‘Deeds not words’ – the centenary of Votes for Women in the UK

A model of the suffragettes in Trafalgar Square London

Yesterday, the UK celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the ‘Representation of the People Act 1918’.  This was the Act that gave many women the vote for the first time.  The anniversary was reported widely in the media and to mark the occasion an exhibition of life-sized images of the central figures of the suffrage movement was placed in London’s Trafalgar Square (see photo).

Achieving ‘Votes for Women’ was landmark achievement that took many years of campaigning by the so called ‘suffragettes’.  Key among the many campaigners were the Pankhursts and Millicent Fawcett.

Right up until 1918, women had no vote for Members of Parliament.  The Pankhurst females were a Manchester family set to change that – mother Emmeline (born 1858) and two girls Christabel and Sylvia.  Emmeline joined the National Union of Womens Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) – led by Millicent Fawcett.  It favoured peaceful activity and discussion to bring about change, but in the opinion of the Pankhursts this wasn’t proving effective.

The run up to World War I

In 1903, Christabel and her mother decided to break with the NUWSS and set up a separate society – the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).  The WSPU was far more radical and it engaged younger (working class) people.  It’s motto was ‘deeds not words’.  Even for Christabel, despite having a Law degree from Manchester University, words were just not doing it!  In 1909 the media dubbed Christabel; the ‘Queen of the Mob’! And she didn’t disappoint.

From 1912 onwards, the WSPU adopted law-breaking, window smashing and hunger strikes to get their message across.  And sadly death – tragically, in 1913, it was WSPU member Emily Davison who killed herself under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby – probably trying to attach the WSPU rosette to the leading horse.

The adoption of violence caused friction within the WSPU.  A milder version broke away and became the Women’s Freedom League.  The Pankhursts continued with the WSPU and even ‘upped the ante’.

The WSPU decided to suspend action during the war – a (uncalculated) move that would pay significant dividends after the war.  Meanwhile the NUWSS, under Millicent Fawcett, continued with peaceful protest, increasing their membership to 50,000 – more than 10 times the WSPU.

After World War I

Partly due to the contribution of women during WW1, and with the continued peaceful efforts of the NUWSS and WSPU, an act was passed in 1918 giving 6 million women (over 30 and with ‘property’) the vote.  Finally in 1928, all women achieved parity with men (at the age of 21).  Emmeline died shortly after.

A statue of Millicent Fawcett is to be erected in Parliament Square, London.

After the success of 1918, Christabel left the UK. In 1921, she moved to America to become an evangelist with the Second Adventist movement (a protestant second coming movement). Whilst she returned to England a few times and was appointed a Dame Commander of the British Empire, she chose to live out her days in California where she died in 1958, aged 77.

America was also ready to give the vote to women after WW1.  The more traditional Southern states took a little longer to ratify the so called ’19th Amendment’ – until Tennessee tipped the scale for the motion, securing the required 2/3rd national ratification in 1920.

To find out more, The Museum of London is running an exhibition called ‘Votes for Women’ until 27 March.




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