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Birth of a Movement

The suffrage movement grew out of a growing sense of injustice in the second half of the 19th century that women were denied the vote. Many believed that as long as they were disenfranchised women would continue to face oppression, despite important gains such as winning the rights to own property and to access higher education.

The Representation of the People Act in 2018, which gave women over 30 the vote, was the culmination of decades of incremental progress on women’s rights. The intense campaigning of the early 20th century had rattled the establishment as women loudly demanded to be treated as equals.

Speaking up for suffrage

From the mid-19th century women across Britain began engaged in a struggle to secure the vote.

Mill workers in Lancashire and around the northwest were organising their own trades unions to lobby for better conditions and political representation.

In 1866 a group of women organised a petition demanding that some women should have the same political rights as men. They took it to Henry Fawcett and John Stuart Mill – two MPs who supported universal suffrage.

Portrait of John Stuart Mill
Photo of a portrait of John Stuart Mill, Berlin by Sophus Williams, 1884. © Public domain

John Stuart Mill added an amendment to the Reform Act that would give women the same political rights as men. Its defeat, by 196 votes to 73, led to the formation of the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage (LNSWS). It also spurred the foundation in 1867 of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage (MNSWS) whose meeting in the city’s Free Trade Hall on 14 April 1868 was a rare occasion of women speaking out on their rights in public and is widely regarded as the start of the women’s suffrage campaign.

General view of front elevation of Free Trade Hall, Manchester, viewed from north west.
Free Trade Hall, Peter Street, Manchester, Lancashire © Historic England DP220472

Breakthroughs and boundaries

It would be another half century before women over 30 were allowed to vote, in 1918, but there were important political developments both for women’s suffrage and wider rights during those years.

  • The Education Act of 1870 provided for primary school education for girls aged between five and 13.
  • In 1880, women on the Isle of Man were granted suffrage and in 1884, efforts were made to include the vote for women in the extension of franchise to agricultural labourers, though this was rejected by 135 votes to 271.
  • Another key milestone was the Married Woman’s Act of 1882, which allowed women to own and control property in their own right for the first time.
  • The Liberals and the Independent Labour Party, formed in 1893, expressed some support for women’s suffrage and many believed it was only a matter of time.
  • In 1902 a group of women textile workers from northern counties presented a petition to parliament with 37,000 signatures demanding the vote for women.
  • The 1907 Qualification of Women Act permitted women to vote for borough councils.

Black and white photo of Big Ben and Westminster Palace
Houses of Parliament saw intense campaigning and slow, incremental progress towards the Representation of the People Act passed in 1918 © Historic England

At the same time, Edwardian women were pushing the boundaries of society in other spheres, including in sports (women were allowed to play at Wimbledon in 1884, for example).

The Industrial Revolution had given many women full-time jobs, but their pay was unequal, their roles were subservient and they lacked opportunities to advance in the workplace. Nevertheless, working gave women the chance to meet in large groups and organise as well as to move around more freely.

At the end of the 19th century the conditions were ripe for women from all backgrounds who were seeking emancipation to rally around a single cause.

A single cause

At the turn of the century the women’s suffrage movement began to gain a new sense of purpose.

In 1897, 17 groups came together under the umbrella organisation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett. Its strategy would be to lobby peacefully for the franchise in the belief that women would eventually gain the vote if they proved they were responsible enough to have it.

The national suffrage movement was also gaining a new arena in which to meet and organise: the tearooms and restaurants in London and elsewhere that provided a 'sheltering space' for women.

Black and white photo of Millicent Fawcett with hair up in a plaited coil on the back of her head, wearing high collared Edwardian dress. Photo taken approx 1897.
Millicent Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) formed in 1897 © Public domain

Hidden story

One hundred years after women over 30 (and all men over 21) were given the vote, the story of the suffrage movement is still acquiring new layers.

Scrutiny of past accounts reveals that the movement was not, for example, an exclusively white, middle-class campaign whose leaders were unanimous about the importance of one topic and unconcerned with decent housing, equal pay and other challenges for Edwardian women - and indeed, women today.

In the same way, a closer look at sites at the centre of the suffrage campaign reveals a new resonance for today.

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