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Women's History Month: The Suffragettes

Who were the Suffragettes?

The word ‘suffrage’ means having the right to vote in political elections. The Suffragettes campaigned for women to have this right.

In Britain the organisation was led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia at the beginning of the twentieth century.

After peaceful methods of campaigning had failed to bring about any result, the movement became more violent. Women householders over the age of thirty finally gained the vote in 1918.

Top 10 facts

  1. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage, known as the Suffragist Movement, was founded by Millicent Fawcett. It used only peaceful means of protest.
  2. The Women’s Social and Political Union or Suffragette Movement was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst. Its tactics were more violent and were viewed by many as unfeminine.
  3. Emmeline and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia were from a wealthy family but women from middle-class and working-class backgrounds were also involved in the fight for the vote.
  4. Many people, including many women, did not believe it was right for women to have the vote. They campaigned against the extension of suffrage.
  5. Some Suffragettes handcuffed themselves to railings and broke shop windows in order to get the police to arrest them.
  6. When imprisoned women went on hunger strike the police attempted to force feed them. This led to allegations of police brutality and created sympathy for the Suffragettes.
  7. The so-called Cat and Mouse Act of 1913 enabled the police to release women from prison when they became ill and then to re-arrest them when they had recovered their strength.
  8. The Movement acquired its first martyr when Emily Wilding-Davison threw herself under the King’s horse during the 1913 Derby.
  9. The crucial role played by women during the First World War persuaded the Prime Minister David Lloyd George to grant female householders over thirty the vote in 1918.
  10. It was not until 1928 that women gained the vote on the same terms as men.


  • 1897
    Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage
  • 1903
    Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union
  • 1908
    Emmeline Pankhurst arrested two times for protesting outside parliament
  • 1909
    Suffragettes go on hunger strike
  • 1910
    Committee to discuss female suffrage formed by sympathetic male Members of Parliament; their failure to make progress leads to violent protests
  • 1912
    Suffragettes attack private property
  • 1913
    Cat and Mouse Act
  • June 1913
    Emily Wilding-Davison throws herself under the King’s horse during the Derby and dies four days later
  • 1914
    World War One – many women enter the labour force
  • 1918
    Suffrage granted to women over the age of thirty who are householders
  • 1919
    Nancy Astor becomes first female Member of Parliament
  • 1928
    Women over the age of twenty one get the vote
  • 1979
    Margaret Thatcher becomes first female Prime Minister

Did you know?

  • The first woman to go on hunger strike was Marjorie Wallis Davis. She fasted for almost four days in protest at being treated like a criminal rather than as a political prisoner.
  • It has been suggested that Emily Wilding-Davison’s death was an accident and that she had only intended to grab hold of the King’s horse.
  • Queen Victoria described women’s suffrage as ‘a mad, wicked folly’.
  • The first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons was Nancy Astor (Viscountess Astor), after a by-election in December 1919.
  • In 1893 New Zealand became the first country to grant women the vote.
  • The WSPU movement adopted the colours purple, white and green for use in their campaign.
  • The motto of the Suffragettes was 'Deeds not words’.

Look through the gallery and see if you can spot the following:

  • The Parliament Square statue of Millicent Fawcett
  • Photos of suffragettes including protest march of 1910
  • Photographs of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst
  • Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested by the police
  • A suffragette campaigning
  • Mrs Fawcett addressing a rally
  • A cartoon of suffragettes clashing with the police
  • Photo of Emily Davison



In 1867 the Reform Act extended the right to vote to many men who had previously not had this right. John Stuart Mill proposed that the right to vote should be extended to some women, but he was not successful in persuading his fellow MPs to include this in the Act.

Millicent Fawcett tried to get the vote through peaceful means such as meetings, petitions and leafleting but despite attracting many supporters her campaign achieved little.

Emmeline Pankhurst realised that a more active approach was needed to win women the vote. Women deliberately broke the law to gain publicity. They disrupted meetings, chained themselves to the railings of Buckingham Palace, smashed windows and set post boxes alight.

Women who were arrested wanted to be treated as political prisoners rather than as criminals. They went on hunger strike to protest. The police responded by force feeding them. This was degrading and injured women’s health, leading to a public outcry. The Cat and Mouse Act of 1913 enabled the police to release women in poor health from prison and then re-arrest them when they recovered.

When Emily Wilding-Davison threw herself under the King’s horse during the 1913 Derby she became the first woman to die for the cause of Women’s suffrage. Her death focused public attention on the Suffrage Movement.

When war was declared in 1914 Emmeline and Christabel instructed women to stop their campaign and help with the war effort. The important role played by the many women who entered the workforce during the war helped persuade the government to grant them the vote in 1918.

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