Women’s suffrage: deeds not words

Learning objectives

  1. Investigate key people from the women’s suffrage movement through their portraits.
  1. Consider the impact of the ‘votes for women’ campaign.
  1. Analyse and interpret portraits to use them as evidence.
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    Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence; Dame Christabel Pankhurst,    by Unknown photographer,    21 June 1908,    NPG x45194,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence; Dame Christabel Pankhurst
by Unknown photographer
postcard print, 21 June 1908
3 1/4in. x 5 3/8in. (77 mm x 137 mm)
NPG x45194
© National Portrait Gallery, London

How far would you go for something you truly believed in?

In the mid 1800s, life in Britain for women was very different to today. There was very little education available to them, they could not work as doctors, lawyers or politicians and, if they married, any money they made or property they owned belonged to their husband.  

Women were also not allowed to vote in national elections. This means they had no say in the important laws and decisions that affected their everyday lives.

The campaign for women’s suffrage (the right to vote in national elections) became known as ‘votes for women’. It was one of the most important campaigns in the long fight for gender equality (equal rights between men and women) – a fight that is still going on today.

The people who campaigned became known as suffragists and suffragettes.

We are here not because we are law breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law makers.
Emmeline Pankhurst, 1908

The right to vote

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    Emmeline Pankhurst's arrest at Buckingham Palace,    by Central Press,    22 May 1914,    NPG x137688,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Emmeline Pankhurst's arrest at Buckingham Palace
by Central Press
vintage print, 22 May 1914
8 in. x 6 in. (203 mm x 152 mm) image size
NPG x137688
© National Portrait Gallery, London

How did the suffragettes fight for the right to vote?

Emmeline Pankhurst had been involved in the ‘votes for women’ campaign for many years. This had been a peaceful campaign. Both men and women were involved. But Pankhurst was frustrated that very little progress had been made.

In 1903, she set up the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester, along with others including her daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela. This would be a new group. Only women would be allowed to join.

Their motto was ‘deeds not words’. They would do whatever it took to draw attention to the ‘votes for women’ campaign – even if that meant breaking the law.

This was the start of a more ‘ Militant A person who uses, or is willing to use, force or strong pressure to achieve their aims, especially to achieve social or political change. ’ campaign, and the women involved became known as the ‘suffragettes’.

First impressions

What do these portraits tell us about how the suffragettes lived up to their motto ‘deeds not words’?

Choose a portrait, or portraits, that interest you. What can you see?

  • Look very carefully at each one for at least a minute (you might want to use a timer).
  • Look in all four corners and around the edges.
  • Look at what the people are wearing and what they’re doing.
  • Look at the background.
  1. Imagine you could step inside the photograph. What might you be able to see or hear? How might you feel?
  1. What three words would you use to describe the mood of the photograph? Is it relaxed, energetic, intimate, provocative, scary, joyful, funny, serious...?

Look closer

Now explore your chosen portrait or portraits further. Click on each portrait to find out more about who is in it and what's happening.

What more can we learn about how the suffragettes lived up to their motto ‘deeds not words’?

  • View larger image
    Emmeline Pankhurst's arrest at Buckingham Palace,    by Central Press,    22 May 1914,    NPG x137688,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Emmeline Pankhurst's arrest at Buckingham Palace, by Central Press, 22 May 1914
  • View larger image
    Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence; Dame Christabel Pankhurst,    by Unknown photographer,    21 June 1908,    NPG x45194,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence; Dame Christabel Pankhurst, by Unknown photographer, 21 June 1908
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    Procession of Emily Davison's funeral,    by Ferdinand Louis Kehrhahn & Co,    June 1913,    NPG x45196,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Procession of Emily Davison's funeral, by Ferdinand Louis Kehrhahn & Co, June 1913
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Head and shoulders portrait of a man, Thomas Carlyle, smartly dressed in Victorian style suit, with grey hair and a medium length grey beard. The portrait has been slashed, with two major areas of damage across Carlyle's face and head.
Portrait of Thomas Carlyle, damaged by a suffragette protestor at the National Portrait Gallery in 1914.
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    Mary Raleigh Richardson; Clara Mary Lambert (Catherine Wilson),    by Unknown photographer,    Issued 24 April 1914,    NPG x136416,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Mary Raleigh Richardson; Clara Mary Lambert (Catherine Wilson), by Unknown photographer, Issued 24 April 1914
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    'Surveillance Photograph of Militant Suffragettes',    by Criminal Record Office,    1914,    NPG x132846,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
'Surveillance Photograph of Militant Suffragettes', by Criminal Record Office, 1914
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    Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square,    by Central Press,    October 1908,    NPG x131784,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square, by Central Press, October 1908
  1. What suffragette campaign methods can we see in these portraits?
  1. How successful do you think those methods were?
  1. Why do you think these photographs were taken?
  1. What do you think people might have thought if they had seen pictures like these in a newspaper?

Explore more photographs

Look at more photographs of suffragettes and their fight for voting rights for women.

Reflections


On 6 February 1918, thousands of women living in Britain were finally given the right to vote in elections.

Ten years later, in 1928, all women in Britain aged over 21 were given the same voting rights as men.

  1. To what extent do you think this was a militant campaign?
  1. Choose one of the women featured in the photographs above and try and find out more about their work as a suffragette.
  1. What else would you like to find out about the ‘votes for women’ campaign? Where could you find the answers?