In the 21st Century, it’s so easy to take something like voting for granted. In some countries, political participation is required by law, but in the UK, people are free to pass up the chance to vote as they please. In numerous elections in recent times, the number of non-voters has sometimes been higher than the number of votes for the largest party.
If we simply rewind ourselves back a century, we’d find that the picture was very bleak. On average, people lived till the age of 60 if they were lucky. A disturbingly-high number of babies never lived to see their first birthdays. It can be easy to romanticise the late-Victorian/Edwardian era as some long-lost golden age, but for many, it was unimaginably difficult to live through. The welfare state was a distant prospect, and children went to school without shoes in so many places. Women were also denied the right to vote; half the population was made to believe that it didn’t count.
The reasoning behind not allowing women the right to vote often revolved around the perception of gender. Women were traditionally viewed as the fairer sex, prone to bouts of hysteria. Opponents to the idea of votes for women sought to reinforce the idea of women as having a duty as mothers above all else. If they were given the right to vote, there was a fear that it could result in chaos. What if they didn’t happen to agree with the male-dominated political order as it was?
Like many political movements, the campaign to ensure votes for women took many years to take shape. In the 1860s, calls were made to consider the idea but it wasn’t until the 1890s that it started to accelerate. Suffragette groupings began to form, and in 1897, the merger of some notable groups led to the formation of the NUWSS under Millicent Fawcett. The group sought to change the established order through peaceful means.
However, by the early 1900s, some within the movement were concerned about the lack of progress. In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst, a Manchester-based political activist, established the WSPU, a suffragette union that followed the motto, “Deeds, Not Words”.
What followed was a more militant course of action. Suffragettes facing imprisonment for their activities went on hunger strikes, prompting the Liberal government of the day to order force-feeding, which the suffragettes used to inspire more women to join the cause. The Liberal government was beginning to look callous and inhuman in its treatment of these women.
Suffragettes started to escalate their behaviour, targeting property through bombings and acts of arson. In June 1913, suffragettes had a martyr for their cause, when Emily Davison walked onto the racing track at the Derby and was struck by the King’s horse, Anmer. She died in hospital a few days later, having failed to regain consciousness. Historians have debated about what her intentions may have been that day, but we may never know the true reason why she died.
Whatever her motives, Emily Davison’s death highlighted the risks women were willing to take, in their quest just to be on an equal footing with men. By 1918, Britain was scarred by the Great War, and the political complexion was changing in Parliament. The Liberals had splintered into factions and were crashing out of power, and the Labour Party was on the rise.
Cross-party support grew to introduce reforms to the electoral system, and in February 1918, the wishes of suffragettes began to come true, with the introduction of the Representation of the People Act 1918. Women aged 30 or older were eligible to vote, provided they met certain requirements. By 1928, new reforms ensured that women were finally allowed to vote on an equal footing with men, regardless of whether they owned property.
Today marks the centenary of the passing of the reforms in 1918. Before February 1918, not a single woman’s vote would have been counted. Nowadays, over 20 million women are registered on the electoral roll and turn out in their millions to vote at any given election.
Below is a quote by Emmeline Pankhurst from her 1914 book, My Own Story. It puts the struggle of the suffragettes and their eventual victory into a nutshell:
“Governments have always tried to crush reform movements, to destroy ideas, to kill the thing that cannot die. Without regard to history, which shows that no government have ever succeeded in doing this, they go on trying in the old, senseless way”