Supriya Ghosh (Editor)

Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit
Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom

Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom was a movement to give women the right to vote. It finally succeeded through two laws in 1918 and 1928. It became a national movement in the Victorian era. Women were not explicitly banned from voting in Great Britain until the 1832 Reform Act and the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act. Both before and after 1832, establishing women's suffrage on some level was a political topic, although it would not be until 1872 that it would become a national movement with the formation of the National Society for Women's Suffrage and later the more influential National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). As well as in England, women's suffrage movements in Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom gained momentum. The movements shifted sentiments in favour of woman suffrage by 1906. It was at this point that the militant campaign began with the formation of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Violence by the militant suffragettes discredited the cause in the view of many, and postponed Parliament's decision to grant votes for women.


The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 led to a suspension of all politics, including the militant suffragette campaigns. Lobbying did take place quietly. In 1918, a coalition government passed the Representation of the People Act 1918, enfranchising all men, as well as all women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications. In 1928, the Conservative government passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act giving the vote to all women over the age of 21 on equal terms with men.


Until the 1832 Great Reform Act specified 'male persons', a few women had been able to vote in parliamentary elections through property ownership, although this was rare. In local government elections, single women ratepayers received the right to vote in the Municipal Franchise Act 1869. This right was confirmed in the Local Government Act 1894 and extended to include some married women. By 1900, more than 1 million single women were registered to vote in local government elections in England.

Both before and after the 1832 Reform Act there were some who advocated that women should have the right to vote in parliamentary elections. After the enactment of the Reform Act enactment the MP Henry Hunt argued that any woman who was single, a tax payer and had sufficient property should be allowed to vote. One such wealthy woman, Mary Smith, was used in this speech as an example.

The Chartist Movement, which began in the late 1830s, has also been suggested to have included supporters of female suffrage. There is some evidence to suggest William Lovett, one of the authors of the People's Charter wished to include female suffrage as one of the campaign's demands but chose not to on the grounds that this would delay the implementation of the charter. Although there were female Chartists, they largely worked toward universal male suffrage. At this time most women did not have aspirations to gain the vote.

There is a poll book from 1843 which clearly shows thirty women's names among those who voted. These women were playing an active role in the election. On the roll, the wealthiest female elector was Grace Brown, a butcher. Due to the high rates that she paid, Grace Brown was entitled to four votes.

Lilly Maxwell made a high-profile vote in Britain in 1867 after the Great Reform Act of 1832. Maxwell, a shop owner, met the property qualifications that otherwise would have made her eligible to vote had she been male. In error, however, her name had been added to the election register and on that basis she succeeded in voting in a by-election – her vote however was later declared illegal by the Court of Common Pleas. The case, however, gave women's suffrage campaigners great publicity.

Outside pressure for women's suffrage was at this time diluted by feminist issues in general. Women's rights were becoming increasingly prominent in the 1850s as some women in higher social spheres refused to obey the gender roles dictated to them. Feminist goals at this time included the right to sue an ex-husband after divorce (achieved in 1857) and the right for married women to own property (fully achieved in 1882 after some concession by the government in 1870).

The issue of parliamentary reform declined along with the Chartists after 1848 and only reemerged with the election of John Stuart Mill in 1865. He stood for office showing direct support for female suffrage and was an MP in the run up to the second Reform Act.

Early suffragist societies

In the same year that John Stuart Mill was elected (1865), the first Ladies Discussion Society was formed, debating whether women should be involved in public affairs. Although a society for suffrage was proposed, this was turned down on the grounds that it might be taken over by extremists.

However, later that year Leigh Smith Bodichon formed the first Women's Suffrage Committee and within a fortnight collected 1,500 signatures in favour of female suffrage in advance to the second Reform Bill.

The Manchester Society for Women's Suffrage was founded in February 1867. Its secretary, Lydia Becker, wrote letters both to Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and to The Spectator. She was also involved with the London group, and organised the collection of more signatures.

However, in June the London group split, partly a result of party allegiance, and partly the result of tactical issues. Conservative members wished to move slowly to avoid alarming public opinion, while Liberals generally opposed this apparent dilution of political conviction. As a result, Helen Taylor founded the London National Society for Women's Suffrage which set up strong links with Manchester and Edinburgh. In Scotland one of the earliest societies was the Edinburgh National Society for Women's Suffrage.

Although these early splits left the movement divided and sometimes leaderless, it allowed Lydia Becker to have a stronger influence. The suffragists were known as the parliamentaries.

In Ireland, the Dublin Women's Suffrage Association was established in 1874. As well as campaigning for women's suffrage, it sought to advance women's position in local government. In 1898 it changed its name to the Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association.

Women's political groups

Although women's political party groups were not formed with the aim to achieve women's suffrage, they did have two key effects. Firstly, they showed women who were members to be competent in the political arena and as this became clear, secondly, it brought the concept of female suffrage closer to acceptance.

The Primrose League

The Primrose League was set up to promote Conservative values through social events and supporting the community. As women were able to join, this gave females of all classes the ability to mix with local and national political figures. Many also had important roles such as bringing voters to the polls. This removed segregation and promoted political literacy amongst women. The League, however, did not promote women's suffrage as one of its objectives.

The Women's Liberal Associations

Although there is evidence to suggest that they were originally formed to promote female franchise (the first being in Bristol in 1881), WLAs often did not hold such an agenda. They did, however, operate independently from the male groups. They became more active when they came under the control of the Women's Liberal Federation, and canvassed all classes for support of women's suffrage and male domination.

Pressure groups

The campaign first developed into a national movement in the 1870s. At this point, all campaigners were suffragists, not suffragettes. The term suffragette is only used to describe those who used violent protest, although the term is widely misused to describe all campaigners. Up until 1903, all campaigning took the constitutional approach. It was after the defeat of the first Women's Suffrage Bill that the Manchester and London committees joined together to gain wider support. The main methods of doing so at this time involved lobbying MPs to put forward Private Member's Bills. However such bills rarely pass and so this was an ineffective way of actually achieving the vote.

In 1868, local groups amalgamated to form a series of close-knit groups with the founding of the National Society for Women's Suffrage (NSWS). This is notable as the first attempt to create a unified front to propose women's suffrage, but had little effect due to several splits, once again weakening the campaign.

Up until 1897, the campaign stayed at this relatively ineffective level. Campaigners came predominantly from the landed classes and joined together on a small scale only. However, 1897 saw the foundation of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) by Millicent Fawcett. This society linked smaller groups together and also put pressure on non-supportive MPs using various peaceful methods.

Pankhursts and suffragettes

Founded in 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was tighly controlled by the three Pankhursts. It specialized in highly visible publicity campaigns such as large parades. This had the effect of energizing all dimensions of the suffrage movement. While there was a majority of support for suffrage in parliament, the ruling Liberal Party refused to allow a vote on the issue; the result of which was an escalation in the suffragette campaign. The WSPU, in contrast to its allies, embarked on a campaign of violence to publicize the issue, even to the detriment of its own aims. Its violent tactics (shouting down speakers, stone-throwing, window-smashing, hunger-strikes and arson of unoccupied churches and country houses), most historians agree, "clearly damaged the cause." Whitfield says, "the overall effect of the suffragette militancy, however, was to set back the cause of women's suffrage."

Harold Smith points out that recent historians:

have shifted from claiming that the WSPU was responsible for women's suffrage to portraying it as an early form of radical feminism that sought to liberate women from a male-centered gender-system."

The Cat and Mouse Act was passed by Parliament in an attempt to prevent suffragettes becoming martyrs in prison. It provided the release of those whose hunger strikes and forced feeding had brought them sickness, as well as their re-imprisonment once they had recovered. The result was even greater publicity for the cause.

First World War

The greater suffrage efforts halted with the outbreak of World War I. While some activity continued, with the NUWSS continuing to lobby peacefully, Emmeline Pankhurst, convinced that Germany posed a danger to all humanity, convinced the WSPU to halt all militant suffrage activity.

Parliament expands suffrage 1918

During the wars select group of parliamentary leaders decided on a policy that would expand the suffrage to all men, and to most women. Prime Minister Asquith, an opponent, was replaced in late 1916 by David Lloyd George, a longtime supporter of woman suffrage.

During the war, a serious shortage of able-bodied men ("manpower") occurred, and women were required to take on many of the traditional male roles. With the approval of the labour unions, "dilution" was agreed upon. Complicated factory jobs handled by skilled men were diluted or simplified so that they could be handled by less skilled men and women. The result was a large increase in women workers, concentrated in munitions industries of highest priority to winning the war. This led to a new view of what a woman was capable of doing, at the same time the anti-suffrage hostility caused by pre-war militant tactics declined. All the major women's groups strongly supported the war effort. Pacifism existed on the left, French of politics, especially in the trade unions, but did not play a major role in creating opposition to women's suffrage. Until now suffrage was based on occupational qualifications of men. Millions of women were not meeting those occupational qualifications, which in any case were so old-fashioned that the consensus was to remove them. For example, a male voter who joined the Army might lose the right to vote, which was an intolerable result. In early 1916, suffragist organizations privately agreed to downplay their differences, and resolve that any legislation increasing the number of votes should also enfranchise women. Local government officials proposed a simplification of the old system of franchise and registration, and the Labour cabinet member in the new coalition government, Arthur Henderson, called for universal suffrage, with an age cutoff of 21 for men and 25 for women. Most male political leaders showed anxiety about having a female majority in the new electorate. Parliament Turned over the issue to a new Speakers Conference, a special committee from all parties from both houses, chaired by the Speaker. They began meeting in October 1916, in secret. A majority of 15 to 6 supported votes for some women; by 12 to 10, it agreed on a higher age cut off for women. Women leaders accepted a cutoff age of 30 in order to get the vote for most women.

Finally in 1918, Parliament passed an act granting the vote to women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities] About 8.4 million women gained the vote. In November 1918, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was passed, allowing women to be elected into the House of Commons. By 1928 the consensus was that votes for women had been successful. With the Conservative Party in full control in 1928, it passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act that extended the voting franchise to all women over the age of 21, granting women the vote on the same terms as men.

Women in prominent roles

Emmeline Pankhurst was a key figure gaining intense media coverage of the women's suffrage movement. Her turn to violence, in the analysis of most historians, weakened and delayed the suffrage cause. Pankhurst, alongside her two daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, founded and led the Women's Social and Political Union, an organisation which was focused on direct action to win the vote. Her husband, Richard Pankhurst, also supported women suffrage ideas since he was the author of the first British woman suffrage bill and the Married Women’s Property Acts in 1870 and 1882. After her husband’s death, Emmeline decided to move to the forefront of the suffrage battle. Along with her two daughters, Christabel Pankhurst and Sylvia Pankhurst, she joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). With her experience with this organisation, Emmeline founded the Women's Franchise League in 1889 and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Frustrated with years of government inactivity and false promises, the WSPU adopted a militant stance, which was so influential it was later imported into suffrage struggles worldwide, most notably by Alice Paul in the United States. After many years of struggle and adversity, women finally gained suffrage but Emmeline died shortly after this.

Another key figure was Millicent Fawcett. She had a peaceful approach to issues presented to the organisations and the way to get points across to society. She supported the Married Women's Property Act and the social purity campaign. Two events influenced her to become even more involved: her husband’s death and the division of the suffrage movement over the issue of affiliation with political parties. Millicent, who supported staying independent of political parties, made sure that the parts separated came together to become stronger by working together. Because of her actions, she was made president of the NUWSS. In 1910–1912, she supported a bill to give vote rights to single and widowed females of a household. By supporting the British in World War I, she thought women would be recognised as a prominent part of Europe and deserved basic rights such as voting. Millicent Fawcett came from a radical family. Her sister was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson an English physician and feminist, and the first woman to gain a medical qualification in Britain. Elizabeth was elected mayor of Aldeburgh in 1908 and gave speeches for suffrage.

Emily Davies became an editor of a feminist publication, Englishwoman's Journal. She expressed her feminist ideas on paper and was also a major supporter and influential figure during the twentieth century. In addition to suffrage, she supported more rights for women such as access to education. She wrote works and had power with words. She wrote texts such as Thoughts on Some Questions Relating to Women in 1910 and Higher Education for Women in 1866. She was a large supporter in the times where organisations were trying to reach people for a change. With her was a friend named Barbara Bodichon who also published articles and books such as Women and Work (1857), Enfranchisement of Women (1866), and Objections to the Enfranchisement of Women (1866), and American Diary in 1872.

Suffrage as a sex war

According to American historian Susan Kent, the campaign for suffrage was closely tied to what many referred to as a sex war between men and women. With the feminist movement, and suffrage in particular, women were rebelling against historical male sexual tyranny and their historical objectification in British society. No longer willing to be defined solely by their biology, women craved to rid British society of the separate sphere ideology [public vs. private], which led to their powerlessness in both spheres. Women devoted themselves to the Cause of acquiring the right to vote on issues of importance to their country, despite direct individual repercussions – societal contempt and ridicule and mistreatment (at time sexually) at the hands of men that sought to contain them. In doing so, the suffragettes simultaneously sought to free themselves of their culturally imposed sexual identity.

Professor Kent argues that the militant actions of the suffragettes were direct responses to a real sex war. The suffrage movement campaigned against the forced conscription of women to a sexual identity through the withholding of her education and her right to vote. As Kent discusses, the Contagious Disease Acts "crystallized for women their status as sexual objects" (9) and illustrated the double standard and male vice embedded in Victorian society (8–9). It sought to accomplish this task by providing women opportunities which would establish them as individuals: in education and employment; in the rights to own property or obtain a divorce; in the right to vote. However, before acquiring these rights, the suffragettes would have to engage in an epic sex war, one which was often fought on the individual women's body. As the militant suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison, depicts, suffragettes willingly sacrificed their bodies and their reputations for the Cause in order to achieve the "Pearl of Freedom for her sex".

As Elizabeth Robbins, an influential suffragette and writer, depicts in her novel The Convert, responses to their protests were met with sexual humiliation at the hands of both men and the police. This sentiment of sexual-antagonism pervaded much of the suffragette struggle. Men, when threatened with female power (militancy) and the potential for female liberation, took to sexual humiliation as a tool against the movement. The suffragettes of that time period, were seemingly made aware of this element upon recruitment, despite it being noticeably absent from contemporary historical accounts of the period. Robbins explains that this was how the movement got many wives and mothers to join the Cause: older women felt the need to protect the younger generation against that sort of treatment. This was particularly meaningful given the time period in which it occurred. Patriarchal society used the tools of sex-antagonism and sex-humiliation as a means of containment for the spread of the Suffrage movement, even during the early years of the new century.

Hunger striking and force-feeding, particularly, were undertaken by individual people and served as points of battle carried out on the individual body. Starting in the summer of 1909, Suffragettes employed the hunger-strike as a method of protest while they served time in British prisons against the government that imprisoned and mistreated them. Hunger striking, as Jane Marcus points out, was a way for the British woman to refuse her role of mother and nurturer of the country. Authorities responded to their protest with force-feeding, an invasive and painful procedure performed within the confines of their cells. The resistance of the suffragettes to this procedure caused such encounters to be extremely violent and painful in nature – prisoners were held down while their mouths were pried open and instrumentation for force-feeding was shoved into their throats by male doctors. Looking to the firsthand accounts of the force-feedings, as evident in June Purvis' work, "The Prison Experiences of the Suffragettes", one can easily start to see where this form of response took on a quality of rape. This element of forced sexuality was exacerbated in reports of forcible feedings conducted through the rectum or, apparently, the vagina of the prisoners by female warders. So great was the trauma of such an experience, that several women were permanently scarred – mentally and/or physically.


Whitfield concludes that the militant campaign had some positive effects in terms of attracting enormous publicity, and forcing the moderates to better organize themselves, while also stimulating the organization of the antis. He concludes:

The overall effect of the suffragette militancy, however, was to set back the cause of women's suffrage. For women to gain the right to vote it was necessary to demonstrate that they had public opinion on their side, to build and consolidate a parliamentary majority in favour of women's suffrage and to persuade or pressure the government to introduce its own franchise reform. None of these objectives was achieved.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of of Women being given the right to vote, a statue of Millicent Fawcett is to be erected in Parliament Square, London.


  • 1818: Jeremy Bentham advocates female suffrage in his book A Plan for Parliamentary Reform. The Vestries Act 1818 allowed some single women to vote in parish vestry elections
  • 1832: Great Reform Act – confirmed the exclusion of women from the electorate.
  • 1851: The Sheffield Female Political Association is founded and submits a petition calling for women's suffrage to the House of Lords.
  • 1864: The first Contagious Disease Act is passed in England, which is intended to control venereal disease by having prostitutes and women believed to be prostitutes be locked away in hospitals for examination and treatment. When information broke to the general public about the shocking stories of brutality and vice in these hospitals, Josephine Butler launched a campaign to get them repealed. Many have since argued that Butler's campaign destroyed the conspiracy of silence around sexuality and forced women to act in protection of others of their gender. In doing so, clear linkages emerge between the Suffrage movement and Butler's campaign.
  • 1865: John Stuart Mill elected as an MP showing direct support for women's suffrage.
  • 1867: Second Reform Act – Male franchise extended to 2.5 million
  • 1869: Municipal Franchise Act gives single women ratepayers the right to vote in local elections.
  • 1883: Conservative Primrose League formed.
  • 1884: Third Reform Act – Male electorate doubled to 5 million
  • 1889: Women's Franchise League established.
  • 1894: Local Government Act (women who owned property could vote in local elections, become Poor Law Guardians, act on School Boards)
  • 1894: The publication of C.C. Stopes's British Freewomen, staple reading for the suffrage movement for decades.
  • 1897: National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies NUWSS formed (led by Millicent Fawcett).
  • 1903: Women's Social and Political Union WSPU is formed (led by Emmeline Pankhurst)
  • 1904: Militancy begins. Emmeline Pankhurst interrupts a Liberal Party meeting.
  • February 1907: NUWSS "Mud March" – largest open air demonstration ever held (at that point) – over 3000 women took part. In this year, women were admitted to the register to vote in and stand for election to principal local authorities.
  • 1907: The Artists' Suffrage League founded
  • 1907: The Women's Freedom League founded
  • 1908: in November of this year, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, a member of the small municipal borough of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, was selected as mayor of that town, the first woman to so serve.
  • 1907, 1912, 1914: major splits in WSPU
  • 1905, 1908, 1913: Three phases of WSPU militancy (Civil Disobedience; Destruction of Public Property; Arson/Bombings)
  • 5 July 1909: Marion Wallace Dunlop went on the first hunger strike – was released after 91 hours of fasting
  • 1909 The Women's Tax Resistance League founded
  • September 1909: Force feeding introduced to hunger strikers in English prisons
  • 1910: Lady Constance Lytton disguised herself as a working class seamstress, Jane Wharton, and was arrested and endured force feeding that cut down her life span considerably
  • February 1910: Cross-Party Conciliation Committee (54 MPs). Conciliation Bill (that would enfranchise women) passed its 2nd reading by a majority of 109 but Asquith refused to give it more parliamentary time
  • November 1910: Herbert Henry Asquith changed Bill to enfranchise more men instead of women
  • 18 November 1910: Black Friday
  • October 1912: George Lansbury, Labour MP, resigned his seat in support of women's suffrage
  • February 1913: David Lloyd George's house burned down by WSPU (despite his support for women's suffrage).
  • April 1913: Cat and Mouse Act passed, allowing hunger-striking prisoners to be released when their health was threatened and then re-arrested when they had recovered
  • 4 June 1913: Emily Davison walked in front of, and was subsequently trampled and killed by, the King’s Horse at the Epsom Derby.
  • 13 March 1914: Mary Richardson slashed the Rokeby Venus painted by Diego Velázquez in the National Gallery with an axe, protesting that she was maiming a beautiful woman just as the government was maiming Emmeline Pankhurst with force feeding
  • 4 August 1914: World War declared in Britain. WSPU activity immediately ceased. NUWSS activity continued peacefully – the Birmingham branch of the organisation continued to lobby Parliament and write letters to MPs.
  • 1918: The Representation of the People Act of 1918 enfranchised women over the age of 30 who were either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register. About 8.4 million women gained the vote.
  • November 1918: the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was passed, allowing women to be elected into Parliament.
  • 1928: Women received the vote on the same terms as men (over the age of 21) as a result of the Representation of the People Act 1928.
  • References

    Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom Wikipedia