Vote 100: the journey to democracy

A women's suffragette march

At this highly enjoyable Study day at the British library, five speakers drew on many of the collections at the Library to give us a comprehensive overview of the suffrage movement. Interestingly, we were also introduced to a number of characters who were relatively unknown to many of us. The Pankhursts, the Garrett-Andersons and other aristocratic names were given a mention but it soon became clear that a very large number of working class women were also involved in the movement.

Although the day was divided into five talks by different speakers, with question times at the end of the morning and afternoon sessions, it did not follow the chronological order which one might have expected. The first session looked back to the 1960s, 70s and 80s and the growth of the Women’s Liberation Movement but it was the final speaker of the day who took us back to the middle of the 19th century and the support provided by John Stuart Mill, who brought about emancipation for working class men, and Henry Fawcett. The 19’ century suffragists believed in peaceful, constitutional campaign methods to achieve their aims and in 1866 a petition with 1500 signatures was organised which demanded that women should have the same political rights as men. Women took their petition to Henry Fawcett and John Stuart Mill, but although an amendment to the 1867 Reform Act was put forward, it was defeated.

In 1897, various local women’s suffrage societies formed the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett. They wanted the vote for middle class property-owning women. Members believed that success could be gained by argument and education and the organisation tried to raise its profile peacefully and legally with petitions, posters, leaflets, calendars and public meetings.

Polly Russell, our first speaker, led us into this fascinating learning experience. She looked at the legacy of suffrage and explored the Library’s oral history project ‘Sisterhood and Beyond’ which was kick started by Sally Alexander, a Women’s Liberation Movement activist. Sixty oral histories, each between 7 and 9 hours long, document the memories of women who powered the Women’s Liberation Movement, each campaigning for equality and freedom in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. The British Library’s provision of detailed summaries and transcripts of their recordings has made the project very accessible and Polly quoted Jenni Murray from a clip on the website: ‘And it seemed to me in the early ‘70s that the way you got things changed, was by knowing where to go’.

Fern Riddell’s topic, The Weaker Sex? Violence and the Suffragettes set out to show how our collective memories have been distorted and the activities of the contributions of poor women were often erased or whitewashed. Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union, with her motto of Deeds not Words, but it was Dora Thewlis who coined the word Suffragette for the new generation of activists who were willing to take direct action for the cause. The activities of Emily Wilding-Dawson were sanitised, by not mentioning the 240 times she was force fed. Aristocratic ladies, seldom imprisoned, were released as soon as they were known.

By 1914 the movement had grown to approximately 54,000 members, almost all of its leaders and most of its members were middle of the class and largely they campaigned for the vote for middle-class property-owning women. However, working class women also joined the NUWSS and some members recognised that they needed the support of all women.

In the last talk before lunch, Alison Bailey took us at rather breakneck speed through the Arncliffe Sennett collection held at the British Library, part of a wider series of scrapbooks that provide a unique and personal record of the suffragette movement. In the days before computers, scrapbooks containing press-cuttings, letters, pamphlets, leaflets and other ephemera were used to record major projects. Maud’s was interspersed with her handwritten notes and comments and relate to the years 1906 – 1918.

After lunch, we were taken to the East End of London and the East London Federation of Suffragettes. There was also a powerful mass movement in the north – the NUWSS – which wanted the vote on the same terms as men and in which working-class women played a big role. The East London federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) became more democratic and lobbyed ministers, demanding to meet Asquith. Sylvia Pankhurst threatened a hunger strike to death and laid herself on the threshold of Westminster. Asquith then met a delegation at a stall in Roman Road market and said he would do something.

In 1914, the new East London branches drew support from men as well as women and they expanded areas beyond the vote on gender equality issues, pay and housing. There was a move to mass mobilisation but the women’s suffrage campaign was badly affected by the onset of the war in 1914. Factories closed in the East End, war profiteering was rife and food prices went through the roof. Wives or widows of soldiers had extremely small pensions and a crisis moment approached.

ELFS were against war and launched a raft of community activities for survivors. A milk distribution centre was set up and other depots opened. Cost price restaurants were opened.

The Russian Revolution had a big impact on the Workers’ Suffrage Foundation and how they campaigned.

The Second Reform Act of 1867 gave the vote to ‘respectable working men’ and in 1918, the Representation of the People Act finally brought in universal suffrage for adult men. The 1918 Act also gave the vote to women, though on a more limited basis than men. This discrimination was abolished ten years later in 1928 when women received full universal suffrage.

But the vote was much more than simply a reward for war work; the point was that women’s participation in the war helped to dispel the fears that surrounded women’s entry into the public arena.

Claire Eustace’s topic, Suffragettes in Trousers, described men’s involvement in the campaign for women’s suffrage which had been ongoing since the mid 19’ century. When the women’s movement became more militant, men started showing support: they gave speeches at meetings, provided bodyguards and husbands started to contribute. In March 1907 several left-wing intellectuals and 32 other men formed the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and in 1909 the League published a list of prominent men in favour of women’s suffrage. This included 83 former government ministers, 49 church leaders, 24 high-ranking army and navy officers, 86 academics and a number of writers. By 1910 it had ten branches in Britain. Truly suffragettes in trousers!

The session was followed by a lively questions and answers session. It’s a pity that in the audience of 120, only 7 were men as there would have been much to interest them. I certainly look forward to the next Study Day at the British Library.

A new event “On the Shoulders of Suffragettes”  organised by the Network for U3As in South and East Greater London takes place in June.  See more at u3asites.org.uk/glondonsenetwork/events.