On the day of the General Election here in Britain as I am about to place my vote for government I think back to the Suffragettes and their struggles so that I have the ability to vote.
I think very poignant that today, 8th June, is the day 104 years ago that Emily Davison died after jumping in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby.
The suffragette movement began in earnest at the start of the twentieth century. This movement was not cohesive and there were many different organisations and unions created that campaigned for votes for women. Some of these were more militant and we remember such leaders as Emmeline Pankhurt and actions such as violence and hunger strikes. But some women wanted a more peaceful approach such as Millicent Fawcett who led the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). This union took a more constitutional approach, building up supporters, to address the issues of votes for women rather than the violent acts of other organisations.
In 1918 the first step was achieved when women over 30 years of age who met certain property qualifications were granted the vote under the Representation of the People Act. It would be another 10 years before women had the equal rights of men to vote from the age of 21 under the Equal Franchise Act 1928.
To put that into perspective, here in the U.K. women has had the same voting as men for only 89 years.
Emmeline Pankhurst was one of the founding members of the WSPU – Women’s Social and Political Union when it created in 1903. The motto of this organisation was “deeds not words” and its member lived up to that statement. During the battle for votes for women the WSPU took increasingly militant actions including law breaking and attacks on property. Once arrested they went on hunger strikes and endured abuse, force feeding and torture in their mission to gain the right for women to vote.
The WSPU campaigned diligently for votes for women and it’s goal was eventually realised first in 1918 and later in 1928 when women gained equal voting rights to men.
Emily Davison was a teacher who joined Emmeline Pankhurst in the WSPU in 1906. By 1909 she had left her job and worked full time for the WSPU campaigning for votes for women.
She was arrested on several occasions for a variety of things including disturbing the peace and burning post boxes. While in jail she continued her campaign with hunger strikes. During one stay in Strangeways Prison in Manchester she blocked herself in her cell in resistance to being force fed. Angered by her actions the guards flooded her cell with water almost drowning her. She received 40 shillings compensation after suing the warden.
Over the years she became more and more militant and on 4 June 1913 she ran out in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby and was trampled. She died 4 days later on 8 June 1913.
Millicent Fawcett dedicated her life to the pursuit of securing women the right to vote in the United Kingdom and campaigned since her teens in the 1860’s. Her sister, Elizabeth Garrett, became the first female physician in Britain. A remarkable woman in her own right. Millicent led the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (the NUWSS) in a peaceful campaign to gain this right.
Millicent was involved in much more that the suffragette movement. She campaigned against white slave traffic, the protection of low paid women workers, the protection of vulnerable women who were preyed up by men.
In the 1890’s seventeen women’s suffrage organisations came together to form the NUWSS and Millicent was elected as president. While she did not necessary condone the violent actions of the WSPU and she was concerned they would damage the cause she worked with Emmeline Pankhurst and the WSPU in their mutual goal.
The First World War paused the efforts of both the WSPU and the NUWSS and in 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed. Millicent was urged to stand for parliament but decided to retire from politics at aged 71 years old.
Millicent had her dream realised before her death in 1929 when women were given equal voting rights to men in 1928.
In honour of the women who dedicated their lives so that the women of this country gained the equal right to vote please make sure you vote today.