H: The campaign for the right to vote

Suffragettes – 100 years
since their victory

London’s Parliament Square has 11 statues of famous men. They are statesmen and other notable people – Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, Benjamin Disraeli, Sir Robert Peel and Nelson Mandela are some.


Churchill and Mandela are being joined in
London’s Parliament Square by Millicent Fawcett

There have been no statues of a woman. Until 2018, that is.

The latest statue to enter the square is that of Millicent Fawcett. Her arrival celebrates the 100th anniversary of the women of England being given the right to vote through the the 1918 Representation of the People Act.

The Act came about thanks to the women’s suffrage movement.

Millicent Fawcett started the move for women to have the vote in 1897 when she founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage.


She argued that if parliament made laws and if women had to obey those laws, then women should be part of the process of making those laws; she argued that as women had to pay taxes as men, they should have the same rights as men.

Progress was very slow. She believed in peaceful protest so there would be no argument to deny women the right to vote because of their bad behaviour.

But most men in Parliament believed women would not understand the workings of government and therefore should not have a role in the electoral process.

 Peaceful protest

Women grew increasingly impatient and in 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. They were not prepared to wait patiently.

THE PANKHURSTS – Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia

The Union became better known as the Suffragettes, some of whom resorted to dramatic and severe action to get what they wanted.

The Suffragettes burned down churches (the Church of England opposed women having a vote); they vandalised Oxford Street; they chained themselves to Buckingham Palace as the Royal Family was also seen as opposing their demands; they hired out boats, sailed up the Thames and shouted abuse through loud hailers at Parliament as it sat. Others refused to pay their tax. Politicians were attacked as they went to work. Their homes were fire bombed. Golf courses were vandalised.

Such violent acts became a calling card of the Suffragettes.

When they went to jail they began hunger strikes. The government responded with what was known as the Cat and Mouse Act. When a Suffragette was sent to prison, it was assumed she would go on a hunger strike. The Cat and Mouse Act allowed the Suffragettes to go on a hunger strike and let them get weaker and weaker. Force feeding was not used and when the Suffragettes became very weak, they were released in the belief that their spirit (and health) had been broken.

More extreme action followed. The most dramatic moment came at the June 1913 Epsom Derby race meeting when Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under the King’s horse, Anmer, as it rounded Tattenham Corner. She was killed; the Suffragettes had their first martyr.

The Scene at Epsom in June 1913.

The agitation continued, interrupted eventually by World War 1.

In a show of patriotism, Emmeline Pankhurst directed Suffragettes to end the violence and support the war effort.

Their work to support the Government in the war was rewarded in1918, when parliament passed the Representation of the People Act.

England was not the first country to confer voting rights to women.

NZ led the way

On 19 September 1893 the governor of New Zealand, Lord Glasgow, signed an Electoral Act that made his country the first self-governing entity in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

In most other democracies women did not win the right to the vote until after the First World War.

New Zealand’s achievement was the result of years of work by suffrage campaigners, led by Kate Sheppard.

Kate Sheppard is honoured on the NZ 10 dollar note

In 1878, 1879 and 1887 bills or amendments extending the vote to women (or at least female ratepayers) had only narrowly failed to pass in Parliament.

Petitions followed. In 1891 more than 9,000 signatures were gathered, in 1892 almost 20,000, and finally in 1893 there were almost 32,000, just about a quarter of the adult European female population of New Zealand at the time.

The liquor industry, fearful that women would support growing demands for the prohibition of alcohol, lobbied sympathetic Members of Parliament and organised their own counter-petitions.

Despite extensive lobbying by such groups as the liquor industry, on 8 September 1893 the bill was passed by 20 votes to 18.

While New Zealand was the first self-governing country to give women voting rights; the first move is credited to the British dependency of the Isle of Man which in 1881 gave the right to vote to women who owned property.

Sixteen reasons

Some of the Australian colonies also moved promptly. South Australia followed the lead of New Zealand in 1894 and women were able to vote in the next election, held in 1895.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) of South Australia circulated a leaflet in September 1895 entitled “Sixteen Reasons for Supporting Women’s Suffrage”.

The arguments included:

  • Because Parliament should be a reflection of the wishes of the people.
  • Because a Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, should mean all the people and not one half.
  • Because most laws affect women as much as men.

The final point made on the leaflet was simple: “Because, to sum up all reasons in one – it is just.”

Women such as Rose Scott in Sydney, Henrietta Dugdale in Melbourne and Edith Cowan in Western Australia began to organise themselves and agitate. Their goal was the education of men and women about women’s rights and their right to vote, as well as effecting social and political change.


South Australia also permitted women to stand for election alongside men. In 1899 Western Australia enacted full women’s suffrage, enabling women to vote in the constitutional referendum of 31 July 1900 and the 1901 state and federal elections. In 1902 women in the remaining four colonies were given the right to vote, too. After the six Australian colonies formed the Commonwealth of Australia, women in Australia in 1902 became the first in the world permitted to stand for elections to their national parliament.

Discriminatory restrictions against Aboriginal people (including women) voting in national elections were not completely removed until 1962.

The Victorian parliament was in fact first to break ranks to give women the vote – but it was an accident, in 1863 when the Electoral Act 1863 (Vic) was passed.

“A novel sight”

It was by mistake that the phrase “all persons” was used to refer to people on the municipal voting rolls which then were based on property ownership. At the time, many women did own property and were therefore entitled to vote in local elections and, thanks to the new Electoral Act, state elections as well.

In the 1864 state elections some women dared to exercise that right under the new Act. The Argus newspaper commented: At one of the polling booths … a novel sight was witnessed. A coach filled with ladies drove up, and the fair occupants alighted and recorded their votes …
– 5 November 1864.

The Electoral Act was quickly amended (in 1865) on the grounds that it was not the original intention of the Act that women should obtain the vote, even though the phrase “all persons” was used.

The first European country to introduce women’s suffrage was the Grand Duchy of Finland, then part of the Russian Empire, which elected the world’s first women Members of Parliament in the 1907 parliamentary elections. Norway followed, granting full women’s suffrage in 1913.

Most independent countries enacted women’s suffrage in the interwar era, including Canada in 1917, Poland in 1918 and the United States in 1920.


June 4 is a big day in the history of American women: it was on that day in 1919 that Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed them the right to vote. The amendment was ratified on 18 August 1920.

In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention, resolved to press for women’s suffrage.

During the 1850s, Susan B. Anthony became interested in women’s rights. In the early 1850s, she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls.

The Seneca Falls Convention drew up a “Declaration of Sentiments” and Stanton took the lead in proposing that women be granted the right to vote. She continued to write and lecture on women’s rights and other reforms. After meeting Anthony she became one of the leaders in promoting women’s rights.


Though most countries of the world now allow women to vote, suffrage is not yet complete among sovereign states. Vatican City still holds out. Saudi Arabia was one of the last countries to come to the voting party, in 2015.

Sources: Smithsonian, history web sites, BBC, the British Library. National Archives.
Pictures: Wikimedia Commons.

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