Did The Suffragettes Really Win Votes For Women?

Did women win the vote in Britain because of the militant activism of the Suffragettes, or has their importance been overrated?

Did The Suffragettes Really Win Votes For Women?

ARGUMENT 1: THE SUFFRAGETTES WERE CRUCIAL

The Suffragettes waged a very literal battle to overcome bigotry and win the vote for women. Yes, they resorted to violent tactics, from smashing windows and arson attacks to setting off bombs and even attacking works of art. We're not debating the rights and wrongs of their methods. We're debating whether or not their activism was essential to the struggle for suffrage. It's painfully clear that it was.

Even the gentlemen of the press realised the Suffragettes were necessary for getting women's voice heard. "By what means but screaming, knocking, and rioting, did men themselves ever gain what they were pleased to call their rights?" asked the Daily Mirror in 1906. That same year, Millicent Fawcett, who represented the older, less militant wing of the suffrage movement, admitted that the rabble-rousing Suffragettes "have done more during the last 12 months... than we have been able to accomplish in the same number of years."

The people who spoke out most aggressively against the Suffragettes now sound like the worst kinds of patriarchal dinosaurs. One aristocrat, speaking in the House of Commons, said that "militant women" would "bring disgrace and discredit upon their sex" and that "it is not cricket for women to use force." As far as men like him were concerned, the only women who deserved the vote were "quiet, retiring" women. Sounds hilarious now, but not so much to those trying to assert their individuality and autonomy in that oppressive era.

But would women have been given the vote anyway, thanks to a general evolution in social freedom, and the after-effects of World War One? Perhaps, in time. But the Suffragettes crucially forced the hand of the government. And even then, when the law was changed in 1918, the vote was only extended to women who were aged over 30 and suitably middle-class.

The notion that women were given the vote because of their war work is nonsense.

Dr Mary Talbot, author of Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, concedes that "the war was certainly a huge factor. However, the notion that women were given the vote because of their war work is nonsense. The limited franchise granted in 1918 excluded young women and the working class, so that the great majority of munitions workers were excluded."

In other words, the powers-that-be were still hostile to universal female suffrage, and withheld it from the very women who'd been essential to the war effort. And it was only because of the revolutionary zeal of the Suffragettes that the first partial step was made in 1918.

Image showing Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested during protest.

Image showing Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested during protest.

Here's Professor June Purvis, editor of Women's History Review and author of Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography: "That women went to prison for a cause they believed in and endured the torture of forcible feeding, challenged sexist stereotypes that the female sex was feeble, irrational and uninterested in politics. Even from 1912, when more illegal tactics were adopted, such as setting fire to empty buildings, gender stereotypes were challenged."

She goes on to say, "In 1918, when the women's clause of the Representation of the People Act was being discussed in the House of Lords, the Marquess of Crewe was not the only peer who argued that he had no desire for the pre-war militancy of the Suffragettes to return, that now was the best time to settle the matter."

If you still doubt their importance, compare Britain to France, which didn't have a well-organised Suffragette movement, and didn't grant women the vote until as late as 1944. Says it all, really.

ARGUMENT 2: THE SUFFRAGETTES WERE NOT CRUCIAL

Here's an unfashionable truth that flies in the face of the more black-and-white, goodies vs baddies view of the Suffragettes' struggle: many, many people were completely open to the idea of women getting the vote, even before the militant activism began. As Jad Adams, author of Women and the Vote: A World History puts it: "In the early Twentieth Century few people were adamantly opposed to women's suffrage. Mainly they thought it was inevitable."

Indeed, it could easily be argued that the violence of the Suffragettes actually alienated potential sympathisers and slowed the struggle for women's voting rights. Think of the words of The Guardian newspaper in 1912, which reacted to news of militant antics by describing "the madness of the militants... who profess to represent the noble and serious cause of political enfranchisement of women, but in fact do their utmost to degrade and hinder it."

And little wonder. Buildings were being set ablaze, acid was being poured into pillar boxes, and a bomb was even set off in Westminster Abbey. Fortunately, the winds of change were blowing. Our nation's notion of democracy was maturing, and even the violent agitations of the Suffragettes couldn't impede progress. Especially as World War One allowed women to literally flex their muscles in jobs previously reserved only for men.

Working in factories and farms, offices and hospitals, buses and trams, women suddenly had a new confidence and a new social visibility. It was this rebuke to the idea of a "woman's proper place", together with the need for electoral reform in the wake of the war, which was the real reason women got the vote in 1918. Here's Jad Adams again, to sum this argument up:

I argue that if Suffragette-style violence wasn't necessary anywhere else, I don't believe it was necessary in the UK.

"Seven countries gave women the vote before Britain did in 1918. Another seven gave women the vote the same year women over 30, who had property, got the vote in Britain. I argue that if Suffragette-style violence wasn't necessary anywhere else, I don't believe it was necessary in the UK."

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