In 1918, the Representation of the People Act finally gave women the vote after over fifty years of campaigning. In 2018 Edge Hill University is celebrating with a programme of events marking this historic anniversary.
Part of this celebration acknowledges the sustained commitment many women (and men) made so that everyone can vote today.
The campaign for the vote was a lengthy process. In 1866, a group of women organised a petition that demanded that women should have the same political rights as men. The women took their petition to Henry Fawcett and John Stuart Mill, two MPs who supported universal suffrage. Mill added an amendment to the Reform Act that would give women the same political rights as men. The amendment was defeated by 196 votes to 73.
In the wake of this defeat the London Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed. Similar Women’s Suffrage groups were formed all over Britain.
In 1897, seventeen of these individual groups joined together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).
The NUWSS adopted a peaceful and non-confrontational approach. Members believed that success could be gained by argument and education. The organisation tried to raise its profile peacefully with posters, leaflets, calendars and public meetings. Members of the NUWSS and other such organisations were known as ‘suffragists’.
In order to gain publicity and raise awareness, the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), formed in 1903, engaged in a series of more violent actions. They chained themselves to railings, set fire to public and private property and disrupted speeches both at public meetings and in the House of Commons. Members of the WSPU and other militant groups such as the Women’s Freedom League were known as ‘suffragettes‘.
Many suffragettes went to prison as a result of their actions and their campaigns did not always stop there – whilst in prison, they often chose to go on hunger strike to continue gaining publicity for their cause and as a result were sometimes force fed.
One of the most infamous suffragettes was Emily Davison who, in 1913, threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. She later died of her injuries and became a martyr to the cause.
Suffrage protests of both kinds continued until the outbreak of war in 1914.
Edge Hill was founded as a teaching college solely for women, the first in England to be ‘non-denominational’ (not affiliated to a particular church group). Despite an ‘inflexible’ and ‘spartan’ programme that saw students working (study and teaching practice) for eleven hours most days, some women found time to be politically active.
Helena Normanton became the first woman barrister to practise at the bar, but before her legal studies she trained as a teacher at Edge Hill, and remained in touch with her former college.
Helena campaigned for women’s right to vote. ‘I longed to go to prison with the rest of my comrades in the fight [to vote] but I knew that this could never be because, if I had a prison sentence, I would never be able to open the profession of law to women, which I regarded as my job in life.’
Normanton’s collection at the Women’s Library, LSE, includes a ‘Census Resisted’ badge, showing her participation in the campaign.
In 1908 Helena Normanton reported to Edge Hill alumni that not only had she attended the suffrage march in London, but that she had seen Ethel Annakin, now Ethel Snowden, at the front of the procession.
Ethel Snowden (nee Annakin) studied to become a teacher at Edge Hill between 1900-1902, but resigned on her marriage to a Labour politician. She was an active campaigner for the vote, and published several books on the suffrage question. She would go on to visit the USSR and sit on the board of Save the Children.
Snowden wrote to Edge Hill students and alumni in 1907, that of all issues’ not one is more important, or is exciting more interest than the question of the political enfranchisement of women.’
Normanton and Snowden (Annakin) are remembered at Edge Hill: you may recognise the names of halls in Graduate’s Court.
Women’s contribution to the British economy during WW1 is often credited with changing minds about suffrage.
In 1918, some women were given the vote by the Representation of the People Act, which enfranchised all males and women over the age of 30 who already had the right to vote in local elections.
In “Suffragettes Forever!” (via Box of Broadcasts), Amanda Vickery outlines what changed during World War One to make this possible.
8,400,000 women were enfranchised in 1918, but Universal franchise for everyone over 21 was only granted with theEqual Franchise Act of 1928.
In 2018 Wonder Women events will celebrate the achievements of the past 100 years, and consider carefully what is still to be done to achieve equality.
For the full schedule visit: https://www.edgehill.ac.uk/events/
British library resources on British campaigns for democracy
Women’s Library (LSE) digitised collections
Helena Normanton lecture by Dr Judith Bourne at Edge Hill University
Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power, 23:20 17/03/2015, BBC2 England, 60 mins. via Box of Broadcasts.
Radio programme ‘In Our Time’ Discussion of Suffrage campaign. (via Box of Broadcasts)
Drama of Annie Kenney’s life, mill worker and suffragette.