Last month I published an article on the importance of feminism. You can read it here. And now I decided to write a little more about the movement which, arguably, shaped the modern feminism. Before we go any further, let’s sort out a few  basic terms (with the help of our good friend — Wikipedia).

Suffrage is the right to vote in public, political elections. Full suffrage is the right to vote and be elected. Universal suffrage is the right to vote without restriction due to sex, race, social status, education level, or wealth. Suffragist is a member of suffrage movement, who believed in extending the right to vote. And finally, a suffragette according to the New York Times in 1906 is “a woman who ought to have more sense”. Later, they became known as people who fought in every way they can to extend the franchise.

Ideally, universal suffrage would be the optimal solution for everyone, but there was no point talking about it in the 19th century since half of the human population wasn’t considered smart enough to vote. Since 18th century, with the development of democracy, some places (Sweden,  the Pitcarin Islands, the Isle of Man, Franceville, Massachusetts Colony, Sierra Leone) allowed some women to vote. But these occasions were considered more as an exception rather than a rule. Something had to be changed. The rise of the Industrial revolution gave more women an opportunity to work. Since they were paying the same taxes as men, some ladies started to suggest that it would be only fair if they could vote. Many suffrage movements were created around the world. The first country to give a satisfying result was New Zealand. After two decades of campaigning, under the leadership of Kate Sheppard and Mary Ann Müller, the Electoral Bill was passed in 1893. South Australia went even further than that: in 1895 they allowed women not only to vote, but also to be elected to parliament.

But, things didn’t move quite as fast in other parts of the world. In the states, the leaders for women’s suffrage had some issues between themselves and that slowed down the progress massively. In 1869, at the final American Equal Rights Association (AERA), the key leaders for women’s suffrage divided into two wings. The reason was abolitionism. The leader American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) Lucy Stone believed that the fight against slavery was more important, and women should postpone their campaigns until every black man could vote. In opposition to her, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), agitated for universal suffrage, declaring to “drop the watchword of ‘Manhood Suffrage'”.  After years of dispute, in 1890 they set up the  National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

In Britain, the split became crucial. There, like in the states, the campaign for allowing women to vote started in the early decades of the 19th century. In 1867, John Stuart Mill became the first MP to call for women’s suffrage. He proposed an amendment that would have given the vote to women on the same terms as men but it was rejected by 194 votes to 73. That’s when things began to get serious.
Unfortunately, women’s suffrage was widely criticized in public. It is sad to say that one of the greatest ladies of her generation Queen Victoria didn’t appreciate the women’s vigour to have equal rights as men. She wrote in 1870: “Let women be what God intended, a helpmate for man, but with totally different duties and vocations”.
The first major organization in the UK emerged in 1897 under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett. It was called the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Millicent Fawcett was a powerful campaigner, who also was focused on other issues of gender inequality. She believed that in order to vote, women must earn trust from the men and hence, should use peaceful methods of protest. After a while, Emmeline Pankhurst decided that quiet campaigning is just being ignored and convinced some women that only rebellious actions would draw attention to the cause.  In 1903 she formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). That was the moment when the movement visibly divided into two wings: the suffragists and the suffragettes.

“Deeds not words”. An activist Annie Kenney being arrested during a suffragette march in 1905
The famous motto of the suffragettes was “deeds not words”. And they did every single deed they could invent in order to be noticed by the public. Window smashing, setting fire in public places, sometimes,they even used dynamites. The never intended to harm anyone, just making a mess was enough. You might say that this rebellious behaviour wasn’t necessary, but even pacifist Millicent Fawcett admitted: “I take this opportunity of saying that in my opinion, far from having injured the movement, they (the suffragettes) have done more during the last 12 months to bring it within the realms of practical politics than we have been able to accomplish in the same number of years.”

Obviously, the authorities were not happy with the situation, and many activists were imprisoned. Since, the suffragettes were not recognised as political prisoners, they protested by refusing to eat. No one wanted to be responsible for their death, because that would only make them even more popular. And, so the idea of force-feeding was conceived. It was practiced before on patients who were too weak to eat themselves. In prisons, the process wasn’t as harmless.

The process of force-feeding
“The doctor seemed annoyed at my resistance and he broke into a temper as he pried my teeth with the steel implement. The pain was intense and at last I must have given away, for he got the gap between my teeth, when he proceeded to turn it until my jaws were fastened wide apart. Then he put down my throat a tube, which seemed to me much to wide and something like four feet in length. Then the food was poured in quickly; it made me sick a few seconds after it was down. Before long I heard the sounds of forced feeding in the cell next to mine… it was Elsie Howley. When the ghastly process was over and all quiet. I tapped on the wall and called out at the top of my voice, ‘No Surrender,’ and then came the answer in Elsie’s voice, ‘No Surrender.”

Constance Lytton, Prisons and Prisoners


Of course, this kind of attitude didn’t improve the prisoners’ health either, and the government had to submit the notorious ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ in 1913. The point was that some suffragettes were released in order to recover their health after hunger-strikes. Later, they were re-arrested again. It went on and on and on. Fun, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, Finland became the first european country to make a significant change. In 1906 women won the right to vote there, and in 1907 the first women Members of Parliament were elected to the Finnish parliament. In the US, British suffragettes were inspiring their American comrades. The acts of civil disobedience became quite common. And, of course, many of the activists were arrested as well. The main strategy of the campaigners was to extend the franchise state by state. The first one to allow women to vote was Washington. In 1916, the leader of NAWSA Carrie Chapman Catt decided tha national suffrage should become the priority.

Emily Davison hit by the King George V’s horse, 1913
In 1913, back in the UK, a famous suffragette Emily Davison attended the annual Derby race. Then, she stepped onto the track and was hit by the King George V’s horse Anmer. The injuries were fatal and she died four days later. We’ll never know whether she intended to kill herself as a sign of protest or was it just an accident. What we do know is that her death shook the public. Despite many people criticizing her recklessness, her funeral was attended by thousands and couldn’t go unnoticed. She became the symbol of desperation for suffragettes.

Unfortunately, the progress of women’s suffrage practically stopped with WWI, not just in the UK and US, but in other countries too. The suffragettes put away their own priorities and focused on the war effort. Of course some activists opposed to that and continued the fight.However, many governments recognized women’s help during the hard times. In February 1918, the British government passed the Representation of the People Act. It allowed women over 30, who owned property to vote. Full suffrage was legalized only in 1928 by the Representation of the People Act.

After many failed attempts, the famous Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in the United States. For the first time, women throughout the country could vote on a presidential election.
With the end of WWI, full suffrage slowly but surely spread around the world. Since then, women have played a significant role in the world’s political life not just by voting, but serving as leaders as well.

Obviously, this is not the full history of women’s suffrage. I would need to write a book to cover up every single person and every single event that eventually led to the victory. The funny thing is that, to this day, no one even knows how many suffragettes  there were. Every country has their own heroes. But it is really unimagenable, how much women had to sacrifice in order to be allowed to tick a box in a ballot.


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