“We women, in trying to make our case clear, always have to make as part of our argument, and urge upon men in our audience the fact – a very simple fact – that women are human beings.” – Emmeline Pankhurst
The relentless fight to win the voting rights of women in the United Kingdom began around mid 19th Century. Under the 1918 Representation of the People Act, Women won the right to vote in the UK in 1918. Representation of the People Act was a pivotal milestone, but this act granted voting rights only to women over the age of 30 who either owned land themselves or were married to men with property were given the right to vote. In 1928 under the Equal Franchise Act women in the UK were granted equal voting rights.The minimum age to vote was 21 for both men and women.
Suffragists were the group of women suffrage, who campaigned for the voting rights of women through peaceful, constitutional, non-violent movements with the help of petitions, posters, leaflets, public meetings etc. There were several small suffrage groups all over Britain. In 1897, 17 of these individual groups joined together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Fawcett
In 1903, a group of women under the leadership of social activist, Emmeline Pankhurst, established the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). This radical group adopted a violent and militant style of fighting against the Government for voting rights of women and was referred to as Suffragettes. They did not believe that peaceful, non-violent campaigns, meetings and propaganda would ever bring the desired outcome and instead focused on direct action. Their slogan and philosophy were “Deeds, not words.” They tried to mobilize their movement by drawing the attention of media, political leaders and common people by damaging properties, throwing rocks at the prime minister’s home in 10 Downing Street, setting fire on empty buildings, throwing rocks at parliament etc.
Emily Wilding Davison was a notable suffragette leader, who was imprisoned, went on hunger strike and was force fed on a number of occasions. in 1913, she was injured and later died after being knocked down by King’s horse during a race.
Many Suffragettes were arrested and imprisoned for their militant activities as well as for civil disobedience and were not recognized as political prisoners. The government’s response to their Suffragettes hunger strikes was to force-feed them. Various horrific accounts of the prisoners being forcibly fed were put down by incarcerated suffragette leaders. They had to endure absolutely abusive and dangerous methods like – “steel or a wooden gag” were forced into the mouth, or jaws were “forced painfully wide” in the name of feeding. There was news of extremely appalling and horrific assaults and ill-treatments to the Suffragettes in prisons.
In 1913 the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act, infamously called ‘The Cat and Mouse Act’ was passed in parliament to combat this situation of having to release Suffragettes because of poor health. According to this law, women prisoners were released when they were too weak followed by hunger strike and used to be rearrested when they get back to good health. Force-feeding was stopped under this act. It was Emmeline Pankhurst who was jailed and released on 11 occasions.
On 18 November 1910, 300 suffragettes women marched to the Houses of Parliament as part of their campaign to secure voting rights for women. They were attacked, manhandled and assaulted by police. Some of these women were violently beaten and were severely injured. A surge of public sympathy and government embarrassment had followed newspaper photographs of police violently attacking women gathered to protest.
In 1918, a coalition government passed the Representation of the People Act 1918, granting voting rights to all women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications, after the relentless fights for women’s voting rights by suffragettes. In 1928 under the Equal Franchise Act, women were granted equal voting rights to men. The minimum age to vote was 21 for both men and women.
2018 marked the hundred-year of women winning their voting rights in the United Kingdom after a long, unprecedented movement by a group of extremely courageous and determined women.They not only broke all the stereotypes associated with women’s movements by adopting militancy, violence and civil disobedience but also endured horrific torture, assault, imprisonment and humiliation by the Government and police. The Centenary of passing this revolutionary act is definitely an important milestone in the history of women’s fights for equality. This is also a crucial moment for all of us to think and reflect in the context of present global scenarios of persistent gender discrimination and sexual violence, on how much we have really progressed in the last hundred years and what is still left to be done to achieve the global Sustainable Development Goal 5, Gender Equality by 2030.