Robert Tombs Robert Tombs

Did the Suffragettes really win women the vote?

(Photo: Getty)

I suppose most people regard the Suffragettes as the exemplary vindication of the right to carry out illegal direct action in a righteous cause. Speaking in support of Extinction Rebellion, Helen Pankhurst, a descendant of the Suffragette leader, said that both movements were equally ‘socially marginalised, made fun of, considered to be extremists, and legally silenced, and yet they stand up for justice in the way the Suffragettes did.’

Rather than pushing on a slowly opening door, they preferred to throw a brick through the window

The Suffragette campaign was the first deliberately violent English political campaign since the 1840s, and this is part of its myth. Thankfully no one was killed during its campaign, other than the unfortunate Emily Davison. However, the leading feminist Millicent Fawcett, leader of the law-abiding National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, called the Suffragettes ‘the most powerful allies the antisuffragists have.’ Did the Suffragettes really advance political rights for women? Is violent disruption the way to go? The answer, 105 years after votes for women were legislated, is not simple. And perhaps there are indeed some present-day parallels.

Women had long played a more prominent part in English public life than in most countries. Some seem even to have been able to vote until the Great Reform Act of 1832 specifically forbade it. Women had been active in the anti-slavery campaign from the 1790s, deeply involved in protests against state-regulated prostitution, and mobilised to protest against sexual enslavement of Christian women in the Balkans in the 1870s. Many were leaders of the temperance movement. Some were outspoken critics of British policy towards Boer women and children during the South African War. Middle-class women were increasingly involved in local government as Poor Law Guardians (more than 800), as professional and volunteer charity workers (perhaps 500,000), and as members of School Boards and as teachers (over 170,000 women taught in Elementary Schools).

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Written by
Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is an emeritus professor in history at the University of Cambridge and the author of This Sovereign Isle: Britain in and out of Europe (Allen Lane, 2021). He also edits the History Reclaimed website

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