Women’s Suffrage at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century

Suffragists and Suffragettes

By Monica Kramer


Beginning in the mid-19th century, feminist ideas began to sprout across Europe as women began to question their roles in society, most prominently in industrialized countries like England and France.  For many of these women, they demanded the right to participate in elections, which was not strictly prohibited in England until 1832.  But the fight to earn suffrage would last many decades and result in numerous societies with varying goals and methods.  An early champion of women’s suffrage, John Stuart Mill introduced a bill in Parliament that would grant women’s suffrage over sixty years before full suffrage was granted. However, the bill was defeated 194-74.  Despite continual defeat of similar bills, the women’s suffrage movement began to gain power and membership throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century as various women’s groups formed to fight for suffrage.  But as time wore on, some suffragist began to become frustrated and began pursuing more militant tactics, eventually splitting the suffrage movement into two major groups: suffragists and suffragettes.

Millicent Fawcett speaking to a group at Hyde Park in 1913, http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/dec/07/women-equality-rights-feminism

This guide focuses on the early twentieth century suffrage movement as a section of the movement moved towards militancy. While both groups wanted roughly the same outcomes, they employed extremely different tactics.  Although the militant wing of the movement became much more visible in the public sphere, it remained relatively small in size compared to the suffragists who engaged in peaceful and legal polices to affect change.  Some of the peaceable suffragists believed that militant policies would detract rather than add to the following of women’s suffrage. Even though the goal of the movement was eventually reached, a major rift occurred in the movement that majorly effected their public image even though it on involved a minority of the members.

Background on the Women’s Suffrage Movement in England

Rover, Constance. Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain, 1866-1914. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1967.

This book explores the relationship between the women’s suffrage movement and the dominant parties in England. Both the Conservative and Liberal parties were open to women’s suffrage, and the women’s lobby actively supported pro-suffrage candidates. Rover also lays out the arguments used to promote women’s suffrage and the policies of the different societies.

Tickner, Lisa. The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907-14. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

This book explores that various forms of visual propaganda used by suffragists in the fight for the vote. Covering both the use of spectacle and the representation of women in Edwardian Britain, Lisa Tickner examines the different forms of propaganda used to gain public support for their movement and gain more members.  The many reproductions of posters and other artwork show the various tactics and depictions of women, often focusing on their helpless state under the law and illustrations of well-educated, middle-class women.  This text also discusses the artwork and beliefs of the anti-suffragist movement.

Wingerden, Sophia A.. The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain, 1866-1928. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

This book provides a good overview of the entire suffrage movement, including a summary of the main suffrage groups and societies. The book also contains a timeline listing important events in the development of women’s suffrage. Beginning with John Stuart Mill in the 1860s, this text chronicles over fifty years of police brutality, anti-suffragism, internal divisions and continual defeats that characterized the women’s fight for the vote in England.

NUWSS leaflet circa 1913, http://www.bl.uk/learning/ citizenship/campaign/myh/branding/gallery1/ brand6/nuwss.html


The main branch of the women’s suffrage movement focused on a legal approach to passing legislation to enfranchise women by supporting pro-suffrage candidates despite party lines and organizing marches. The largest group was the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which was headed by Millicent Garrett Fawcett who will be covered in more detail below. The NUWSS had a democratic structure and continued a portion of their activities through World War I.

Holton, Sandra Stanley. Feminism and Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain, 1900-1918. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

In this text, Sandra Holton focuses on the lesser-known groups that participated in the women’s suffrage movement instead of on the Pankhursts.  These groups avoided the militant tactics of the Women’s Social and Political Union. For example, the National Union focused on canvassing and lobbying to get pro-suffrage candidates elected. She also explores the conflict over the idea of adult suffrage and the importance of the alliance between women’s suffrage and the growing power of the Labour Party.

Millicent Fawcett

Millicent Garrett Fawcett circa 1913, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ ggbain.00944/

A member of the women’s suffrage movement for much of her life, Millicent Fawcett opposed the use of militant tactics, thinking it would hurt rather than help the cause.  As the head of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies for over twenty years, she sought to gain women’s suffrage through peaceable and legal channels. In her career, she published various works, some of which are included below along with a biographic resource.

  • Fawcett, Millicent G. Women’s Suffrage: a Short History of a Great Movement. New York: Source Book, 1970.

In this book, Millicent Fawcett examines the split between the two major factions of the suffrage movement and each groups’ new policies towards elections. While the WPSU opposed all Liberal candidates, the NUWSS examined all candidates independently of party and supported those who would support their interests in Parliament.

  • Fawcett, Millicent Garrett. The Women’s Victory and After: Personal Reminiscences, 1911-1918. London: Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd., 1920.

After achieving partial suffrage in 1918, Millicent Fawcett uses this book to provide a further history of the suffrage movement beginning where her previous book had left off.  In this book, she recounts the defeats of suffrage bills earlier in the decade and the role of women during world war one in helping the country and improving public opinion of women’s suffrage. Additionally, she discussed the importance and impact of the partial suffrage that women had gained and maintained hope for more rights and expanded suffrage in the future.

  • Kent, Susan. Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire, 1 ed., s.v. “Millicent Garrett Fawcett.” Detriot: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006.

This encyclopedia entry provided background information on Millicent Garrett Fawcett and her life, as well as her participation as a major leader in the women’s suffrage movement.


Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Annie_Ke nney_and_Christabel_Pankhurst.jpg

In the early twentieth century, the suffrage movement experienced a severe split in policy and structure as a small contingent of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies broke off to form the Women’s Social and Political Union and other militant organizations.  Created by the Pankhursts, the WPSU had a dictatorial structure and used protests and arrests to create spectacle and attract attention to the cause. While imprisoned, members began hunger strikes which were combatted with force feeding and the so-called Cat and Mouse Act which released prisoners but imprisoned them when they regained their health.  During World War One, the WPSU postponed their militant activities in order to promote national unity throughout the fighting.

Mayhall, Laura E. Nym. “Defining Militancy: Radical Protest, the Constitutional Idiom, and Women’s Suffrage in Britian, 1908-1909.” Journal of British Studies 39, no. 3 (2000): 340-371.

This article examines the two different militant suffrage organizations, the Women’s Social and Political Union and the Women’s Freedom League.  While WSPU is the most visible association of the era, Mayhall seeks to illuminate the activities of another militant group who originated from a split in the WSPU.  By investigating another aspect of the women’s suffrage movement, the small but significant differences in policy emerge, proving that the militant wing of the women’s suffrage movement displayed varying levels of force and could not be classified as one homogeneous conglomerate.

Emmeline Pankhurst is arrested at Buckingham Palace, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/magazine/article3597772.ece

Pankhurst, E. Sylvia. The Suffragette. (Reprinted). ed. London: Gay & Hancock, 1911.

The author Sylvia Pankhurst belonged to the family that led the charge for women’s suffrage and documents the suffragists’ shift to militant tactics and the subsequent struggle for suffrage from 1905 to 1910. Her descriptive anecdotes illustrate the frustration and other emotions behind the suffragists. By providing a first hand account of much of the activity, Ms. Pankhurst captures the motivations of the movements, as well as the police brutality and force feedings that characterize this period of the suffrage movement.

Lytton, Constance. Prisons and Prisoners: The Stirring Testimony of a Suffragette. London: Virago, 1988.

As a suffragette in the early twentieth century, Lady Constance Lytton was arrested for militant activities and disguised herself as Jane Warton to conceal her noble status and experience the horrors of prison firsthand.  This book recounts her time spent in prison and was an attempt to promote the suffrage cause and gain better conditions for all female prisoners. In great detail, she recounts the details of daily life from perpetually unclean clothes to the terrors of forced feeding.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst circa 1913, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/c ph.3b38130

Emmeline Pankhurst attended her first women’s suffrage meeting at the age of eight and spent much of her life fighting for that cause.  Together with her daughters, Emmeline Pankhurst led the militant wing of the suffrage movement and was repeated imprisoned. The following list includes more background information on her life and activities as a suffragette and her own publications.

  • Pankhurst, E. Sylvia. The Life of Emmeline Pankhurst; the Suffragette Struggle for Women’s Citizenship,. 1935. Reprint, London: T.W. Laurie, 1969.

Sylvia Pankhurst documents her mother’s work throughout her life from her early work as a socialist to her ardent support of the war in a seemingly detached manner and provides insight into the organization of the WPSU and how Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst took complete control over the entire organization.

  • Purvis, June. Emmeline Pankhurst: a Biography. London: Routledge, 2002.

Jane Purivs documents the importance of Emmeline Pankhurst in the suffrage movement and how she changed how the public viewed the suffrage movement. This book also provides information on Emmeline Pankhurst within the context of her own family, supplemented by interviews with family members

  • Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story . 1914. Reprint, London: Virago Press, 1979.

Beginning in her early childhood, Ms. Pankhurst recalls her experiences with suffrage and other activism, activities that were supported by her parents.  While recounting her many experiences with the women’s suffrage movement, she provides a personal insight into her motivations and goals for the suffrage movement, as well as her meetings with government officials and many arrests.

This website gives a transcript of a speech that Emmeline Pankhurst delivered in 1913 as a part of a fundraising tour in America. In the speech, Pankhurst rallies the sympathy of the listeners by detailing and condemning the government’s harsh response to the suffragette movement and their hunger strikes.  Pankhurst uses the tragic imagery of women being released to recover and rearrested as soon as they return to health under Parliament’s so called Cat and Mouse Act that she herself was evading in order to win the support of the Americans, as was the plan of the suffragettes.


Below is a selection of pictures used during the suffrage movement in order to garner more support for their cause, as well as several posters used by anti-suffragists in an attempt to counter the rising support for women’s suffrage.  These images were selected using the book The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907-14 by Lisa Tickner, the citation for which can be found above in the background section.

http://www.zazzle.com/vintage_british _suffragette_cat_and_mouse_act_poster-228416372764826056


The Cat and Mouse Act permitted the release of suffrage prisoners to recover from hunger strikes   and force feedings, only to re-arrest them when they recover. This poster was published on behalf of the WPSU in 1914.



http://www.zazzle.com/vintage_british_ suffragette_cat_and_mouse_act_poster-228416372764826056




Suffragettes regarded such treatment of prisoners on a hunger strike to be torture. This poster was published on the behalf of the WPSU in 1910.



http://www.zazzle.com/handicapped_ vintage_suffrage_propaganda_print-228295943751911968



While a young man sails easily by on his way to the Parliament building in the background, a young Grace Darling-like woman struggles to row against the high waves. This poster was published by the Artist’s Suffrage League, a group that created propaganda for NUWSS, in 1909.


http://www.radford.edu/rbarris/ Women%20and%20art/amerwom05/ suffrageart.html




Published by the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage in 1912, this poster depicts the common theme of a neglectful wife in a working class family.


http://www.radford.edu/rbarris/ Women%20and%20art/amerwom05/ suffrageart.html





This poster designed for the NLOWS in 1912 shows another common theme in anti-suffrage posters, depicting suffragists as unnatural and inhuman.