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The history of female protest and suffrage in the UK
The history of female protest and suffrage in the UK

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4 The suffragette movement

Now that you have explored some of the nuance in the history of the campaign for women’s suffrage, you’re going to focus on what many today think of as the only aspect of that campaign: the one made famous by the suffragettes who brought militancy and violence to the fore of domestic politics in the years before the First World War.

In the next sections of this course you will look at the suffragette movement in more detail. You’ll look at mass support for the women’s suffrage movement before studying the suffragettes and their methods. You’ll reflect on the achievement of the suffrage movement as a whole and, in order to do this, you’ll be examining many different types of sources, including photographs that you have to find on other websites. The skills needed for visual analysis will be a new set to add to your toolkit!

This is how WSPU organiser Annie Kenney (1879–1953) summed up suffragette tactics, seeing their approach as modelled on that of the Chartists before them:

Some of the other societies are, I know, dead against our action. But what have they done? They have been trying to get women’s suffrage for sixty years. We are taking up the methods of the old Chartists, and are fighting for our rights. The police said to us yesterday, ‘Do you know you have broken the law?’; and we replied ‘Yes, and we will break it again if we don’t get something done for us.’

(Kenney, 1906, p. 6)

The years between 1903 and the outbreak of war in 1914 saw a surge of public interest in the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign. While the peaceful NUWSS continued patiently to put forward the moral case for reform, the militant WSPU grabbed the headlines with a series of dramatic actions. Both organisations operated an extensive network of branches across the country and could count their supporters in the thousands. What had once been a marginalised issue in British politics was fast becoming one of the central topics of debate.

But success was a long time coming. Why? Women, even those who actively supported the suffrage campaign, were not united. Did that affect their chances?

Later on, you will look at the physical force protests of the WSPU in more detail, but first let us get a sense of the range of public support for votes for women by considering a single mass demonstration, the Women’s Coronation Procession.