The Hard won right to vote

Vote ballotOn 2 Jul 1928, women over 30 were finally given the right to vote. This victory was hard won. One way or another, women had been campaigning for the right to vote since the early 1830’s with the first suffrage societies formed in the 1860’s.

Throughout that time, action was taken through peaceful lobbying. It was not until the turn of the century when the first women’s suffrage bill was defeated that the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters were active members of the WSPU and their frustration with the system lead them to violent protest. Their supporters were labelled with the derogatory term ‘suffragette’ by an unsympathetic media; a name they chose to embrace. Whether by the conviction of the suffragettes or the tenacity of the suffragists, women achieved the right to vote in the UK, partially in 1918 and fully in 1928.

Next week, we face the third of only 3 UK wide referendums. The referendum gives an opportunity for the entire electorate to vote on a specific issue, in this case whether we leave or remain in the EU. Referendums are rare and we may not see another for many years. However you vote, be mindful that the ability to exercise a choice was denied to many of our ancestors.  So take the opportunity to do what they could not. Come rain or shine, go out on Thursday and make your vote count.

When women got the vote

  • 1893 New Zealand
  • 1902 Australia
  • 1906 Finland
  • 1913 Norway
  • 1915 Denmark
  • 1917 Canada
  • 1918 Austria, Germany, Poland, Russia
  • 1919 Netherlands
  • 1920 United States
  • 1921 Sweden
  • 1928 Britain, Ireland
  • 1931 Spain
  • 1934 Turkey
  • 1944 France
  • 1945 Italy
  • 1947 Argentina, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan
  • 1949 China
  • 1950 India
  • 1954 Colombia
  • 1957 Malaysia, Zimbabwe
  • 1962 Algeria
  • 1963 Iran, Morocco
  • 1964 Libya
  • 1967 Ecuador
  • 1971 Switzerland
  • 1972 Bangladesh
  • 1974 Jordan
  • 1976 Portugal
  • 1989 Namibia
  • 1990 Western Samoa
  • 1993 Kazakhstan, Moldova
  • 1994 South Africa
  • 2005 Kuwait
  • 2006 United Arab Emirates
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Intellectual inferiority & other excuses…

Millicent FawcettIt is interesting to read reports of early attempts to promote the case for women’s suffrage.  In this extract from the Bury Free Press, July 1871, Millicent Garrett Fawcett argues against multiple reasons given by men (and anti-suffrage women) against emancipation. She counters all arguments rationally and eloquently, but forty years later the government of the day still refused to grant votes to women.

“Mrs Fawcett, who, on presenting herself, was loudly cheered, then proceeded with her lecture, which was a resume and refutation of the argument used by the opponents of women’s rights to the franchise in the House of Commons on the second reading of the Woman Suffrage Bill. 

These arguments she enumerated as follows:  That women were represented already, that to give them votes would be to give two votes to their nearest male relation, or to their favourite clergyman; that it would occasion domestic broils; that it would destroy family government, which was necessarily despotic; that women were intellectually inferior to, and physically weaker than men, and therefore ought not to have the franchise; that home was woman’s sphere, that women were superior to men, and would be deteriorated by contract with the ruder life of men; that the line must be drawn somewhere for if women got votes they would demand to be admitted to Parliament; that women did not want votes; that women were by nature conservative; that women could not be soldiers; that the deference and courtesy now shown to women would be lost; that women suffrage would be destructive of the foundation of society, and obliterate the distinctions of sex; that the Bible said nothing about it; that reason must prevail; that authority was against it. 

To each of these objections Mrs Fawcett replied seriatim, and concluded by contending that the suffrage was not only woman’s right, but that woman, man and society would be improved by her possessing it.  She was much cheered, and received the thanks of the meeting, as did Sir R Murchison for giving the use of the theatre.

Mistreatment of Suffragettes

Women’s suffrage was newsworthy and accounts of suffragette militant exploits were often reported nationally, usually negatively.  The cruel treatment of those suffragists engaged in acts of peaceful protest is often conveniently forgotten.  The two accounts below, taken from The Framlingham News, portray the shocking treatments suffragettes were subjected to in the course of their fight for the vote.

Framlingham Weekly News 10th Oct 1908 The Suffragette

Suffragettes Ill-treated

Mrs. Despard and Miss Margaret Sidley, who visited Maidstone in the Suffragist van on Wednesday evening, were subjected to brutal treatment.  They had announced an open-air meeting, and a crowd of 3,000 assembled.  The Suffragettes were received with showers of granite chippings with which the road was being repaired.  A stone struck Mrs. Despard on the forehead, inflicting a nasty abrasion.  She pluckily mounted a chair and faced the crowd, who pushed her off the chair and smashed it.  When the van arrived the suffragists abandoned the attempt to speak, and barricaded themselves within.

Deliberate attempts were then made to over-throw the van, which was pushed uphill and allowed to descend by its own momentum.  Only by the narrowest shave was disaster averted.  The windows of the vehicle were smashed, the tailboard was wrenched off, rotten eggs and other missiles were flung, the imprisoned ladies being kept in a state of terror.  At length the police intervened, and amid much booing the van was driven away.

Framlingham Weekly news 8th March 1913

In Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon Mrs. Flora Drummond and several other members of the women’s Social and Political Union were made the object of hostile attentions of a huge crowd and were persistently pelted with pieces of turf.

Members of the crowd sang, danced, waved sticks, cheered and hooted in turn, and the statements of the speakers were greeted with cries of “You ought to be tarred and feathered,” and other similar taunts.

One suffragette was struck in the eye and another in the mouth.  Mrs. Drummond’s hat was disturbed with a walking-stick, which became entangled in her hair.

Another speaker had a fierce tussle with a member of the audience who attempted to board the platform.  Later the same woman injured her wrist in a tug-of-war for possession of a spectator’s stick.

At the close a formidable rush was broken by the police escort.

On Sunday afternoon an attempt by suffragettes to hold a meeting on Wimbledon Common led to disorderly scenes.

After the speakers had vainly endeavoured for half an hour to obtain a hearing, amid the blowing of motor horns and the singing of popular songs, the crowd closed in on the platform, the suffragettes were dragged off and despite efforts of the police to protect them, three of the women were knocked down.

An exciting scene was witnessed in Oxford-street on Saturday afternoon, when two suffragists, who during the morning had been playing a piano in the West End, were attacked by a couple of men, and in the skirmish which ensued the piano organ was upset and considerably damaged.

The women, both of whom are London members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, were engaged in the week’s self-denial campaign, which opened that day, and were thus engaged with the object of gathering funds on behalf of their union.

In the face of such hostility, it is easy to imagine why some women felt they could not expect to advance their cause through peaceful demonstration.

Vote for Murder – Suffragette Protest

WSPU fob“One of the women in the group, notably taller than her peers, clapped her hands, “quickly now girls,” she said. “We do not want Millicent to get wind of this.”

They hurried down a wide road into a warren of alleyways and presently found themselves at a street corner. The tall woman beckoned them to stop and they stood quietly in the shadow of the wall.

“The police station is over there,” she whispered. “As soon as you have let loose run as quickly as you can in different directions, like you did before. Are you ready?”

“Ready for what?” asked Louisa, but her voice was drowned by a sea of noise as the women ran towards the red-brick station, hurling a volley of stones into the windows of the building. They cracked like gunshots in the dusky night.”

Extract from Vote for Murder

Suffragist or suffragette?

Deed not words

Vote for Murder combines a true Victorian murder with a 1911 story of suffragism and census evasion.  Both events were inspired by ancestors within my family tree.  But what is the difference between a suffragist & a suffragette?

Women’s suffrage was the struggle for the right to vote and stand for electoral office.  Throughout the nineteenth century, women had no place in politics but in the 1800’s, women began to campaign for the right to vote.  These women were known as suffragists.  My ancestor, Herbert Cowell, married Alice Garrett in 1863 against her fathers’ wishes.  Alice’s older sister, Elizabeth Garrett (later Garrett Anderson), became the first female doctor to qualify in England and Alice’s younger sister, Millicent Garrett, later Millicent Fawcett , was a prominent suffragist.

Many local suffrage societies were formed following the inception of the Sheffield Female Political Association in 1851 and in 1897 these individual units were bought together under the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies headed by Millicent Fawcett.   The NUWSS was mostly composed of middle class, educated women and they took a long-term, peaceful approach to gaining the vote.

In 1903 a suffragist, Emmeline Pankhurst, became impatient with this method and left the NUWSS to set up her own society, the Women’s Social and Political Union.  She employed more militant tactics and the Daily Mail coined the name ‘suffragettes’ as a term of derision.  Suffragettes were prepared to break the law to gain the vote, chaining themselves to railings, damaging property and disrupting public meetings.   They endured imprisonment and force feeding as a result of their activities.

When World War I started in 1914, all suffrage activity ceased.  And in 1918, women over the age of 30, who met minimum property requirements, were given the right to vote.   It was only in 1928 that women achieved full electoral equality with men when voting rights given to all women over 21.