The February Meeting 2019

The Suffragette Movement

Talk by Louise Henshaw


Acting President, Chris Squires, gave a warm welcome to members and guests at the meeting and especially to Louise Henshaw, whose previous talk to the club on Rasputin had been of such interest.


Louise began by reminding everyone that 2018 had marked the 100th anniversary of the Act of Parliament which gave the vote to women over the age of 30 but with certain property restrictions.  In 1928 this was extended to all women over the age of 21 and with no property restrictions. From 1918 women were allowed to be members of Parliament and since then we have had two female Prime Ministers and many more female MPs.

Louise went on to explain the difference between the Suffragists and the Suffragettes.  The suffragists were mainly men who wished for a change in status in the position of women and who felt this should be achieved by non-violent  means – writing letters, lobbying and working through the parliamentary process.  Millicent Fawcett, whose statue has been unveiled recently, was a notable propagandist for this approach towards women’s universal suffrage.


Suffragettes evolved in the early years of the 20th  Century and they were mainly female.    Deeds not Words was their motto as they felt that the suffragists’ campaign was not getting results and that direct action would be more effective.  

In order to understand the suffragettes’ frustration it is necessary to look at the background and the changes which were taking place in British society.  There had been some notable women role models over the centuries, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Victoria, Empress of India, and among the non-royals Elizabeth Fry, Annie Besant, Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, the author of the gothic novel,  Frankenstein.  However for ordinary women their role was still one of subservience to men.

Elizabeth Fry was a Quaker prison visitor whose reforms and ideas made a big difference to the lives of women in Newgate.   Giving them an occupation, i.e. quilting in return for small sums of money which were  saved for their release, was a large step towards their rehabilitation.  This strategy was later widely adopted across the prison system.

 Annie Besant was a social reformer and campaigner for women’s rights and better working conditions.   She was instrumental in securing a settlement of the ‘Matchgirls’ strike at the Bryant and May factory in East London in 1888.    Women worked on near starvation wages under appalling conditions in the factory due to the presence of phosphorus fumes which resulted for many in the fatal ‘phossy  jaw’ .  Eventually the management agreed to trade union and political rights for the women and conditions were much improved both at Bryant and Mays and more generally in other factories.

In the pre-industrial age, Mary Wollstonecraft was a passionate advocate for women’s rights and education for women so that they would be able to support themselves. She was particularly critical of upper and middle class women and advised them to go out and get a job.   This was, however made difficult by the fashions of the day.  Huge flammable crinolines and later ‘hobble’ skirts restricted the lives of well-to-do women as did the presence of many servants.   It is estimated that 40% of the female population was involved in service, working for other people as maids, cooks, governesses and other domestics.

In the Victorian age progress on women’s rights was slow.  However in 1870 the Elementary Education act made provision for compulsory education of children of both sexes between the ages of 5 and 13.   This led to a big increase in educational opportunities for girls, although the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge refused to let women receive degrees until the 1940s. 

In 1882 the Married Women’s Property Act significantly altered English law regarding the property rights of married women, which besides other things allowed married women to own and control property in their own right.   Previously on marriage all of women’s property rights and ownership automatically had devolved to her husband.

Despite  Edward VII’s considerable personal interest in the ladies, in the early 1900s women were still very much regarded as the weaker sex, likely to ‘swoon’ in times of trouble and subject to illness and mood swings.   These views were not helped by their depiction in the fiction of the time.

By 1903 a group of women realised that the suffragists’  ‘softly softly’ approach was not working and that more direct action was needed.   The Women’s Political and Social Union  was founded and they began a campaign of issuing pamphlets together with non-violent demonstrations and marches to draw attention to their cause.    They even took to the skies to get the message across when Muriel Matters an Australian-born, lecturer, journalist, educator, actress and supporter of women’s suffrage, borrowed an airship from a wealthy friend and flew to 3500 feet over London in order to distribute pamphlets.


 Unfortunately a strong wind blew the airship off course, the pamphlets were scattered to the winds and the airship eventually landed in Coulsdon.    That said, it was good publicity for the movement.


The aim of the Suffragettes was to damage property, not lives.   Letter boxes were bombed and The Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery was slashed with an axe.    At Teddington Station a train and station buildings were damaged. 

 In 1913 over 40 glass panes in the Orchid House at Kew Gardens were smashed with hammers and the Tea House was burnt down.    Lloyd George’s London house was bombed with some unfortunate builders still on the premises and some women tried to take Asquith’s clothes off in the street. 


Public opinion was turned against the Suffragettes by some of these acts and it was felt they had gone too far, making it harder for their campaign to be taken seriously.   The women responsible were often caught and once in prison they went on hunger-strike.   Determined to avoid these women becoming martyrs, the government introduced the Prisoner's Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act in 1913.    This successful means of dealing with hunger strikes became known as the Cat and Mouse Act. This Act allowed for the early release of prisoners who were so weakened by lack of food that they were at risk of death.  However they could be re-arrested once they had regained their strength. 


With the outbreak of World War One in 1914, the campaign of direct action was immediately stopped and women began to do the work previously done by their now absent menfolk.

  They demonstrated their skills and commitment in many areas, working on the land and in factories in the UK and providing nursing and many other support services on the Western front.

By 1918 it was obvious that times had changed for women and posters began to appear saying ‘What a woman can do and not have the vote’.  The Representation of the People act in that year widened suffrage by abolishing practically all property qualifications for men and by enfranchising women over 30 years of age.  This was subsequently amended in 1928 to include women over 21.



The 1929 election was named the ‘flapper’ election as this newly enfranchised and liberated group of women wore the fashionable short skirts and bobbed hair and enjoyed many of the pursuits which had previous been the prerogative of men, including driving and smoking!




Nancy Astor was the first female MP and she was later joined by some formidable colleagues, including Ellen Wilkinson who was a unwavering supporter of the Jarrow Marchers and also was an advocate for Indian Independence. Other notables included Dr. Edith Summerskill, Labour politician, feminist and author, and the firebrand Barbara Castle who was at the forefront for women’s rights especially in the Trade Union movement.  Margaret Thatcher needs no introduction but our speaker did point out that Mrs. T. had been advised to lower her voice to make her sound less feminine and more statesman like!

Female politicians and feminist writers have had a big influence on British political life and have campaigned successfully  on divorce, marriage, abortion, domestic violence, child care and on many  issues which were first raised by the Suffragettes.

The talk aroused much interest among members and led to many questions.

Malcolm Eady asked about the class of the Suffragettes.   Louise explained that activists in the South of England were mainly drawn from the upper and middles classes but in the North of England there was  greater participation from women workers who became  Trade Unionists hoping to improve women’s and children’s rights in the factories and even in the mines

Barry Buttenshaw asked about the Pankhurst family and the differences between its members.  Louise replied that Sylvia Pankhurst and her lover Keir Hardie, leader of the Labour party, were more radical and anarchic than other family members who were  genteel and respectful of authority.    Sylvia thought that the movement required greater involvement from working class women which alienated some of the  more middle class elements .

 Louise thought that some members of the movement did not realise the dangers of direct action and quoted the case of Emily Davison who in 1913 tried to stop the king’s horse in the Derby.   It is suspected that she was merely trying to grab the reins and did not understand the inherent dangers of trying to stop a galloping horse.  Apparently she had a return train ticket in her pocket, so did not expect to give her life for the cause.



With regard to the education of women Pam Frazer pointed out that although degrees had not been given by Oxbridge to women until the 1940s,  London University Colleges had been doing so since the 1850s.

David Sagar regretted that the work of the Suffragettes and early feminists appeared to be less well recognised amongst present generation and hoped that the recent 2018 celebrations had added to their status as role models.

John Demont asked for the origin of the word Suffragette and Louise replied that it came from the word Suffrage  - voting rights.

John Clifford wondered how the age of 30 was picked for the voting age of women in 1918.  Louise replied that it was to balance out the sexes at the ballot box, as many,  mainly young men, had lost their lives in WWI and there was a preponderance of women in the country.    She also reminded members that even some European countries had not given women the vote until the 1940s.

Chris Squires thanked Louise for an enlightening and informative talk, highlighting events and people whose work enabled women to enjoy rights which many today take for granted and which all had found most interesting.




Pam Frazer (Guest of the Club)

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