Topic Guide: Women's Suffrage

Image showing a collage featuring a poster of Joan of Arc with the title The Suffragette on a colourful background

Suffragette poster used in a mixed media painting

© reproduced with the permission of Parliament

    • It might seem difficult to believe now, but it was only in the last 100 years that women in the UK achieved the right to vote, also known as suffrage. The women who campaigned for the right to vote were known by two names, Suffragists and Suffragettes.

      Suffragists is the name given to women who campaigned for the right to vote in peaceful and legal ways. Suffragettes on the other hand, believed that women needed to employ a more millitant approach, they were not afraid to break the law.

      This topic guide to women's suffrage covers: Emmeline Pankhurst, Civil Disobedience, Emily Wilding Davison, The Pilgrimage March and Souvenirs and Memorabilia.

      Millicent Fawcett
      Millicent Fawcett was president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). She believed that the best way to achieve votes for women was to show that they could be 'good' citizens. She employed law-abiding and non-violent means to gain the vote, including petitions, letters to MP's and marches, some of which had over 50,000 women at them.

      Emmeline Pankhurst
      Along with her daughters Christabel, Adela and Sylvia, Emmeline Pankhurst was a suffragette. They split from the NUWSS in 1903 and founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester, bringing new life to the campaign for 'votes for women'. Suffragettes believed in 'Deeds not Words' and used illegal tactics to put pressure on Parliament to grant them the vote. You can find out more about the WSPU at the Museum of London.

      The Pankhursts also produced a newspaper to help promote their cause. You can see a poster for 'The Suffragette' at the V&A.

      Civil Disobedience
      The deeds performed by suffragettes included rallies, demonstrations and even acts of civil disobedience. These ranged from seemingly mild acts such as defacing pennies (such as this one from the British Museum) to smashing windows!

      The Museum of London has a nice example of a toffee hammer, a hammer for breaking up sheets of hard toffee. Suffragettes used these to smash windows because they were easy to conceal in their clothes.

      Some suffragettes decided to take this further, with acts of serious vandalism. On the 10th March 1914, Mary Richardson attacked a painting called the Rokeby Venus with a knife. Listen to the SoundCloud clip below for a clip from the BBC World Service about the attack.

      The painting was restored, and you can still see it today at the National Gallery.

      Emily Wilding Davison

      Emily Wilding Davison was another suffragette who became notorious for her deeds, including hiding in the Houses of Parliament. This was commemorated by a plaque on the door of the cupboard she hid in.

      Emily’s most infamous act came in 1911 when she threw herself under the King’s Horse at the Royal Derby, attempting to raise awareness of the suffragette movement. She was knocked unconscious and died a few days later. You can see footage of this moment near the end of the video below from British Pathé.

      The London School of Economics has an online exhibition exploring Emily’s life using objects related to her, including her return ticket home from the races. This ticket has led some people to think that she did not intend to kill herself that day.

      The Pilgrimage March...
      In July 1913 the NUWSS organised a peaceful march from seventeen cities and towns in the UK to London. The women organising this march didn't believe in the illegal tactics of the Suffragettes and they wanted to show the peaceful, law-abiding side of the movement.

      Women (and men) from across the UK walked, cycled and rode horses to reach London's Hyde Park on 26th July, 1913. You can see some maps of their route over on the National Archives website. Over 50,000 people met there to show the government that they wanted voting rights for women.

      Souvenirs and Memorabilia
      Because the suffragettes wanted to promote their cause as much as possible, they created lots of souvenirs, including jewellery, posters and accessories, such as this scarf from the V&A.

      The People’s History Museum in Manchester holds a replica of a game called Pank-a-Squith, produced by suffragettes, that was designed to teach people about the issues surrounding the campaign. You can find out more about the game here.

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