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Suffragettes were members of women's organization (right to vote) movements in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly militants in Great Britain such as members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Suffragist is a more general term for members of suffrage movements, if radical or conservative, male or female.
The term "suffragette" is particularly associated with activists in the British WSPU, led by the Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, who were influenced by Russian methods of protest such as hunger strikes. Other tactics employed by members of the WSPU included; chaining themselves to railings to provoke an arrest, pouring harsh chemicals into mailboxes, breaking windows at prestige buildings and night-time arson at unoccupied buildings. Many suffragettes were imprisoned in Holloway Prison in London, and were force-fed after going on hunger strike.
New Zealand was the first self-governing country to grant women the right to vote in 1893 when all women over the age of 21 were permitted to vote in parliamentary elections. Women in South Australia achieved the same right and also became the first to obtain the right to stand for Parliament in 1895. In the United States, women over the age of 21 were allowed to vote in the western territories of Wyoming from 1869 and in Utah from 1870, and in most states outside the South by 1919. With the ratification in 1920 of the Nineteenth Amendment the suffrage was extended to women across the United States in time for the 1920 presidential election. Women over 21 were allowed to vote in Canada (except Quebec) from 1919.
Women in Britain over the age of 30, meeting certain property qualifications, were finally given the right to vote in 1918, and in 1928 suffrage was extended to all women over the age of 21.
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British suffragettes were mostly women from upper and middle-class backgrounds, frustrated by their social and economic situation. Their struggles for change within society, along with the work of such advocates for women’s rights as John Stuart Mill, were enough to spearhead a movement that would encompass mass groups of women fighting for suffrage. Mill had first introduced the idea of women’s suffrage on the platform he presented to the British electorate in 1865. He would later be joined by numerous men and women fighting for the same cause.
The term "suffragette" was first used as a term of derision by the journalist Charles E. Hands in the London Daily Mail for activists in the movement for women's suffrage, in particular members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). But the objects of the intended ridicule gladly embraced the term saying "suffraGETtes" (hardening the g) implied not only that they wanted the vote, but that they intended to get it as well.
The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, which was founded in 1897, formed of a collection of local suffrage societies. This union was led by Millicent Fawcett, who believed in constitutional campaigning, like issuing leaflets, organising meetings and presenting petitions. However this campaigning did not have much effect. In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded a new organisation, the Women's Social and Political Union. Pankhurst thought that the movement would have to become radical and militant if it was going to be effective. The Daily Mail later gave them the name "Suffragettes".
Some of the techniques, especially hunger strikes, were learned from Russian exiles from Czarism who had escaped to England. Many suffragists at the time, and most historians since, have argued that the militant suffragettes' actions actually damaged their cause. Opponents at the time saw evidence that women were too emotional and could not think as logically as men.
1912 was a turning point for the British suffragettes as they turned to using more militant tactics such as chaining themselves to railings, setting fire to mailbox contents, smashing windows and occasionally detonating bombs. This was because the Prime Minister at the time, Asquith, nearly signed a document giving women (over 30 and either married to a property-owner or owning a property themselves) the right to vote. But he pulled out at the last minute, as he thought the women may vote against him in the next General Election, stopping his party (Liberals) from getting into Parliament/ruling the country.
One suffragette, Emily Davison, died under the King's horse Anmer at the Epsom Derby of June 4, 1913. It is debated whether she was trying to pin a "Votes for Women" banner on the King's horse or not. Many of her fellow suffragettes were imprisoned and went on refused food as a scare tactic against the government. The Liberal government of the day led by H. H. Asquith responded with the Cat and Mouse Act.
In the early twentieth century until the First World War, approximately one thousand suffragettes were imprisoned in Britain. Most early incarcerations were for public order offenses and failures to pay outstanding fines, with the first suffragettes – Christabel Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst) and Annie Kenney – imprisoned in October 1905. While incarcerated, suffragettes lobbied to be considered political prisoners; with a designation as political prisoners, suffragettes would be placed in the First Division as opposed to the Second or Third Division of the prison system, and as a political prisoner would be granted certain freedoms and liberties not allotted to other prison divisions, such as being allowed frequent visits and writing books or articles. However, due to a lack of continuity between the different courts, suffragettes would not necessarily be placed in the First Division and could be placed in Second or Third Division, which enjoyed fewer liberties and were for non-political prisoners.
This cause was taken up by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a large organisation in Britain, that lobbied for women’s suffrage led by militant suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. The WSPU campaigned to get imprisoned suffragettes recognized as political prisoners. However, this campaign was largely unsuccessful. Citing a fear that the suffragettes becoming political prisoners would make for easy martyrdom, and with thoughts from the courts, and the Home Office that they were abusing the freedoms of First division to further the agenda of the WSPU, suffragettes were placed in Second Division, and in some cases the Third Division, in prisons with no special privileges granted to them as a result.
Following the refusal for suffragettes to be recognised as political prisoners, many suffragettes began to stage hunger strikes while they were imprisoned. The first woman to refuse food was Marion Wallace Dunlop, a militant suffragette who was sentenced to be imprisoned for a month in Holloway for vandalism in July 1909. Without the consultation of suffragette leaders such as Pankhurst, Dunlop refused food as a protest for being denied political prisoner status; following a 91-hour hunger strike, and for fear of her becoming a martyr for the suffragette cause, the Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone made the decision to release her early on medical grounds. Dunlop’s strategy was adopted by other suffragettes who were incarcerated. Soon, it became a common practice for suffragettes to refuse food in protest to not being designated as political prisoners, and as a result they would be released after a few days and return to the "fighting line.”
After a public backlash regarding the prison status of suffragettes, the rules of the divisions were amended. In March 1910, Rule 243A was introduced by the Home Secretary Winston Churchill, and this allowed for prisoners in Second and Third division to be allowed certain privileges of the First Division, provided they were not convicted of a serious offense, effectively ending hunger strikes for two years. Hunger strikes began again when Pankhurst was transferred from the Second Division to the First Division, inciting the other suffragettes to demonstrate regarding their prison status.
Militant suffragette demonstrations subsequently became more aggressive, and the British Government took action. Unwilling to release all the suffragettes refusing food in prison, in the autumn of 1909, the authorities began to adopt more drastic measures to manage the hunger-striking suffragettes.
In September 1909, the Home Office became unwilling to release the hunger-striking suffragettes before their sentence was served. Suffragettes became a liability because if they were to die in the prison’s custody, the prison would be responsible for their death. Therefore, prisons began the practice of force feeding the suffragettes through a tube, most commonly a nostril or stomach tube or a stomach pump. The use of force feeding had previously been practised in Britain, however, its use had been exclusively for patients in hospitals who were too unwell to eat or swallow food properly. Despite that this practice had been deemed safe by medical practitioners for sick patients, it posed health issues for the healthy suffragettes.
The process of tube feeding was strenuous; without the consent of the hunger strikers, they were typically strapped down and force fed via stomach or nostril tube, often with a considerable amount of force. Many women found the process painful, and after the practice was observed and studied by several physicians, it was deemed to have both short-term damage to the circulatory system, digestive system and nervous system and long term damage to the physical and mental health of the suffragettes. Suffragettes who were force fed were also known to develop pleurisy or pneumonia as a result of a misplaced tube.
In April 1913, Reginald McKenna of the Home Office passed the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913, or the Cat and Mouse Act as it was commonly known. This act made the hunger strikes legal, in that a suffragette would be temporarily released from prison when their health began to diminish, only to be readmitted to prison when she regained her health to finish her sentence. This enabled the British Government to be absolved of any blame resulting from death or harm due to the self-starvation of the striker, in addition to ensuring that the suffragettes would be too ill and too weak to participate in demonstrative activities while not in custody. However, most women continued with their hunger strikes when they were readmitted to the prison following their leave. After the Act was introduced, force feeding on a large scale was stopped and only women convicted of more serious crimes and considered likely to repeat these offenses if released were force fed.
In early 1913 and in direct response to the "Cat and Mouse Act" the WSPU instituted a society of women known as "The Bodyguard" whose role was to physically protect Emmeline Pankhurst and other prominent suffragettes from arrest and assault. Known Bodyguard members included Katherine Willoughby Marshall and Gertrude Harding; Edith Margaret Garrud served as their jujutsu trainer. Members of the Bodyguard participated in several violent actions against the police in defence of their leaders.
With the commencement of the First World War, the suffragette movement in Britain moved away from suffrage activities and focused the efforts of their organizations on the war effort, and as a result, hunger strikes largely stopped. In August 1914, the British Government released all prisoners who had been incarcerated for suffrage activities on an amnesty, with Pankhurst ending all militant suffrage activities soon after. The suffragettes' focus on war work turned public opinion in favour of their eventual partial enfranchisement in 1918.
Women eagerly volunteered take on many of the traditional male roles – this led to a new view of what a woman was capable of doing. The war also caused a split in the British suffragette movement, with the mainstream, represented by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst's WSPU calling a 'ceasefire' in their campaign for the duration of the war, while more radical suffragettes, represented by Sylvia Pankhurst's Women's Suffrage Federation continued the struggle.
The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, which had always employed "constitutional" methods, continued to lobby during the war years, and compromises were worked out between the NUWSS and the coalition government. On 6 February, the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed, enfranchising women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications (as well as men over 21 – prior to this not all British men were enfranchised). About 8.4 million women gained the vote. In November 1918, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was passed, allowing women to be elected into Parliament. The Representation of the People Act 1928 extended the voting franchise to all women over the age of 21, granting women the vote on the same terms that men had gained ten years earlier.
Historians generally argue that the first stage of the militant suffragette movement under the Pankhursts in 1906 had a dramatic mobilizing effect on the suffrage movement. Women were thrilled and supportive of an actual revolt in the streets; the membership of the militant WSPU and the older NUWSS overlapped and was mutually supportive. However a system of publicity, Ensor argues, had to continue to escalate to maintain its high visibility in the media. The hunger strikes and force-feeding did that. However the Pankhursts refused any advice and escalated their tactics. They turned to systematic disruption of Liberal Party meetings as well as physical violence in terms of damaging public buildings and arson. This went too far, as the overwhelming majority of suffragists pulled back and refused to follow because they could no longer defend the tactics. They increasingly repudiated the suffragettes as an obstacle to achieving suffrage, saying the militant suffragettes were now aiding the antis, and many historians agree. Searle says the methods of the suffragettes did succeed in damaging the Liberal party but failed to advance the cause of woman suffrage. When the Pankhursts decided to stop the militancy at the start of the war, and enthusiastically support the war effort, the movement split and their leadership role ended. Suffrage did come four years later, but the feminist movement in Britain permanently abandoned the militant tactics that had made the suffragettes famous.
Whitfield concludes that the militant campaign had some positive effects in terms of attracting enormous publicity, and forcing the moderates to better organize themselves, while also stimulating the organization of the antis. He concludes:
From 1908 the WSPU adopted the colour scheme of purple, white and green: purple symbolised dignity, white purity, and green hope. These three colours were used for banners, flags, rosettes and badges, They also would carry heart shaped vesta cases, and appeared in newspaper cartoons and postcards.
Mappin & Webb, the London jewellers, issued a catalogue of suffragette jewellery for Christmas 1908.
In 1909 the WSPU presented specially commissioned pieces of jewellery to leading suffragettes Emmeline Pankhurst and Louise Eates. Some Arts and Crafts jewellery of the period incorporated the colours purple, white and green using enamel and semi-precious stones such as amethysts, pearls, and peridots. However jewellery that incorporated these stones was already quite common in women's jewellery during the late 19th century, before 1903 and could not be connected with the suffragettes, before the WSPU adopted the colours. Also, it is a popular myth that the colours were green, white, and violet, in order to spell GWV as an acronym for "Give Women Votes".
The colours of green and heliotrope (purple) were commissioned into a new coat of arms for Edge Hill University in 2006, symbolising the University's early commitment to the equality of women through its beginnings as a women-only college.
Vida Goldstein was the first woman in the British Empire to stand for election to a national parliament.
Susan B. Anthony played a leading role in the American women's suffrage movement.
Sojourner Truth was a prominent early fighter for women's suffrage, as well as a leading campaigner against slavery.
Mrs. Abby Scott Baker, a suffragette from Washington, DC
Louise Hall, with brush, and Susan Walker Fitzgerald post bills in Cincinnati for women's suffrage.
"Tennessee Celeste Claflin with other suffragettes.
Portrait badge of Emmeline Pankhurst (c. 1909) sold in large numbers by the WSPU to raise funds
1910 Suffragette calendar held in the collections of the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry
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