History explainer: the ‘votes for women’ campaign
How and why did campaigners win voting rights for women?
The ‘votes for women’ campaign was one of the most important in the long fight for equal rights between men and women – a fight that is still going on today. This video introduces some of the different people involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage (the right to vote in national elections), the methods they used in their campaigning, and why their struggle was so important.
The ‘votes for women’ campaign
In the mid 1800s, life in Britain for women was very different to today.
Back then, they had few rights. Very little education was available to them, and they couldn’t work as doctors, lawyers, politicians or in other professions. And if they got married, everything belonged to their husband, including any money they earned and property they owned.
Women were also not allowed to vote in any national elections, meaning that they had no say in the important decisions and laws affecting their everyday lives.
The suffrage movement and the ‘votes for women’ campaign began in the mid 1800s. The campaigners were known as suffragists. People came together from all walks of life to try and make a change together. Women weren’t the only ones campaigning for votes for women – men also campaigned.
In 1866, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and her fellow campaigner Emily Davies, delivered a petition to the House of Commons calling for the law to be changed, to give women the right to vote. Over 1,500 women signed the petition.
In 1867, John Stuart Mill raised the issue in Parliament. Although lots of MPs supported the idea, it wasn’t enough to change the law. But they’d made sure the important issue of votes for women was discussed in Parliament for the first time.
The suffragists gathered support from all over Britain through leaflets, public meetings and marches. In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed with Millicent Garrett Fawcett as leader. It became the largest organisation to campaign for ‘votes for women’.
However, a growing number of women were becoming frustrated by the lack of progress made by the suffragists’ peaceful campaign.
In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union, in Manchester, with her daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela. They vowed to do whatever it took to draw attention to the ‘votes for women’ campaign, even if that meant breaking the law. Their motto was ‘deeds not words’.
This was the start of a more militant campaign, and those involved became known as the suffragettes.
The suffragettes’ protests included breaking shop windows, setting buildings on fire, and slashing paintings on display in public galleries, including this portrait of Thomas Carlyle at the National Portrait Gallery.
After this attack, the police issued the National Portrait Gallery with surveillance images of known suffragettes. These photographs were taken without their knowledge.
The ‘deeds not words’ campaign resulted in many suffragettes being arrested and sent to prison, where they would often continue their protest by refusing to eat. This was known as a hunger strike.
In 1914, the women’s suffrage movement paused their campaign due to the outbreak of the First World War and encouraged women to support the war effort. In 1918, thousands of women living in Britain were given the right to vote in elections. Ten years later, in 1928, all men and all women over the age of 21 were finally given the right to vote on equal terms.
It took over 50 years of campaigning by thousands of people to change the law. Some even lost their lives. ‘Votes for women’ was a crucial campaign in the long fight for equal rights between men and women.
How far would you go for something you truly believed in?
- Consider some of the historical challenges for women in Britain.
- Explore some of the key moments in the ‘votes for women’ campaign.
- Be inspired to investigate the ‘votes for women’ campaign further through the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection.
Watch and discuss
- Little education was available to women, and they could not work as doctors, lawyers, politicians or in other professions.
- If they got married, everything belonged to their husband, including any money they earned and property they owned.
- Women were also not allowed to vote in any national elections, meaning that they had no say in the important decisions and laws that were affecting their lives every day.
- The suffragists used peaceful campaign methods. For example, starting petitions and collecting hundreds of signatures from supporters; and getting the issue of ‘votes for women’ discussed in Parliament.
- The suffragettes vowed to do whatever it took to draw attention to the ‘votes for women’ campaign. Their motto was ‘deeds not words’ – even if that meant breaking the law.
- The suffragettes’ protests included breaking shop windows, setting buildings on fire and slashing paintings on display in public galleries.
- Suffragettes who were sent to prison would often continue their protest by going on hunger strike strikes, refusing to eat.