Archives - The Suffragettes

Women and the Vote

The 150th anniversary of the birth of Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst is celebrated on 14 July 1858.

It is one of a number of important anniversaries taking place during 2008 which mark the progress of women in Parliament. This year is the 90th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave some women the vote for the first time.

2 July 2008 marks the 80th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act 1928. This Act gave all women the vote on the same terms as men.

And this year is also the 50th anniversary of the Life Peerages Act 1958, which allowed women to sit in the House of Lords for the first time.

You can learn more about the Suffragettes and the first women MPs from documents in the Parliamentary Archives that you can find on this page.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst's birth certificate shows she was actually born on 15 July 1858. However she always celebrated on 14 July, and in speeches she spoke of how she found it inspirational to be born on Bastille Day, 14 July.

Part 1: The Suffragettes

From the middle of the 19th century many women campaigned peacefully to obtain the right to vote. They organised themselves into groups, held meetings, sent petitions to Parliament and tried to persuade MPs to change the law to enable them to vote. These non-militant women were known as 'suffragists'.  In 1897 all these small groups came together to form one large group: The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Fawcett. However, the Government continued to ignore their plea or recognise the activities of the NUWSS.

Votes for Women! A Petition of the Mistresses of Dulwich High School - 3 November 1884.

Dulwich Petition

Full text of the Petition from the Mistresses of Dulwich High School

By 1903, the campaign for the right of women to vote had taken an important new turn. That year Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and her three daughters started the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester with the motto 'Deeds not words'. They were referred to as the 'Suffragettes' for the first time in 1906, in an article in a British newspaper. The Pankhursts and their supporters were determined to win the right to vote by any means. They campaigned tirelessly and sometimes violently to achieve their aim which sometimes resulted in arrests, the shouting down of Ministers, protesting in Parliament and in the streets. Asquith, who was Prime Minister at the time, was strongly opposed to women obtaining the vote and did nothing to further their cause.

Suffragette Banner

Suffragette Banner, October 1908 (HC/SA/SJ/3/1).

  • This banner, demanding the right to vote for women,  was unfurled from the Ladies' Gallery in the chamber of the House of Commons by suffragettes during a protest on 28 October 1908.

  • The banners were an important feature in suffragette marches and helped to distinguish between the various groups.

  • Many banners were made of simple white cotton or calico, with lettering in black,  but others were very colourful and  woven from a variety of materials.

Full transcript of this suffragette banner
Police Report on Davison

Police Report: Emily Davison found in ventilation shaft, 4th April 1910. (HC/SA/SJ/10/12/26)

  • Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913), was a militant member of the WSPU, which she joined in November 1906. She was arrested several times for various offences, such as window breaking. Whilst in prison she went on hunger strike for  periods lasting  a few days to several months. This document refers to an incident when she was arrested for hiding in a ventilation shaft in the House of Commons. When asked what she was doing there by the Policeman who discovered her, she replied 'I want to ask a question in the House of Commons'.

  • It was not the last  time that Emily's name appeared in Police reports and other documents within this file refer to her: on the 19th April she is reported for having thrown a hammer through the division lobby window,  a document of the 30th mentions the result of her trial, and on June 26th she is found on a staircase near the Reading Room of the Commons.

  • Emily Davison died on 8 June 1913, as the result of fatal injuries she had received 4 days earlier. She had rushed onto the  race course at Epsom during the Derby  and had attempted to hold the Bridle of the King's horse.

Full text of the Police Report on Emily Davison

Letter from Emmeline Pankurst to Lloyd George, December 1916 (LG/F/94/1/27)

Pankhust letter to Lloyd George
  • By 1907 Emmeline Pankhurst had moved to London in order  to further a national movement with paid organisers and enthusiastic volunteers. She had turned the WSPU into a political force which roused the country, much to the dismay of the Liberal Party. However, at the outbreak of the First World War, Pankhurst suspended the activities of the WSPU. She concentrated her efforts instead on support for the War and she  helped  the government to recruit women into war work, especially in munitions factories.  That she was keen to be consulted on matters of government is clear from this letter to Lloyd George who had just become Prime Minister.

Full text of the letter from Mrs Pankhurst to Lloyd George
A Changing House: the Life Peerages Act 1958
Learn more about the suffragettes and Parliament.

Part 2: The first women in Parliament 1919-1945
The Suffragettes had to wait until 1919 to see a woman take her seat at Westminster.

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