Why did a campaign for women’s suffrage develop in the years after 1870? Essay

A campaign for women’s suffrage developed in the years after 1870 because many women felt that their position in society needed to be improved and to achieve this the franchise was required.

The position of women before 1870 was politically and socially weak. They were regarded as inferiors to men and were believed to be weaker mentally and physically. They had fewer civil rights than men, for example, once married all their property belonged to their husband. They also had fewer opportunities in education and careers and lower pay than men. Women knew that the only way to better their position in society was to better their position in politics. The first step was to get the vote; by doing this women would have the means of achieving change and would have influence in politics and society. This is one of the reasons why from the 1860s societies for women’s suffrage were established in cities like Manchester and London.

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In 1866 a window of opportunity was opened for the campaigners, a Reform Bill changed the law to include a wider variety of people in the electorate. The women thought that whilst the MPs were debating this matter, the law could also be changed to include women. JS Mill raised the matter in parliament but was defeated. During this time there also began to be improvements in education such as the 1870 Education Act which enabled mixed primary schools to be set up. In 1882 the Married Women’s Property Act. These changes, along with the discussion of their cause in Parliament galvanised women into joining the movement and its membership increased.

In 1897, with the formation of the NUWSS, the movement gained more energy. More working class women (radical suffragists) such as Selina Cooper became involved. This meant that the women’s cause could be promoted not only in middle class areas but also in the mills and factories to working class women – by becoming more inclusive the women were developing a larger campaigning workforce. Women began to be paid for their work and the movement developed international links, e.g. the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance. These advances caused the movement to develop because it appealed to a wider audience.

In 1888 single women were granted the vote in local elections but, after 40 years, the women had not achieved their aim of women’s suffrage. Many women were frustrated by this and so Emmeline Pankhurst founded the WSPU in 1903. Its aims were the same as the WSPU but its tactics were militant, for example its members would go on hunger strike. The formation of the WSPU was a new development for the movement because it provided the campaign with new blood; it also helped to develop the movement -its militant tactics were headline-grabbing and so helped to expose the movement’s demands to the media and general public.

Q2. Describe the ways in which the methods of the Suffragists and Suffragettes were different.

The main difference between the methods of the two groups was that the Suffragettes were willing to use violence and to break the law whereas the Suffragists were law-abiding and campaigned peacefully for their cause.

The NUWSS felt that the way to get the franchise was to work with politicians and to campaign peacefully whereas the WSPU believed the way to achieve their aims was ‘Deeds not Words’. They felt they had to campaign against those who were denying them the vote (the MPs) and the way to achieve their aims was by overwhelming the politicians via disrupting public life and exposure in the media and public-eye. They wanted publicity which would make the government look under pressure and unfair. The NUWSS only used methods such as petitioning, fundraising and speeches to spread their message and promote their aims while the WSPU’s methods included window smashing in 1909, hunger strikes such as that of Lady Constance Lytton in 1914 and heckling politicians. Both sides used propaganda but the WSPU were perhaps more skilled at it, using more powerful and hard-hitting images.

A further example of the differences between the two groups’ methods was that the suffragists also campaigned for broader issues connected with women’s rights such as the Girls Public Day School Trust in 1872 because they felt that this method would provide more benefits for women that just campaigning for the vote. In contrast the WSPU had a more focused approach; Mrs Pankhurst said that ‘no member of the WSPU divides her attention between suffrage and other social reforms’.

There were some similarities between the two groups. They both had a newspaper. The WSPU’s was called ‘Votes for Women’; the NUWSS’s was called ‘The Common Cause’. Both groups used fundraising, speeches and posters to put across their message. Also, they both had colours that represented them. Another similarity is that both societies had women from a variety of different social backgrounds involved in their campaigning. Within the suffragist movement their were radical suffragists such as the working-class Ada Nield Chew who worked with more upper class women like Eva Gore-Booth. Within the suffragette movement there was also women of a working class background, most famously Annie Kenney, and women of higher social status for example, the Pankhursts involved in the movement.

Q3. Women over 30 gained the vote in 1918 mainly because of women’s contribution to the war effort. Do you agree? Explain your answer.

I partly agree with the statement because women’s contribution to the war showed women to be good, strong citizens. However, the campaigning of the NUWSS and the campaigning and militancy of the WSPU brought the matter of women’s suffrage to the attention of the public, government and media.

Women’s contribution to the war effort showed women to be responsible, able people who were patriotic and hard-working. For example, they worked on the land, helping to provide much needed food. This helped to persuade the government to allow women the vote because they were worthy of it. The war meant the two main suffrage movements felt compelled to stop their campaigning and any militancy. If they had continued it, they would have seemed unpatriotic and selfish so the fact that they did put the campaign on hold put the women in a good light. The suffrage movement’s contribution to the war was considerable; the NUWSS set up maternity centres, Red Cross centres and women’s recruitment centres the WSPU showed themselves to be very patriotic, they changed their name and condemned pacifism. The efforts of the two societies sent out a good impression and showed that although the movement may have done some impetuous things in the past, they were responsible, caring people who were viable candidates for the franchise.

The war changed society’s, especially men’s, view of women because it was seen that women were not as men had previously perceived them, as weak and emotional. For example, women worked in physically demanding men’s jobs and many acts of bravery were committed by women. Edith Cavell, a Nurse, is an example of this. She was shot by the Germans in the war whilst trying to smuggle out injured soldiers. This change in male attitudes meant that MPs, who were all male, no longer felt they could support the previous foundation on which the arguments against women’s suffrage were founded and felt that women deserved the vote.

Women’s contributions to the war led to the role of women changing to become the breadwinner. This change in role meant that many women became more politicized because they were affected by the government’s decisions. In this way, women’s contributions to the war effort lead women to be more knowledgeable about politics which meant that there was more reason for the government to give them the vote.

However, the granting of the vote to women cannot only be attributed to their contribution in the war effort. The campaigning by the NUWSS and WSPU can be thanked for bringing the matter to MPs’ and the public’s attention. The pre-war militancy of the WSPU forced the government and media to look at the issue and put the question of women’s suffrage on the agenda. If it had not been for the militant tactics of the WSPU, the government would have been too preoccupied with matters such as Ireland to debate the issue. Examples of militancy that gained the movement much needed press-coverage were the frequent hunger strikes and violent demonstrations of the WSPU. The militancy put a lot of pressure on the government because it showed that they could not control the women. This may have led to the government giving the vote to women over 30 because they felt that it was the only way to end the militancy.

Another point is that without the campaign, including the NUWSS’s contribution to it, the movement would not have been sufficiently organised to coordinate efficient wartime contributions.

My final point is that it may not have been the women’s contribution to the war that gained women the vote but simply the occurrence of the war in itself. After the war, the government wanted the country to have a new start and to be ‘a place fit for heroes’. The government felt that it must show the people that the war, with its many fatalities, had been for a reason and that the reason was that it had created a fairer, more equal society without a class system. Due to the fact that at this time many people were thinking about the structure of society in a different way they also began to think about the inequality between men and women. This lead the government to feel that they must sanction votes for women in the ROPA (1918).


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