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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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7.1 The First World War and the suffragettes

When war broke out in 1914 the suffragettes stopped their law-breaking activities and, in return, the government arranged a mass release of suffragettes from prison.

Members of both the moderate NUWSS and the militant WSPU committed themselves to the war effort; Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst were both forthright in their support for the war. However, there were dissenting voices within the movement. Some took a pacifist stance, including Sylvia Pankhurst, who went her own way in defiance of her mother and sister.

The war years were to have a transformative effect on women’s roles in society. Not only were about a million more women drawn into the workforce, but also women were to be found doing jobs that had previously been done by men, as men were called into the armed forces. Women served in the police, worked on the railways, and became mechanics, carpenters, van drivers and coal heavers.

Directly for the war effort, they worked en masse in munitions factories, and the numbers of military nurses swelled to cope with the huge stream of casualties. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps performed a variety of tasks within the military, including canteen work and administration. By 1918 there was even a ‘Women’s Royal Air Force’ with women air mechanics.

The terrible death toll at the front led to new questions being raised about whether all adult males should be given the vote to reward them for their sacrifices. When an all-party Speaker’s Conference on the issue was held at Parliament, lobbyists for female suffrage took the opportunity to press the case for votes for women.

At this point, Millicent Fawcett (1847–1929) played a significant role. She had struggled to keep the NUWSS together as it became increasingly divided with respect to the war. But she was the sort of moderate figure who could negotiate with the politicians while at the same negotiating with the supporters of women’s suffrage to accept a compromise deal. Historians who argue that in the end it was the moderate NUWSS that secured reform would point to its contribution at this stage.

Millicent Fawcett was honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, London, which was unveiled in April 2018. She became the first woman to be recognised in this way. There are 11 other statues in this square, all representing famous men, including Sir Winston Churchill, Lord Palmerston and Nelson Mandela. Why do you think she was chosen?

A photograph of a bronze statue of suffragette Millicent Fawcett holding a banner with the words ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere’.
Figure 10 Statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square.