Which branch of feminism won women the vote? We all did | Rachel Holmes

The revolutionary theatre of the suffragettes combined with quieter forms of protest to create a modern democracy

The 1918 Representation of the People Act granted votes to all men aged 21 and over and some women aged 30 and over who met property qualifications or held a university degree. In all, 8.5 million women qualified, comprising 40% of the female population.

While it was largely younger working-class women who grafted during the first world war and formed the activist vanguard for women’s suffrage from the 1880s, it was primarily middle-class and aristocratic women who benefited. The legislation did not remove sex discrimination or establish equal suffrage. It entrenched class prejudices designed to prevent the popular majority – the workers – from voter registration.

Enfranchisement was extended to women ungraciously, in grudging spirit, in a fearful atmosphere. Middle-class women, it was hoped, would provide a bulwark against advancing threats of social unrest, Bolshevism and socialism escalated by the horrendous death and deprivation caused by the war. Voting patterns demonstrated this to be the case. Between 1918 and 1928 women overwhelmingly voted Conservative.

So what are we celebrating? In a nutshell, the birth and infancy of modern British democracy. As only 58% of men were previously eligible to vote, 1918 was a watershed in the universal suffrage struggle, finally achieved in 1928. Though we cannot pretend that this symbolic victory established the principle of women’s equality, we must recognise that Votes for Women was the campaigning vehicle of a feminist movement fighting for justice across all areas of women’s lives – health, home, maternity, marriage, education and equal pay.

Millicent Fawcett
‘Millicent Fawcett did not feel that setting fire to houses, churches and letter boxes would convince people that women ought to be enfranchised.’ Photograph: PA/PA Archive/PA Images

The struggle started with the first petition to parliament in 1832 and ended in 1928 when women could vote on the same terms as men. It was most intensive during the early 20th century. As activist momentum powered a relentless national mobilisation as fiercely fought in the Glasgow Gorbals as the groves of Godalming, Liberal governments blocked the women’s vote by objecting that this was not a mass movement.

In 1908, Herbert Gladstone said: “On the question of women’s suffrage, experience shows that predominance of argument … is not enough to win the political day … Men have learned this lesson, and know the necessity for demonstrating the greatness of their movements, and for establishing … force majeure.”

The women’s movement responded by delivering the largest popular uprising in British history since the Chartists. Newspapers and police estimated three major demonstrations of 1908 at 250,000; 500,000; and – for the legendary Suffrage Sunday convening on Hyde Park, 750,000. The Daily Express praised the suffragettes for providing London with “one of the most wonderful and astonishing sights that has ever been seen since the days of Boadicea … It is probable that so many people never before stood in one square mass anywhere in England.”

It was a festive, ingenious and physically hardy movement – from “women’s parliaments” in Caxton Hall to heckling, stunts and ambushing political meetings and social events, electoral hustings, and the besieged Westminster palace. There was music, theatre, art, festivals, dance, fashion, exhibitions, Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) pop-up shops selling banners, bags and badges; there was a hot air balloon dropping 56lb of pamphlets, and a suffragette steamship patrolling the Thames streaming purple, white and green pennants, taunting Lloyd George as he took tea on the Commons terrace. It was the greatest political theatre since the French Revolution. In 1910 alone, there were over 4,000 demonstrations.

The feminist movement comprised several wings. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), presided over by Millicent Fawcett; the Pankhurst-led WSPU; the splinter Women’s Franchise League (WFL); the emerging Labour party and trade unions led by pro-suffragette Keir Hardie and socialist-feminists such as Margaret Bondfield and George Lansbury; and – smaller numbered – “respectable” Conservative suffragists and the rightwing Primrose League.

Suffragette boat on the Thames
‘A suffragette steamship patrolled the Thames streaming purple, white and green pennants, taunting Lloyd George as he took tea on the Commons terrace.’ Photograph: ullstein bild via Getty Images

There’s been an unedifying, century-long tug of war between pro-suffragists claiming it was gradualist constitutional reform that won it; and those who maintain that the alliance with radical franchise and socialist movements and – crucially – militant direct action, is what shifted the ground. This centenary provides a good opportunity to resolve the argument.

Stereotypes about constitutional suffragist and militant suffragettes bear scant relationship to historical truth. The achievement of universal adult suffrage was considered attainable only by socialists and trade unions that supported women’s equality. Both the NUWSS and WSPU leaderships regarded universal suffrage as a utopian socialist daydream.

Emmeline Pankhurst started her activism in the NUWSS. Her breakaway WSPU mirrored the NUWSS policy of campaigning for a limited franchise on the same terms as men, while advancing longer-term egalitarian goals. The factional difference, symbolised by iconic leaders, was largely tactical. Fawcett did not feel that setting fire to houses, churches and letter boxes and destroying valuable property would convince people that women ought to be enfranchised. Self-professed “hooligan” Pankhurst disagreed.

Allegiances changed over time. In 1912 the NUWSS allied with the Labour party, trade unions and others. It was this front that petitioned successfully for the 1918 act. Yet the contribution of the militants was decisive. By making British women ungovernable they radicalised feminist politics. Suffragette militancy targeted property not people. The only deaths were of those whose bravery resulted in self-sacrifice or state torture by forcible feeding. Window-smashing, arson, letterbox-bombing, railing-chaining, hunger-striking and art attacks are long-remembered – and even pompously condemned today.

Less recalled are the beatings, abuse, sexual assault and rape meted out to the militants by police, hired gangs of agent provocateurs and prisons. They created awareness of women’s oppression in a manner so acute to the power of media and political branding that men’s ideological dominance was never again quite the same.

Whichever wing of its history flies for you, the successes and failures of the movement are the total sum of its differing parts. These feminists combined working within and without the system – legal suits with marching boots; law-breaking and peaceful petitioning; fights on the streets and between the sheets; rebellious agit-prop and strategic propriety. The radical convergence of constitutionalism, democratic aspirations, direct action and socialist solidarity created a tipping point in the struggle that drove feminist emancipation.


Rachel Holmes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
We owe it to the suffragettes to keep campaigning for women | Emily Thornberry
We fight today on issues such as maternity leave, equal pay, childcare, domestic violence, female MPs and the crisis in social care, says Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary

Emily Thornberry

05, Feb, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Pardons for the suffragettes? What a cheap, patronising cover-up | Bidisha
In this po-faced tinkering with the legacy of dead heroines, the endemic male violence women face today is so easily forgotten, writes the journalist and author Bidisha


07, Feb, 2018 @1:13 PM

Article image
My great-great-aunt was a terrorist: women’s politics went beyond the vote | Ash Sarkar
Pritilata Waddedar fought the British in 1930s Bengal. Her actions reveal the diversity behind the suffrage story, says Novara senior editor Ash Sarkar

Ash Sarkar

05, Feb, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Should self-identifying trans women be on all-women shortlists? Our writers discuss | Shaista Aziz, Susanna Rustin, Shon Faye and Sonia Sodha
Labour is consulting on the inclusion of transgender women without a gender recognition certification. Four writers share their views on this proposal

Shaista Aziz, Susanna Rustin, Shon Faye and Sonia Sodha

08, Feb, 2018 @10:49 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on women’s suffrage: still no real equality | Editorial
Editorial: Political change is important but it’s not enough on its own. More needs to be done to tackle the barriers to progress


04, Feb, 2018 @5:57 PM

Article image
Was 2018 a turning point for women? Yes, it exposed what we’re up against | Suzanne Moore
It’s not been a great year for women. But there were glimmers of hope, such as in Ireland, says the Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore

Suzanne Moore

31, Dec, 2018 @12:41 PM

Article image
The rape threats and racism are vile. But women won’t be trolled into silence | Afua Hirsch
The MP Jess Phillips received hundreds of rape threats in one night, says the regular Guardian contributor Afua Hirsch

Afua Hirsch

13, Jun, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Have India’s women seized their chance to vote for a safer, more equal country? | Mari Marcel Thekaekara
This election, parties finally woke up to the power of half a billion women, says writer and activist Mari Marcel Thekaekara

Mari Marcel Thekaekara

20, May, 2019 @4:00 AM

Article image
The Kavanaugh case revealed a system rigged against women | Nesrine Malik
The history of women’s activism shows the virtue of dogged persistence, says the Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik

Nesrine Malik

08, Oct, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Don’t write off radical feminism – it’s always been ahead of its time | Finn Mackay
The revolutionary social justice movement of the 1970s still has answers today, says author Finn Mackay

Finn Mackay

17, Oct, 2021 @1:21 PM