Once them to vote, which was first

Once upon a
time, women were thought to be inferior to men, not only physically but
mentally and emotionally. They were second-class citizens and had no legal
right over their children, their possessions became their husband’s when they
married and they could be imprisoned by their husband, where he could then
legally beat them with a stick like a slave.
Britain has most definitely come a long way since 1870, of course, but women
didn’t just gain their rights overnight. It had to be fought for many years and
plenty of groups came together to campaign for equality between the sexes and
most importantly for women’s enfranchisement to allow them to vote, which was
first allowed in February 1918, exactly a century ago. One of the most famous
groups for campaigning for the female vote is the Women’s Social and Political
Union (WSPU). Most commonly called the Suffragettes, they are known all around
Britain with masses of media, like films, related to them and regular
celebrations. What’s extremely odd however, is that to many historians, the
Suffragettes were known for doing more harm than good in the campaign for
women’s suffrage, especially compared to their non-violent counterparts. This
essay will attempt to find out one painfully essential question that, frustratingly,
seems to have no definitive answer. Why are the Suffragettes so well known?

Perhaps it was
their actions and their influence on the government. The suffragettes were
originally formed by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters in 1903, who wanted
more radical action to be taken in the campaign for civil rights. They refused
to allow men into the movement, forming a girls-only club, and didn’t ally
themselves with any politic group. Their campaign was based around “Deeds, not
words”, something they demonstrated many times in an attempt to get publicity.
They smashed windows, heckled protestors and did a massively controversial
campaign of hunger strikes in prisons. That definitely brought media attention
to the cause, but according to sources at the time such as Lord Robert Cecil, a
Conservative politician and lawyer, it wasn’t positive. He said at the time in
1912: “The way in which certain types of women, easily recognised, have acted
in the last year or two, especially in the last few weeks has brought so much
disgrace and discredit upon their sex.” While it may be an ancient concept that
a minority is representative of a broader group, the Lord makes a point.
Causing violence and melting mailboxes doesn’t seem like an effective way of
proving you can be trusted with a vote. What is more surprising is that Lord
Cecil was a supporter of women’s suffrage, stating in that same speech: “Where
is the evidence that women are incapable of political judgment?” which showed
that he definitely believed in equal suffrage, but was appalled by the violent
actions of the Suffragettes. In fact, many people at the time were in favour of
women rights and believed it to be inevitable. So how did the idea of women’s
suffrage get so popular if it wasn’t for the Suffragettes?

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Well, they
weren’t the only kids on the block, rebelling against society and the
government. There were another group, known for their massive membership, smart
strategy and strategy of peaceful persuasion. They teamed up the new Labour
party established in 1903, allowed men to campaign with them and regularly
filed in bills to try and achieve equality in enfranchisement under a strong,
competent leader. Yet, they seem to not be known, and rarely spoken about by
the press and media and don’t seem to be celebrated as great, noble, peaceful
freedom fighters like other groups, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his
group, the SCLC. This group was the National Union of Women’s Suffrage
Societies, commonly shortened to the NUWSS and called the Suffragists, and had
a total of 53,000 members in 1914. They won support of trade unions and the
general masses, but their progress on achieving the vote seemed to be going
slowly. They were formed in 1897 under the leadership of Milicent Fawcett and
the group campaigned all the way to 1918, where women finally achieved the vote
and the group was disbanded not long after. Surely then, the Suffragists should
be the household name then, not some group that piggy-backed off their success
by forming five years after and hurting the cause like the Suffragettes?

Well, it seems
that after reading a few articles, it seems like it might be a case of stolen
credit after all. Many journalists seem to simply seem to see the Suffragettes
as the real reason women could push into politics and gain emancipation with
the vote, such as Tessa Hadley, author and professor of creative writing at
Bath Spa university. Writing in a Guardian article, she wrote: “They achieve,
at least in our imagination, what their more sensible sisters never did.” It’s
clear that to many authors, journalists and most of the public that was the
Suffragettes, not the Suffragists, who were too sensible.

Though, to
revisionist historians at least, that is simply not the case. One revisionist
historian, Martin Pugh, seems to entirely disagree with the view that the
Suffragettes were the reason of the enfranchisement, as in his book all about
the organisation and their leaders, he says that the radical strategies of the
Suffragettes pushing their members towards the NUWSS was “probably the one
positive contribution of the Pankhursts to winning the vote.” He, as well as
many other revisionist historians and old sources from the past, seem to
believe that the Suffragette movement crippled the pace of the overall campaign
and pushed the inevitable Representation of the People Act back to 1918. There
even seems to be some evidence for this, as in 1908, there were masses of
social reforms introduced by the new Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith and
members of his cabinet, David Lloyd George and surprisingly enough, Winston
Churchill. The Children’s Charter was passed by PM Asquith, as well old-age
pensions, then an insurance scheme for the sick and an early-stage of
unemployed benefits in 1911. These were all reforms for the working class that
benefitted all of society, however, it took a war and no campaigning to finally
get the vote. Reasons seem to point at the Suffragettes.

At the end of
the day, though, as long as we celebrate women finally achieving the vote, it
doesn’t matter who actually obtained it. The whole point of achieving the vote
wasn’t for one group to take the credit for it. The point was to achieve the
vote, and that should be commemorated, especially with the 100th
anniversary of the vote. So let’s put down the history books, shut off our
internet articles and celebrate women’s suffrage, a moment of unity, instead of
arguing over who achieved it and causing moments of fracture.