Suffrage: the right to vote in political elections.
In the UK, women only won the right to vote in the year 1918, just under 100 years ago. Even then, it was only women over the age of 30 who were householders, whereas that year saw all men over the age of 21 granted suffrage. Women over the age of 21 did not get the right to vote until ten years later.
We’ve all heard of the Suffragettes. A group of women who were active in the late 19th century and early 20th century in protesting for women to have the right to vote. Emmeline Pankhurst founded the ‘Women’s Social and Political Union’ and she decided the movement would have to become radical in order for it to have any effect.
The first World War meant many of Britain’s men were away fighting in said war. Those that remained were either too old or young to do this or they were injured from battle. This meant that the majority of the workforce were now women. Much to the despair of the government, they were heavily reliant on women for the country to keep going. This context was partly why the government eventually relented and gave women suffrage in this country. The women’s right to vote was one good thing which came out of the war and who knows if or when women would have been given the right to vote in this country otherwise.
One of the most well known Suffragettes, Emily Davison was born in southeast London. She studied at Oxford University, although at that time women were not allowed to earn degrees (!!). She joined the WSPU in 1906 and after three years gave up her job as a teacher to work full time for the suffragette movement. Emily Davison was one of the most militant members of the suffragette movement and she was relentless in her efforts. She was frequently arrested for public disturbances and had some short periods in prison.
During one of her spells in prison, Davison went on hunger strike and, much to the frustration of the prison guards, resisted force-feeding.
On 4th June 1913, Emily Davison attended the Derby at Epsom racecourse where the King was in attendance to watch one of his horses race. Although her intentions were unclear, Davison ran out on to the race track when the King’s horse was racing and was unfortunately killed by the oncoming horses. The incident was captured on three newsreel cameras at the time. It has been argued that she intended to martyr herself in front of the King and all of the public watching to bring attention to the movement. It has also been argued that she was attempting to bring down the King’s horse or she was simply reckless and intended to run across the track. However, recent analysis of the footage has found that her movements suggested she was trying to attach a scarf to the King’s horse. Whatever her intentions, her actions did get a lot of attention and a memorial held for her attracted a huge crowd.
Another significant Suffragette in the UK was Sophia Duleep Singh. Her father was exiled to England after he abdicated his throne of the Kingdom of Punjab to the British raj. Her godmother was Queen Victoria. She was one of several south Asian women who were pioneers in the movement for women’s rights in Britain. Furthermore, herself and her fellow Suffragettes also pressed for similar movements in the colonies of the time.
Sophia along with Emmeline Pankhurst and several other Suffragettes went to the House of Commons on 18 November 1910, later known as Black Friday, where they hoped to meet with the Prime Minister. The Home Secretary at the time ordered them to be removed from the premises and in the process a number of women were seriously injured.
Sophia became the president Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship after the death of Emmeline Pankhurst. Sophia has not been widely recognised or appreciated for her efforts in the suffrage movement until 70 years later and she still goes forgotten. After her death she was cremated in accordance with Sikh rites and her ashes were spread in India.
Thank you to all the women who struggled and strived so that today women can take their suffrage for granted. Thank you to all of the women whose names we don’t know because they weren’t posh, rich or white. Thank you to every woman who made the movement what it was and contributed in any way.
What a shame that is took this civilised and democratic country so long to give its women the simple right to vote.
“We are here not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”
– Emmeline Pankhurst