Votes for Women

The 2017/18 Olive Matthews costume exhibition, Fashion & Freedom, examines female clothing from the 1840s to the 1980s from the standpoint of the progression of female emancipation. No exhibition which purports to explore the history of women’s emancipation can ignore the Suffragette Movement and the fight for votes for women. After all, this display commemorates the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act; an important landmark in the progress towards equal voting rights. 

This article focuses on the Votes for Women campaign, and tells the story of some of the local areas's more militant suffragettes.


Suffragettes preparing and counting tickets, 1909. © Museum of London

The conscious fight for women’s rights arguably began with the first great feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, who published Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Thereafter there was (sometimes heartbreakingly) slow progression towards greater equality. As the women’s movement gradually gained strength, with calls for reform on many different issues, there was a growing realisation that the vote was a key point around which support for women’s rights could be galvanised and pressure brought to bear. With no right to vote and consequently no say in the policies of the government, women were effectively excluded from full participation in society. ‘Votes for Women’ was a rallying cry, but to the women who uttered those words it represented far more than the simple legal right to take part in elections. Upon this slogan hung the hopes and ideals of a generation of women who saw the vote as one aspect of much greater social reform which had the potential to change their lives. They were living in a society which sought to belittle and banish them to the side-lines, and they wanted change. The history of the fight for women’s suffrage is a long and complex one; pressure groups from various standpoints fought in different ways for a common cause. However, after a long and bitter struggle, the vote was eventually won for all women over the age of 21 in 1928.

The call for votes for women was there from early on in the history of the women’s movement. The first petition for women’s suffrage was presented to parliament during debates over the First Reform Bill of 1832. Needless to say this was unsuccessful, and by the Second Reform Bill of 1867, a new petition was put forward by John Stuart Mill, which was again voted down. This is the point at which more serious pressure groups for women’s suffrage began to be formed in different cities across Britain, with Manchester and London leading the way. Millicent Garrett Fawcett became active in the movement at this point and after further parliamentary petitions failed, she eventually became

President of the amalgamated societies in 1897, forming the NUWSS – the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. This group sought to lobby government, MPs and opposition parties to further the cause. They advocated a gradual and persuasive approach which, though perhaps more palatable to the men they were trying to win over, failed to bring tangible success. This ‘constitutional’ approach alone would not bring the mass of followers required in order to make the law-makers, and society as a whole, take notice.

All this was to change, however, when the Pankhurst family entered the fray. Emmeline Pankhurst quickly became an active and powerful personality within the movement and, disagreeing with the party politics and methods of the NUWSS, she founded a separate group - the WSPU or Women’s Social and Political Union - in 1903. The activities of this group, which became progressively more radical as the years went on, have come to define what many people mistakenly understand to be the actions of the entire women’s suffrage movement. Mrs Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, alongside her other two daughters Sylvia and Adela led a campaign which captured the imaginations of many women across the country (although Sylvia and Adela were to disagree with many of the methods and views of their mother and sister). The powerful and memorable slogans ‘Deeds Not Words’ and ‘Votes for Women’ were devised by the WSPU. They organised many mass rallies, demonstrations and acts of defiance. They also published a widely read magazine entitled Votes for Women, an example of which is displayed nearby, and established the famous Suffragette colour scheme of purple, white and green. Christabel Pankhurst was to emerge as a potent driving force within the movement, and it was her actions which catapulted the WSPU into the headlines when, in 1905, she and Annie Kenney were arrested and imprisoned for assaulting a police officer at a Liberal party meeting. The outrage caused by their imprisonment garnered the movement an enormous amount of publicity and gained them many followers. 

Christabel had understood that martyrdom resulting from provocation was an extremely powerful tool in the fight for the vote. Her actions, which gained widespread publicity and sympathy for the cause, earned the WSPU the support of some, though not all, of the wider suffrage campaign societies. From 1905 onwards, law-breaking and increasingly militant activity became a hallmark of the WSPU campaign. Many activists were arrested and imprisoned for breaking the law. By 1909 frustration with the government had mounted further and prisoners began to go on hunger strike. There was awe at the resolve of these prisoners and horror at the torture of force-feeding. As successive attempts to gain the vote failed, so militancy and criminal activity escalated. 1912 saw a mass window smashing campaign and this was followed in 1913 by bombing and arson attacks. This was also the year that Emily Wilding Davison died from her injuries after running in front of the King’s horse on Derby Day.

The British declaration of war against Germany in 1914 changed everything. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst called a halt to the WSPU campaign and pledged their wholehearted support for the war, though some other branches of the women’s movement favoured pacifism.
In the background, Millicent Fawcett and the NUWSS continued to fight for the vote and this, combined with the undeniable patriotism, hard work and support of women towards the war effort, eventually won the male establishment round. The Representation of the People Act gained royal assent in February of 1918. Women over the age of 30, who met certain property qualifications, at last gained the vote. The struggle finally came to an end in 1928 with the Fifth Reform Bill which gave equal voting rights to all men and women over the age of 21.

Grace Evans, Keeper of Costume, has produced a booklet detailing the story of the Englefield Green attack, including additional information and images, which is available to purchase in the museum shop and online.