Words and deeds: 100 years of votes for women

For the cause: Emmeline Pankhurst is arrested in her native Manchester in March 1914.

Which group had the right idea: the militant suffragettes or the non-violent suffragists? Today marks the centenary of the moment 8.4 million British women were granted the right to vote.

On February 5th 1918, only 30% of British people over the age of 21 had the right to vote. Britain could hardly be called a “democracy”.

The next day, all that changed: 8.4 million women were given suffrage. It was the biggest moment in the long struggle to give women a voice in politics.

The Representation of the People Act of 1918 gave women over the age of 30 the vote if they were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or more, or university graduates. The act also gave all men over 21 the vote, and it would be another ten years before women were given the same voting rights as men.

The fight for female suffrage started in the mid-19th century. But the early campaigners were not “suffragettes”, who appeared around 50 years later. They were suffragists.

Led by Millicent Fawcett, the suffragists believed in using law-abiding, non-violent means to further the cause, including petitions, lobbying and marches. Only by behaving with respect for the law, Fawcett argued, could women prove that they could be “good” citizens. Slowly, the suffragists made political gains and opened minds.

Then, in 1903, along came Emmeline Pankhurst. Outraged that women were not allowed to join a new branch of the Independent Labour Party, she set up her own organisation, called the Women’s Social and Political Union. Its difference from the suffragists is aptly summed up by its motto: “Deeds, not words.”

And what deeds they were. One activist attacked Winston Churchill with a horsewhip. They planted bombs at banks, railway stations, churches and even Westminster Abbey. They starved themselves in prison.

Fawcett described the storming of Parliament by the militants in 1909 as an “immoral and dastardly thing to have done”, but recognised the “oxygen of publicity” the suffragettes brought.

Almost all social movements have a hard side and a soft side. But in the case of women’s suffrage, which was more important?

By any means necessary?

The suffragettes, say some. They achieved in 15 years what the suffragists could not manage in over half a century. Their recklessness propelled the struggle to the forefront of popular discourse, and the sacrifices made by many gave the cause its martyrs — a vital component of any anti-establishment movement. Direct action is the way to go.

Changing minds takes hard work over a long time, reply others. More people would have dismissed the suffragettes as men-hating cranks had it not been for the cautious, unsung work of the suffragists. Like the struggle for LGBT rights, the movement to give women the vote was achieved by a gradual change in public opinion, not a series of dangerous stunts.

You Decide

  1. Are you more like a suffragette or a suffragist?
  2. Should women return to disruptive forms of protest in the fight for equal rights?


  1. Split into pairs and pick a social cause. One person designs a banner advocating direct action, and the other designs a banner promoting gradual action and nonviolence.
  2. Write a short story through the eyes of a woman in 1918.

Some People Say...

“Trust in God. She will provide.”

Emmeline Pankhurst

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Today is the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918, which gave millions of women the vote. The struggle for female suffrage lasted for over 50 years and became defined by a split between the non-violent suffragists and the suffragettes, who advocated direct action. Women have now had equal voting rights with men for 90 years, but still make up just 32% of the House of Commons.
What do we not know?
How long it would have taken for women to be granted the vote had it not been for the actions of the suffragettes. At the time, many people, including many women, argued that their tactics were harming the cause. However, many other movements around the world for women’s suffrage used similar means to the suffragettes.

Word Watch

Representation of the People Act of 1918
The act received royal assent 100 years ago today, meaning it passed into law. It is sometimes called the Fourth Reform Act.
Mid-19th century
The industrial revolution saw women enter the workforce en masse for the first time, making it easier for them to form organisations.
Millicent Fawcett
As a girl Fawcett was involved in the Langham Place Group – a collection of middle-class women who joined together in the early 1860s to campaign on women’s issues. She then became president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
Political gains
For example, in 1869 single and widowed rate-paying women were granted the right to vote in municipal elections.
The most notable of these was Emily Davison, who died after being hit by King George V's horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby when she walked onto the track during the race. It is thought that she was attempting to hook a banner onto the horse.

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