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 peaceful suffragists? Today marks the centenary of the moment 8.4 million British women were granted the right to vote.

On February 6th 1918, Britain changed forever: 8.4 million women were given the right to vote.

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. Slowly, the suffragists made political gains and opened minds.

Then, in 1903, along came Emmeline Pankhurst and an organisation called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Its difference from the suffragists is aptly summed up by its motto: “Deeds, not words.”

And what deeds they were. 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 50. Their recklessness propelled the struggle to the forefront of people’s minds, and the sacrifices made by many gave the cause its martyrs - a vital part 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 gay rights, the movement to give women the vote was achieved by a slow change in public opinion, not dangerous stunts.

You Decide

  1. Is your character that of suffragette or a suffragist?


  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.

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 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 suffragists and the suffragettes.
What do we not know?
How long it would have taken for women to win the vote had it not been for the actions of the suffragettes.

Word Watch

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.
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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