Women’s suffrage: who campaigned for the vote?

Learning objectives

  1. Discover some of the key players in the ‘votes for women’ campaign.
  1. Use portraits as evidence to learn about people and events related to the campaign.
  1. Explore portraits made for different purposes, and investigate how they communicate mood, messages and ideas.
  • View larger image
    Charlotte Despard (née French) and Anne Cobden-Sanderson with a policeman,    by Unknown photographer,    19 August 1909,    NPG x27490,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Charlotte Despard (née French) and Anne Cobden-Sanderson with a policeman
by Unknown photographer
vintage print, 19 August 1909
6 3/8 in. x 8 1/2 in. (163 mm x 217 mm) overall
NPG x27490
© National Portrait Gallery, London

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

Women were also not allowed to vote in national elections. 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 Suffragist A person who campaigns for a group of people who do not have the right to vote in elections, in order to get this right for them. and Suffragettes A group of women who organised a campaign in the early 1900s for the right of women to vote in political elections. .

In 1918, wealthy women over 30 were granted the right to vote.

In 1928, all men and women over 21 were finally given the right to vote on equal terms.

First impressions of key players

Thousands of women and men campaigned for ‘votes for women’. They came from all over Britain and from all walks of life.

Look at these portraits of some of the key players.

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 portrait. What might you be able to see, hear or even smell?
  1. How might you feel? Who else might be there?

Look closer at key players

Now explore your chosen portrait or portraits further. 

Click on each portrait to find out more about how each person was involved in the ‘votes for women’ campaign. 

Who do you think made the biggest impact on women winning the right to vote?

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    Elizabeth Garrett Anderson,    by Walery, published by  Sampson Low & Co,    published February 1889,    NPG x8446,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, by Walery, published by Sampson Low & Co, published February 1889
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    Henry Fawcett; Dame Millicent Fawcett,    by Ford Madox Brown,    1872,    NPG 1603,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Henry Fawcett; Dame Millicent Fawcett, by Ford Madox Brown, 1872
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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
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    'Miss Mill joins the Ladies' (Edward John Eyre; Robert Wellesley Grosvenor, 2nd Baron Ebury; William Henry Smith; John Stuart Mill),    by John Proctor,    published in Judy or The London Serio-Comic Journal 25 November 1868,    NPG D22624,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
'Miss Mill joins the Ladies' (Edward John Eyre; Robert Wellesley Grosvenor, 2nd Baron Ebury; William Henry Smith; John Stuart Mill), by John Proctor, published in Judy or The London Serio-Comic Journal 25 November 1868
  • View larger image
    Charlotte Despard (née French) and Anne Cobden-Sanderson with a policeman,    by Unknown photographer,    19 August 1909,    NPG x27490,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Charlotte Despard (née French) and Anne Cobden-Sanderson with a policeman, by Unknown photographer, 19 August 1909
  • View larger image
    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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    Dame Christabel Pankhurst,    by Ethel Wright,    exhibited 1909,    NPG 6921,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Dame Christabel Pankhurst, by Ethel Wright, exhibited 1909

Review and reflect

Who do you think made the biggest impact on women winning the right to vote?

Choose one person from the people in these portraits or pick two or three of them and compare them with each other.

How will you decide? You could think about:

  • How much attention they attracted – from ordinary people and from politicians
  • How people reacted to their actions
  • Who joined them or supported them
  • Whether their actions led to any changes in women’s rights.

Making connections

Can you put the people in the portraits in date order?

Can you find any connections between the people in these portraits?

  • Were they members of the same group?
  • Were they related?
  • Did they attend the same events?
  • Did they protest in the same way?
  • Did they agree or disagree with each other?
  1. Who else was involved in the ‘votes for women’ campaign? Look at the portraits below for some ideas.
  1. Who might not have been remembered in a portrait? Why?
  1. Can you find out who fought against votes for women?

The fight for equal rights

Here are some more key players in the fight for equal rights between men and women.

  1. What can you find out about them?
  1. Did they come before or after the women’s suffrage campaign?
  1. Who else could you add to the list?