Herstory: Who Were the Suffragettes?

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The Women's Social and Political Union (aka The Suffragettes) was a militant campaign for female enfranchisement established in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst. The non-militant National Union of Women's Suffrage Society (aka The Suffragists) - led by Millicent Fawcett - had already been pushing for women's voting rights since 1897. Prior to the formation of these groups, other suffrage movements had been petitioning for change with little to no progress made. Britain's Victorian era had a rigid aristocracy which held the common view that men were superior. But society was changing, with educational opportunities becoming available to women and 60% of men also gaining the right to vote. Men had achieved political change through violent means of protest, a strategy the campaign for women's suffrage had not dared to try. This is what led to the movement's split: women wanted change and many believed 'deeds, not words' was the way to achieve this.

The Cause

The Suffragettes had only one sole cause: to achieve votes for women. In Pankhurst's own eloquent words, the reason for wanting a voice and a vote was simple:

"A thought came to me in my prison cell, and it was this: that to men women are not human beings like themselves. Some men think we are superhuman; they put us on pedestals; they revere us; they think we are too fine and too delicate to come down into the hurly-burly of life. Other men think us sub-human; they think we are a strange species unfortunately having to exist for the perpetuation of the race. They think that we are fit for drudgery, but that in some strange way our minds are not like theirs, our love for great things is not like theirs, and so we are sort of sub-human species.

We are neither superhuman nor are we subhuman. We are just human beings like yourselves." (Source)


Within 4 years, the WSPU had over 60 branches throughout Britain. Their colour scheme of white, purple and green was a clever marketing ploy on sashes and badges (badges being a cheaper option for the working classes) to provide a visual representation of the movement. Tactics varied from using small toffee hammers to smash windows, setting post boxes on fire, lobbying political meetings, encouraging imprisonment and even enduring the brutality of force-feeding as a result of their hunger strikes. The hope was to gain as much publicity as possible for the cause, although this was met with much contention by those - both men and women - who opposed women's suffrage and believed a woman's place to be in the private, domestic spheres of society.

Key Events

1903 - Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) formed

1908 June - Mass Hyde Park rally

1909 - Hunger strikes by suffragettes and consequent force feeding introduced

1910 July - Mass Hyde Park rally

1912 - Mass window smashing campaign

1913 April - Cat and Mouse Act introduced where women can be released from prison due to illness then re-arrested

1913 June - Emily Davison becomes martyr of the suffrage movement after throwing herself in front of a horse at The Derby

1914 - WWI is declared. Suffrage prisoners are released as WSPU makes a truce to cease campaigning during wartime

1914-1918 - Women’s invaluable contribution to the war effort and running the country

1918 - Votes for women over 30

1928 - Women granted equal voting rights to men!

Women eventually achieved equal voting rights to men in 1928 but it was not without decades of protest - both militant and non-militant - contributing to the cause. Despite using the tactics of men, Suffragette women were deemed lunatics and a threat to national security for their militant strategy in achieving votes for women. With much debate generated over the impact of the Suffragists, Suffragettes and women's invaluable contribution during the war effort to the achievement of female enfranchisement, it is undeniable that the new militant strategy of these bold women was a radical progression, borne out of frustration and injustice, to forever changing the landscape of British politics and protest.