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Today we take it for granted that both women and men can vote in elections. But only a century ago women were not allowed to vote. Had it not been for the women of the suffragette movement—better known by their nickname of the suffragettes—women might still be treated differently to men in society.



Until the beginning of the 20th century, society believed that a woman should stay at home and be a housewife and look after her husband and children. While women stayed at home, men were expected to go out to work and earn money. Women were believed to be too delicate to cope with concerns such as making money, waging war or governing society. They were called “the weaker sex”, not only physically, but also emotionally.

Many men thought women were ruled by their feelings and not able to think deeply or make serious decisions. They believed that women were not capable of voting in parliamentary elections.


During the 19th century women became increasingly impatient with this discriminatory attitude. Educated women were eager to exploit their talents and explore the world. The idea that a woman should stay and look after the home was a sort of imprisonment. Working-class women had to be both carers and providers. They fitted housework and childcare in between long hours of labour in fields or factories or working as servants in the houses of the wealthy.


Those who campaigned for women’s rights could see the importance of suffrage. Suffrage means being allowed to vote. If a women had no say in who ruled the country, how could they have any influence over how the society they lived in was run? And why should men alone have that privilege?

A series of committees and petitions were organized but were not very successful. In 1897, Millicent Garrett Fawcett brought various campaigning groups together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). This suffragette organization campaigned against the government using legal means.


By 1903, some campaigners felt the NUWSS was doomed to fail. Its commitment to peaceful, lawful methods of campaigning meant that it would never make a real impact. More dramatic measures were called for. A well-known suffragette was Emmeline Pankhurst. She founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903.

The WSPU was the most successful suffragette organization. It campaigned for the parliamentary vote to be given to women on the same terms as it was given to men. The WSPU was dedicated to direct action—its motto was “Deeds, not words”. It started out by campaigning peacefully. Speakers from the WSPU talked at meetings as well as in places like fairgrounds and parks. However, this kind of campaigning did not attract much attention. A more confrontational approach was needed.


The new organization took the message more aggressively to the country. Then in 1905 Emmeline’s daughter Christabel and another suffragrette, Annie Kenney, were arrested for disrupting a Liberal Party meeting. They chose to go to prison rather than pay a fine because this would create more publicity. In the years that followed, a series of suffragettes were imprisoned after all sorts of attention-grabbing protests—from breaking shop-windows to chaining themselves to railings outside public buildings.

Once in prison, suffragettes would go on hunger strike to attract attention to their cause. Rather than recognize their cause, or allow the suffragettes to die of starvation, the government decided to force-feed them. This was done using a tube through the nose. Often the tube was not cleaned or had been used on a diseased person. Force-feeding was violent and disturbing for the prisoner.

One suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison, even gave her life for the cause. To draw attention to the protest movement she threw herself under the king’s horse at the annual Derby race and was trampled to death. Her funeral was watched by large crowds.


Suffragettes came from all kinds of backgrounds. Some were working class, many were middle or upper class and educated. The idea of well-educated ladies breaking windows or assaulting policemen was shocking to people at the time. The thought of women being locked up in prison was even more scandalous. People became even more disturbed with the force-feeding of suffragettes on hunger strike. Many blamed the suffragettes themselves for behaving in this way, but others were more sympathetic and believed them to be victims of an unjust system.


By the time World War I broke out in 1914, women had still not won the right to vote. The suffragettes suspended their campaign during this national emergency. Also, women made an invaluable contribution to the war effort, not only as nurses but by working as drivers of ambulances, working in munitions factories and dealing with many of the heavy industrial jobs that men had done before they went away to war.

The suffragette movement had raised awareness of women’s right to equality with men. Women’s effort during the war helped demonstrate that they were equal to men. In the United Kingdom, by the time the war ended in 1918 there was much less opposition to women’s suffrage. In the same year a government act was passed that gave the vote to certain women over 30 years old. It took another ten years before all women over the age of 21 had the vote. Emmeline Pankhurst died a few weeks before this new law came in. The voting age in the United Kingdom is now 18.

Today, few people dispute the inspiration that the courage and determination of the suffragettes gave to the generations of women who came after them.

Did you know?
• The nickname ‘suffragette’ was originally used as a mocking put-down of the suffragists, but was then adopted with pride by the women themselves.
• The most famous suffragette ‘martyr’, Emily Wilding Davison, disrupted the 1913 Derby horse race by running on to the Epsom course: she was killed after falling beneath the hooves of the king’s horse.
• The WSPU colours were purple, white and green: the first stood for dignity, the second for purity and the third for hope.

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