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Suffragists Vs Suffragettes?

The Suffragists and Suffragettes were two separate groups who both campaigned for Women's Suffrage (the right to vote) in Britain in the early 1900s, each using very different methods.

A quick aside...Just recently I have seen several You Tube videos which have used the word 'suffrage' to trick largely women (mostly at US Ivy League Universities) into signing petitions to 'end Women's Suffrage'...the instigator, too often male, purposefully uses the word to denote women's suffering (alluding to domestic and sexual violence/abuse and poverty). Very often the women being asked to sign such petitions were caught off guard. BUT the fact still remains that despite, even in one case being Women's Studies students, most seem not to understand what the word 'SUFFRAGE' actually means. This omission in our collective knowledge about the fight for votes in general and women's suffrage, in particular, is a testament to the need for our Project and other projects like ours to educate, engage and share...

So back to the definitions... The Suffragists were set up in 1897 by Millicent Fawcett as a union of the different suffrage campaigning groups in Britain. Other leading lights included Eleanor Rathbone. Suffragists campaigned peacefully through means such as meetings, debates, leaflets, petitions etc. they also put forwards male candidates in elections as opposition to liberal and Tory candidates who opposed women's suffrage. The Suffragist Campaign is often described as a 'Constitutional Campaign which favoured meeting, committees, deputations and lobbying to some of the more active methods of their 'Suffragette Sisters'. These varied methods employed by different perspectives led to a natural split into two and later eve more camps. This 'splintering, such as it was had many causes, including the sheer diversity of the women who came together to 'fight and argue' for 'Votes for Women' - members of various religious traditions including Quakers, the Temperance Movement, Pacifists, Socialists, Liberals and Conservatives. The class and locational differences between the women in the movement must also be considered as having an impact.

The term 'suffragette' was first coined by 'The Daily Mail' to describe the more radical and militant elements of the women's suffrage movement. Initially intended as a term of disparagement, it was soon adopted as their preferred name by members of the movement. The Suffragettes were founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst, a former Suffragist who grew increasingly frustrated by the Suffragist’s apparent lack of progress. The suffragettes were made up of women who thought the same as Emmeline Pankhurst. They did not, as a rule, allow men into their group and campaigned through more direct action and civil disobedience such as harassing MPs, disrupting meetings, and even burning post boxes and buildings. Many others, became involved in arson, window smashing and other violent attacks – although never on human life. Consequently, many of the women were arrested, treated brusquely by the police and imprisoned and forced fed. Both the Suffragists and the Suffragettes had positives and negatives. The Suffragist movement quickly gained the Labour Party's support in early 1900s, and then steadily began to attract more people to the cause. However, it was slow and many women felt that it was not noticeable enough and was too easy for opponents to ignore.The Suffragette's main positive was that they got publicity for the cause through their almost fanatical actions. However, many people thought that they were too extreme, and the Suffragists thought they were actually damaging the cause. In 1911, women arguably almost got the vote, but the Prime minister dropped the bill just before it was passed. The Suffragette’s response was to step up their levels of violence. However, it is likely that this actually pushed many people away from supporting them as they began to think that women were unstable and could not be trusted with the vote. It is however, that the Suffragette response was seized as an opportunity to maintain the status quo of 'No Votes for Women'. It is extremely difficult to argue and come to any conclusive statements about which of the two movements was the most successful. Indeed, when war came in 1914 both Suffragettes and Suffragists down tools' and supported the national war effort. It is likely that both contributed in different ways and to also recognise the impact of World War I on the first real gains in achieving suffrage for women in 1918.

Both Suffragettes and Suffragists developed their own unions, in the case of the former it was the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) and in thecase of the latter it was the non-militant NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies), both were active and played a key role alongside other women led and focused organisations, in the 'Votes For Women' Campaign which in 1928, finally, realised the right of women to vote and stand for national elections on the same terms as men.

The Road to Universal Suffrage

Despite being denied the national vote, women participated at a local level:

  • 1869: single and widowed rate-paying women are granted the right to vote in municipal elections (later local councils).

  • 1870: as a result of the Education Act, women are now eligible for election to School Boards, however when Local Education Authorities replaced School Boards in 1902 women are declared ineligible for election again.

  • 1875: first woman Poor Law Guardian is elected. By 1900 there are around 1000 female Guardians, among them Emmeline Pankhurst.

  • 1881: women given the vote on the Isle of Man, 37 years before women in mainland Britain are granted the privilege.

  • 1907 all women rate payers are allowed to vote and to stand in local government elections

  • On 6 February 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave women over thirty years of age the vote if they were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or more, or graduates of British universities. Although this bill enfranchised only about eight and a half million women, it was a start.

  • 1928 Universal Suffrage – women win the right to vote on the same terms as men.


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