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The Suffrage Movement History

The campaign for women’s suffrage was diverse and powerful, made up of franchises from across the country. Two of the most significant Societies were the Suffragists, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Suffragettes, Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).


Though we now link the campaigns mainly to the geographical locations of Manchester and London, the franchises came from all over – including as far out as Shetland, where Christine Jamieson set up the Shetland Women’s Suffrage Society. These smaller, regional branches were essential to both campaigns successes, with many of the campaign leaders travelling up and down the country to address them. Welsh Suffrage Societies were equally active. The Women’s Freedom League, together with the NUWSS, dominated the country due to political loyalties to the Liberal parties, and even rallies fronted by Emmeline Pankhurst and the popularity of high-profile suffragette Lady Rhondaa didn’t sway the population towards militancy. Irish suffrage was much more complex due to the fight for Home Rule that battled on. Despite this, the fight for women’s suffrage had been bubbling beneath the surface since the late 1880s, and a large amount of franchises would form across the country, with the WSPU forming a group in Belfast in 1913.

The NUWSS dominated the country, despite the growing strength and infamy of the WSPU. Through their campaigns of militancy, the WSPU gained notoriety in the national press – leading to the term ‘suffragette’ first being used by the Daily Mail in 1906. Their first mass rally in June 1908, at Hyde Park, drew in crowds of over 300,000, and many of the suffrage banners – including the Manchester WSPU “First in the Fight Banner” were made specifically to be marched at the event.

The “law-abiding suffragists” also used banners and rallies to draw in publicity for their campaign. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the leader of the campaign, used the negative press attention of the militants to her advantage, and soon, banners bearing the messages of peaceful and law-abiding suffragists were produced. The suffragists are often left out of public memory due to the infamy of the militant campaign, but their tactics, consistency, and relentlessness was just as significant in the fight for the vote.

Campaigners came from many different backgrounds, from working class to upper class. Many working class women, such as Hannah Mitchell, spoke of the troubles of balancing the campaign with her home life, stating that it was like: “Having one hand tied behind us.”

Though little is mentioned of the racial diversity of the campaign, there is evidence of the involvement of BME women throughout the campaign. Whilst names like Sophia Duleep-Singh – the campaigning goddaughter of Queen Victoria – are familiar to us, lesser known are stories of the Indian suffragists who marched in the Coronation Procession in 1917. This protest, held on the eve of George V’s coronation, featured representatives from across the Commonwealth, demanding the right to vote.

Despite the constant propaganda from the National League Opposing Women’s Suffrage, many men actively supported the campaign, most notably campaigners such as Frederick Pethwick Lawrence, and politicians such as Keir Hardie and George Lansbury.

  • By Helen Antrobus, People’s History Museum


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