Suffragettes in the United Kingdom

The development to violence and the pacifying effect of WW1

The suffragette movement in the United Kingdom started off as a peaceful movement for universal suffrage, but under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst took on more extreme measures including violent attacks and hunger strikes. At the outbreak of World War 1 the movement shifted its focus towards the war effort and gained more popular support again. In 1918 a law entered into force to grant women with certain property over the age of 21 the right to vote. Ten years later in 1928 the right to vote for all women over the age of 21 was granted with the Representation of the People Act. The public opinion and portrayal of the suffragette movement in the United Kingdom were very important aspects of their struggle, although opinions are divided over the effects. The source collection is organised in a chronological way. It starts with the origins of the movement as a peaceful movement and describes the foundation by Emmeline Pankhurst. After expressions of peaceful protest, it slowly becomes more proactive, violent and aggressive in the second decade of the 20th century. This is followed by arrests of several women, violent reactions of the movement and the protest by several incarcerated women using the methods of hunger strike. Finally, the First World War represents the increasing support of the public opinion and an apparent pause of the proactive attitude of the movement. The methods become more peaceful and are characterised by reconciliation.

Acknowledgements: This source collection has been developed by Judith Geerling and Bjorn Pels with the support of Laura Steenbrink. The source collection makes use of sources provided by the Institute of Gender Equality and Women’s History, OAPEN Foundation, National Library of France, Battersea Arts Centre, The Wellcome Library,

The Founding of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1887

The movement for women suffrage in Britain originated in the 19th century. One of the first public acts was when in 1866 a group of women from the Kensington Society offered a petition with 5000 signatures to two Minister Presidents (MP) in favour of universal suffrage. MP Stuart Mill used it for an amendment to the Reform Act, but the majority voted against because the political opinion was against the idea. Women’s Suffrage groups were formed across Britain and in 1887 they united in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. This union lobbied peacefully for universal suffrage. (Atria, Institute on Gender Equality and Women's History, 2021624, CC0 - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

The Founding of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1887

The movement for women suffrage in Britain originated in the 19th century. One of the first public acts was when in 1866 a group of women from the Kensington Society offered a petition with 5000 signatures to two Minister Presidents (MP) in favour of universal suffrage. MP Stuart Mill used it for an amendment to the Reform Act, but the majority voted against because the political opinion was against the idea. Women’s Suffrage groups were formed across Britain and in 1887 they united in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. This union lobbied peacefully for universal suffrage. (Atria, Institute on Gender Equality and Women's History, 2021624, CC0 - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Pacifist Feminism in the Suffragist Movement

British suffragettes were mostly women from upper- and middle-class backgrounds, angry by their social and economic situation. The term "suffragette" was first used as a term of derision by the journalist Charles E. Hands in the London Daily Mail to describe activists in the movement for women's suffrage, in particular members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). But the women he intended ridicule embraced the term saying "suffraGETtes" implied not only that they wanted the vote, but that they intended to get it. (OAPEN Foundation, CC BY-NC-ND - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/)

Pacifist Feminism in the Suffragist Movement

British suffragettes were mostly women from upper- and middle-class backgrounds, angry by their social and economic situation. The term "suffragette" was first used as a term of derision by the journalist Charles E. Hands in the London Daily Mail to describe activists in the movement for women's suffrage, in particular members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). But the women he intended ridicule embraced the term saying "suffraGETtes" implied not only that they wanted the vote, but that they intended to get it. (OAPEN Foundation, CC BY-NC-ND - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/)

Emmeline Pankhurst Founds the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903

In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst was one of the initiators of the Women’s Social and Politicial Union (WSPU). Her daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela were also committed members of the union. They were frustrated with the lack of progress made through parliamentary lobby and following their motto ‘Deeds not words’, they were willing to establish votes for women through any means necessary. (National Library of France, rol 63417, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/)

Emmeline Pankhurst Founds the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903

In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst was one of the initiators of the Women’s Social and Politicial Union (WSPU). Her daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela were also committed members of the union. They were frustrated with the lack of progress made through parliamentary lobby and following their motto ‘Deeds not words’, they were willing to establish votes for women through any means necessary. (National Library of France, rol 63417, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/)

The Women’s Social and Political Union Hire the Lower Hall for meetings, 1909

In 1897 The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies was founded, and was formed from local suffrage societies. Millicent Fawcett led the union, she believed in constitutional campaigning, issuing leaflets, organizing meetings and presenting petitions but the campaign had little effect. Emmeline Pankhurst founded a new organization in 1903, the Women's Social and Political Union. She thought the movement would have to become radical and militant if it was going to be effective. (Battersea Arts Centre, CC BY NC SA - http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/)

The Women’s Social and Political Union Hire the Lower Hall for meetings, 1909

In 1897 The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies was founded, and was formed from local suffrage societies. Millicent Fawcett led the union, she believed in constitutional campaigning, issuing leaflets, organizing meetings and presenting petitions but the campaign had little effect. Emmeline Pankhurst founded a new organization in 1903, the Women's Social and Political Union. She thought the movement would have to become radical and militant if it was going to be effective. (Battersea Arts Centre, CC BY NC SA - http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/)

A French Example

Jeanne Oddo-Deflou founded the moderate feminism organization ‘Groupe Francais d’Etudes Féministes in 1898. She was the wife of a member of the French Chamber of Deputies, who supported the voting rights for women. Later the UFSF: Union française pour le suffrage des femmes was a French feminist organization formed in 1909 that fought for the right of women to vote, which was eventually granted in 1944. The Union took a moderate approach, advocating staged introduction of suffrage starting with local elections, and working with male allies in the Chamber of Deputies. (National Library of France, EST EI-13 (71 2), http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/)

A French Example

Jeanne Oddo-Deflou founded the moderate feminism organization ‘Groupe Francais d’Etudes Féministes in 1898. She was the wife of a member of the French Chamber of Deputies, who supported the voting rights for women. Later the UFSF: Union française pour le suffrage des femmes was a French feminist organization formed in 1909 that fought for the right of women to vote, which was eventually granted in 1944. The Union took a moderate approach, advocating staged introduction of suffrage starting with local elections, and working with male allies in the Chamber of Deputies. (National Library of France, EST EI-13 (71 2), http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/)

Button Votes for Women

The WSPU adopted the colour scheme of violet, white and green in 1908: purple symbolized dignity, white purity, and green hope. These three colours were used for banners, flags, rosettes and badges. They also would carry heart-shaped vesta cases, and appeared in newspaper cartoons and postcards. (Atria, Institute on Gender Equality and Women's History, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Button Votes for Women

The WSPU adopted the colour scheme of violet, white and green in 1908: purple symbolized dignity, white purity, and green hope. These three colours were used for banners, flags, rosettes and badges. They also would carry heart-shaped vesta cases, and appeared in newspaper cartoons and postcards. (Atria, Institute on Gender Equality and Women's History, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Suffragettes Demonstrating in London, 1911

This peaceful photograph of decent middle class women in nice dresses and parasols contrasts with the increasing militant and violent measures that the Suffragettes in Britain took to fight for their cause. (National Library of France, rol 14511, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Suffragettes Demonstrating in London, 1911

This peaceful photograph of decent middle class women in nice dresses and parasols contrasts with the increasing militant and violent measures that the Suffragettes in Britain took to fight for their cause. (National Library of France, rol 14511, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

The Arrest of a Suffragette in Llanstumdwy, 1912

In the early-20th century, until the First World War, approximately one thousand suffragettes were imprisoned in Britain. Most early incarcerations were for disturbing the public order or not paying fines. The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), campaigned to get imprisoned suffragettes recognized as political prisoners. However, this campaign was largely unsuccessful. Citing a fear that the suffragettes became political prisoners would make for easy martyrdom. (National Library of France, Rol, 23655, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

The Arrest of a Suffragette in Llanstumdwy, 1912

In the early-20th century, until the First World War, approximately one thousand suffragettes were imprisoned in Britain. Most early incarcerations were for disturbing the public order or not paying fines. The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), campaigned to get imprisoned suffragettes recognized as political prisoners. However, this campaign was largely unsuccessful. Citing a fear that the suffragettes became political prisoners would make for easy martyrdom. (National Library of France, Rol, 23655, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Hyde Park, 1913

Women trekked for weeks across the country to get voting rights. In 1913, tens of thousands of women from all levels of society walked hundreds of miles along carefully planned routes to converge in London's Hyde Park to campaign for votes for women. Fifty thousand women, who came from as far afield as Scotland, Carlisle, Cornwall and North Wales, walked for more than a month through all weather conditions while carrying banners to get to their rally point, sleeping at the houses of supporters who would join them afterwards on the greatest march ever for suffrage. (National Library of France, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Hyde Park, 1913

Women trekked for weeks across the country to get voting rights. In 1913, tens of thousands of women from all levels of society walked hundreds of miles along carefully planned routes to converge in London's Hyde Park to campaign for votes for women. Fifty thousand women, who came from as far afield as Scotland, Carlisle, Cornwall and North Wales, walked for more than a month through all weather conditions while carrying banners to get to their rally point, sleeping at the houses of supporters who would join them afterwards on the greatest march ever for suffrage. (National Library of France, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Attack on the Home of Famous British Politician David Lloyd George 1913

In February 1913 the suffragettes had blown up a part of the house of David Lloyd George, a famous British politician at the time, portrayed on this painting. This act was illustrative for the more extreme position of the Suffragettes after the Cat and Mouse Act, which was also stated by one of the leaders of the militant Suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, on that evening. (Belgian Art Links and Tools KIK-IRPA, 2048001, CC BY NC SA - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/)

Attack on the Home of Famous British Politician David Lloyd George 1913

In February 1913 the suffragettes had blown up a part of the house of David Lloyd George, a famous British politician at the time, portrayed on this painting. This act was illustrative for the more extreme position of the Suffragettes after the Cat and Mouse Act, which was also stated by one of the leaders of the militant Suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, on that evening. (Belgian Art Links and Tools KIK-IRPA, 2048001, CC BY NC SA - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/)

Arrest of a Suffragette in London, 1914

Many tactics were employed in order to achieve the goals of the movement. In all of Britain, letters and the letterboxes that contained them were burned or had acid poured onto them. Places that wealthy people, typically men, would occupy themselves with were also burned and destroyed, including cricket pitches and horse racing tracks. (National Library of France, Rol 39114, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Arrest of a Suffragette in London, 1914

Many tactics were employed in order to achieve the goals of the movement. In all of Britain, letters and the letterboxes that contained them were burned or had acid poured onto them. Places that wealthy people, typically men, would occupy themselves with were also burned and destroyed, including cricket pitches and horse racing tracks. (National Library of France, Rol 39114, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

An Act of Terrorism?

The Suffragettes refused to bow to government violence. They burned down churches as the Church of England was against what they wanted; they vandalised Oxford Street, apparently breaking all the windows in this famous street; they chained themselves to Buckingham Palace as the Royal Family were seen to be against women having the right to vote; they hired out boats, sailed up the Thames and shouted abuse through loud hailers at Parliament as it sat; others refused to pay their tax. (National Library of France, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

An Act of Terrorism?

The Suffragettes refused to bow to government violence. They burned down churches as the Church of England was against what they wanted; they vandalised Oxford Street, apparently breaking all the windows in this famous street; they chained themselves to Buckingham Palace as the Royal Family were seen to be against women having the right to vote; they hired out boats, sailed up the Thames and shouted abuse through loud hailers at Parliament as it sat; others refused to pay their tax. (National Library of France, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Forcible Feeding for Suffragettes on Hunger Strike

From 1909 the suffragettes used hunger strikes and refused all food as a protest against the unwillingness of the authorities to recognize them as political prisoners. After an initial policy of early release for prisoners on hunger strike, the government feared that the early release of such rebellious prisoners would make a mockery of the justice system and by the end of September 1909 forcible feeding was introduced. This feeding tube was one of the means to force-feed. However, it was a controversial method condemned by many members of the public. As a result the government had to end force-feeding and introduce what became known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ in 1913, temporarily discharging prisoners for ill health. (Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images, L0065157, CC-BY - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

Forcible Feeding for Suffragettes on Hunger Strike

From 1909 the suffragettes used hunger strikes and refused all food as a protest against the unwillingness of the authorities to recognize them as political prisoners. After an initial policy of early release for prisoners on hunger strike, the government feared that the early release of such rebellious prisoners would make a mockery of the justice system and by the end of September 1909 forcible feeding was introduced. This feeding tube was one of the means to force-feed. However, it was a controversial method condemned by many members of the public. As a result the government had to end force-feeding and introduce what became known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ in 1913, temporarily discharging prisoners for ill health. (Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images, L0065157, CC-BY - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

Forcible Feeding Cartoon

In this cartoon John Bull is being force-fed via a stomach pump, with many people still waiting in the queue. In political cartoons John Bull is a national personification of the United Kingdom. The cartoon is satirizing Britain's numerous political problems including the struggle for votes for women, portrayed by the only woman in the cartoon, holding the kettle. Although force-feeding was abolished in 1913, this cartoon from 1915 still shows the process of force-feeding to stop their hunger strike. (Wellcome Library, V0011636, CC-BY - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

Forcible Feeding Cartoon

In this cartoon John Bull is being force-fed via a stomach pump, with many people still waiting in the queue. In political cartoons John Bull is a national personification of the United Kingdom. The cartoon is satirizing Britain's numerous political problems including the struggle for votes for women, portrayed by the only woman in the cartoon, holding the kettle. Although force-feeding was abolished in 1913, this cartoon from 1915 still shows the process of force-feeding to stop their hunger strike. (Wellcome Library, V0011636, CC-BY - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

The First Martyr Initiates a Shift in Public Opinion

This photograph shows the evacuation of jockey H. Jones after suffragette Emily Davison threw herself in front of his horse on the racing course. In 1913 Emily ducks under the railings and throws herself in front of the galopping horses in the Epsom Derby. She gets hit by Anmer, a horse owned by the King, unseating its jockey and killing Emily. After the installment of the Cat and Mouse Act the movement became more extreme, and Emily came to be known as the first martyr. This moment changed the public view on the suffragette movement from a justified protest to madness. (National Library of France, Rol, 30030, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

The First Martyr Initiates a Shift in Public Opinion

This photograph shows the evacuation of jockey H. Jones after suffragette Emily Davison threw herself in front of his horse on the racing course. In 1913 Emily ducks under the railings and throws herself in front of the galopping horses in the Epsom Derby. She gets hit by Anmer, a horse owned by the King, unseating its jockey and killing Emily. After the installment of the Cat and Mouse Act the movement became more extreme, and Emily came to be known as the first martyr. This moment changed the public view on the suffragette movement from a justified protest to madness. (National Library of France, Rol, 30030, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

War of Their Own

During the First World War, the suffragette movement in Britain moved away from suffrage activities and focused their efforts on the war effort. As a result, hunger strikes largely stopped. The suffragettes' focus on war work turned the public opinion in favour of their eventual partial enfranchisement in 1918. Women volunteered to take on many traditional male roles – leading to a new view of what women were capable of. The war also caused a split in the British suffragette movement; the mainstream, represented by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst's WSPU calling a ceasefire in their campaign for the duration of the war, while more radical suffragettes, represented by Sylvia Pankhurst's Women's Suffrage Federation, continued the stride. (National Library of France, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

War of Their Own

During the First World War, the suffragette movement in Britain moved away from suffrage activities and focused their efforts on the war effort. As a result, hunger strikes largely stopped. The suffragettes' focus on war work turned the public opinion in favour of their eventual partial enfranchisement in 1918. Women volunteered to take on many traditional male roles – leading to a new view of what women were capable of. The war also caused a split in the British suffragette movement; the mainstream, represented by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst's WSPU calling a ceasefire in their campaign for the duration of the war, while more radical suffragettes, represented by Sylvia Pankhurst's Women's Suffrage Federation, continued the stride. (National Library of France, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

March Song

(National Library of France, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)The March of the Women Shout, shout, up with your song! Cry with the wind for the dawn is breaking. March, march, swing you along, Wide blows our banner and hope is waking. Song with its story, dreams with their glory, Lo! They call and glad is their word. Forward! Hark how it swells Thunder of freedom, the voice of the Lord. Comrades, ye who have dared, First in the battle to strive and sorrow; Scorned, spurned, naught ye have cared, Raising your eyes to a wider morrow, Ways that are weary, days that are dreay, Toil and pain by faith ye have borne. Hail, hail, victors ye stand, Wearing the wreath that the brave have worn! Long, long, we in the past, Cower’d in dread from the light of Heaven; Strong, strong, stand we at last; Fearless in faith and with sight new given. Strength with its beauty, life with its duty (Hear the voice, oh, hear and obey). These, these beckon us on, Open your eyes to the blaze of day! Life, strife, these two are one! Naught can ye win but by faith and daring; On, on that ye have done, But for the work of today preparing. Firm in reliance, laugh a defiance (Laugh in hope for sure is the end) March, march, many as one, Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend! Music by Ethel Smyth: Words by Cicely Hamilton

March Song

(National Library of France, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)The March of the Women Shout, shout, up with your song! Cry with the wind for the dawn is breaking. March, march, swing you along, Wide blows our banner and hope is waking. Song with its story, dreams with their glory, Lo! They call and glad is their word. Forward! Hark how it swells Thunder of freedom, the voice of the Lord. Comrades, ye who have dared, First in the battle to strive and sorrow; Scorned, spurned, naught ye have cared, Raising your eyes to a wider morrow, Ways that are weary, days that are dreay, Toil and pain by faith ye have borne. Hail, hail, victors ye stand, Wearing the wreath that the brave have worn! Long, long, we in the past, Cower’d in dread from the light of Heaven; Strong, strong, stand we at last; Fearless in faith and with sight new given. Strength with its beauty, life with its duty (Hear the voice, oh, hear and obey). These, these beckon us on, Open your eyes to the blaze of day! Life, strife, these two are one! Naught can ye win but by faith and daring; On, on that ye have done, But for the work of today preparing. Firm in reliance, laugh a defiance (Laugh in hope for sure is the end) March, march, many as one, Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend! Music by Ethel Smyth: Words by Cicely Hamilton

Let Them See

Women chaining themselves to railings, rushing the doors of Parliament, refusing to pay taxes and marching with thousands against a government that had refused to listen to their petitions or to take them seriously. Marches like this one were not uncommon practice during the First World War. (National Library of France, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Let Them See

Women chaining themselves to railings, rushing the doors of Parliament, refusing to pay taxes and marching with thousands against a government that had refused to listen to their petitions or to take them seriously. Marches like this one were not uncommon practice during the First World War. (National Library of France, Public Domain - http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Cartoon of Reconciling Suffragette Wartime Surgeon and Guardsman (1915)

The title “Punch, or the London Charivari” refers to a folk custom in which communities showed their disapproval with a noisy mock serenade and enforced social standards. This cartoon depicts an eminent female surgeon, who is also an fervent Suffragette and a wounded Guardsman. The surgeon recognises the guardsman from the past, who in turn suggests to forget about the past and reconcile. When World War 1 broke out the suffragettes moved away from their (violent) activities and instead focused their work on the war effort. (Wellcome Library, by Walter Mills, L0004461, CC BY - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Cartoon of Reconciling Suffragette Wartime Surgeon and Guardsman (1915)

The title “Punch, or the London Charivari” refers to a folk custom in which communities showed their disapproval with a noisy mock serenade and enforced social standards. This cartoon depicts an eminent female surgeon, who is also an fervent Suffragette and a wounded Guardsman. The surgeon recognises the guardsman from the past, who in turn suggests to forget about the past and reconcile. When World War 1 broke out the suffragettes moved away from their (violent) activities and instead focused their work on the war effort. (Wellcome Library, by Walter Mills, L0004461, CC BY - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)