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Suffrage 100

  • 6th February 2018
Having the right to vote is something we often take as read. But this was not always the case.  One significant step on the road to extending the right to vote took place one hundred years ago when the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave women over 30 and men over 21 the right to vote.  Up until the 19th century voting had been limited to a small portion of the male population.  Some reforms in the mid-19th century increased the number of male voters, but still left many men and all women without a vote.

Copy of Representation of the People Act 1918

 

Suffragist or suffragette?

Although there had been calls to extend the right to vote to women in the early part of the 19th century, the first organised national action began in 1866 with the formation of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage. Many of the early campaigners called themselves suffragists and employed tactics such as lobbing MPs, issuing leaflets, presenting petitions and organising meetings.

Letter from M H Smith of the WSPU lobbing her MP for support 1911

The suffragists made some progress, but no political party was prepared to adopt female suffrage as a policy. The lack of progress disappointed and annoyed many female suffragists and they felt the movement needed to take more direct action to succeed.  Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 and they began to step up the campaign a notch disrupting political meetings, chaining themselves to railings, breaking windows, acts of graffiti and getting themselves arrested, all of which garnered much publicity for their cause.  Some of these actions involved Worcestershire born suffragettes such as Elsie and Mary Howey and Florence Feek.  These more militant suffragists were known as ‘suffragettes’.

Newspaper article detailing the arrest of suffragettes including the Howeys 1908

 

Militant actions and the Cat and Mouse Act

When these tactics failed to gain them the vote, the suffragettes increased their campaign of direct action by setting fire to post boxes, burning down empty buildings, cutting telephone wires and slashing paintings. Many were sent to prison and went on hunger strike there.  The Government responded by ordering them to be force fed.  They received a lot of public sympathy as a result of this treatment.  The Government therefore released hunger strikers and then rearrested them when they had recovered their health.  The legislation which allowed this was known as the Cat and Mouse Act.  All of this served to keep the issue of the right to vote very much in the public eye.

Male suffragist Harry Johnson upon his release under the Cat and Mouse Act

 

Anti-suffrage movement

Not everyone was in favour of women getting the vote and that included including many women.   Organisations were formed to counter the suffragettes such as the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.  Anti-suffrage arguments drew on notions of separate natural roles for men and women and some quoted Queen Victoria’s opinions on women’s suffrage.  Suffragettes often found people were openly hostile to them, heckling and ridiculing them and disrupting their meetings.  They also found themselves subject to physical violence.  Their more militant actions also gave ammunition to those who contended that women were unfit to have the vote.

Anti women’s suffrage leaflet giving the views of Queen Victoria

 

First World War and Representation of the People Act

Campaigning for the vote was suspended during the First World War to support the war effort with women working at home and abroad. The Representation of the People Act in 1918 gave all men over the age of 21 the right to vote as well as women of property over the age of 30.  some were disappointed that some women had been left out, but others felt they could use their right to vote to press for the same for others.  Finally in 1928 all men and women aged over 21 achieved the right to vote.

 

Local records on display

There are very few archives held at the Hive relating to the women’s suffrage movement in Worcestershire or the anti-suffrage. Articles in local newspaper such as Berrows Worcester Journal show that groups in support of and opposing women’s suffrage were active in the county.  They also mention the actions of local women such as Elsie Howey and Florence Feek who were active in the national campaigning.  Some of the archives are on display on level 2 at the Hive as part of a joint exhibition with the University of Worcester to mark the centenary of women getting the vote.

To find out more

There are many websites devoted to the right to vote, the different organisations involved in the various campaigns and the suffragettes themselves. For information on local women in particular see:

The Worcester Suffragettes 2016

Florence Feek

Florence Feek in village magazine

Elise Howey Wikipedia

Spartacus Elsie Howey

 

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