at the National Archives, knows a thing or two about this. Her great-grandmother, Emily Cowley, a working class woman in domestic service, joined the suffragettes and was jailed in 1908.
Her stand for her rights is something which Ms Ure’s family treasure as much as they would a family heirloom.
“We still have her suffragette plaque and brooch and I remember as a child how my mother and Grandmother would bring them out and explain to me their significance,” she says. “So when I first voted after turning 18, we raised a glass and toasted Emily.”
Emily Cowley was jailed after a protest turned ugly in Westminster.
“Undeterred by her imprisonment, she had a photograph taken of herself and her children, wearing her suffragette’s uniform as a mark of defiance,” says Ms Ure.
“Having a suffragette in my family has been a great inspiration to me. I have two daughters who are a long way off from voting, but I hope that Emily will be part of their lives too.”