Women's Failure to Gain the Right to Vote Between 1900 and 1914

Women's Failure to Gain the Right to Vote Between 1900 and 1914

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Women's Failure to Gain the Right to Vote Between 1900 and 1914


This essay looks at the various reasons why women failed to gain the
right to vote between 1900 and 1914. It looks at the key influences of
the suffragettes WSPU and suffragists NUWSS, the patriarchal society,
publicity and other influences.

By 1900 women had achieved many improvements in their education, legal
rights and job opportunities. However, they could still not vote in
general elections. Many women believed that until they had this basic
right to choose their own MP they would always be second class
citizens. One of the hardest tasks in front of them was the attitudes
of men and the fact that they were living in a patriarchal society.

'A loyal, pretty and obedient wife was a

Victorian husband's proudest belonging.'

This was the thinking of most men and a factor that women fighting for
women suffrage would have to overcome.

Suffragists - NUWSS

The campaign to win the vote for women began in the 1850's. By the
1870's it was a mass movement. Local groups held meetings all over the
country to present the case for giving women the vote. The campaigners
were mainly middle class women. They were known as 'suffragists'.
('Suffrage' means the right to vote.) In 1890 the hundreds of local
groups from all over the country formed a national organisation, later
know as the NUWSS. The NUWSS was led by Millicent Fawcett. Millicent
Fawcett and the NUWSS believed in peaceful methods of campaigning.
Fawcett wrote in 1911 that she wanted the NUWSS 'to show the world how
to gain reform without violence, killing people and blowing up
buildings and doing other silly things that men have done when they
wanted laws altered.' Instead they issued leaflets, collected
petitions and argued their case. At election times they helped any
candidate who supported women's suffrage. By 1900 more than half of
all MP's said they wished to give the vote to women. Millicent Fawcett
said that her movement was 'like a glacier'; it might be slow moving,

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but it was powerful and unstoppable. She believed that in the end her
tactics would get women the vote. Her are some of the tactics that
Millicent Fawcett and the NUWSS did between 1905 and 1910;

1905 Ran meetings in all constituencies (voting areas) in the run up
to the general election

1907 Held their first procession

1908 Lead a protest to see the Prime Minister

1909 Fawcett held a public debate with her opponents

1910 Raised a petition of 280,000 signatures

Suffragettes - WSPU

Some women lost patience with the tactics of NUWSS. They said that the
peaceful campaign, in fact, was getting nowhere. The newspapers seemed
to take no notice of the campaign, so the public also ignored it.
While MPs would say they supported women suffrage at times of
elections, whenever parliament voted on this issue the vote was lost.
In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters formed a breakaway group
called the women's social and political union. They were nicknamed the
'suffragettes'. Whereas the NUWSS had only campaigned for women
suffrage, the members of the WSPU also wanted to campaign for better
working and living conditions for women, their motto was 'Deeds not
words'. Sylvia Pankhurst described their aims: 'To create an
impression upon the public throughout the country, to set everyone
talking about votes for women, to keep the subject in the press, to
leave the government no peace from it.' The WSPU's controversial
campaigns won massive publicity for the women's suffrage movement.
Half a million people attended their meeting in Hyde Park in London in
June 1908. Some of the tactics that Emmeline Pankhurst and the WSPU
carried out in 1913 were;

31st May - Railway telegraph wires cut in Cardiff and Monmouth

4th June - Emily Davison throws her self under the king's horse at the
derby horse-race.

5th June - Purple dye poured into reservoirs near Bradford

18th June - Church in Rowley Regis set on fire.

The suffragettes' campaign was something totally new. When women took
to the street to protest many men were shocked. They still expected
women to be quiet and obedient. But the papers showed interest and
suddenly the campaign for women's votes was important news. Parliament
was forced to debate the issues and each time it did the suffragettes
mounted a demonstration. They were arrested, then refused to pay the
fines, and then sent to prison.

Once in prison, they went on hunger strikes, because the government
thought a suffragette who died would be seen as a martyr, they force
fed the hunger strikers. This was a violent process which played into
the hands of the suffragettes, when posters were put up showing what
the government was doing sympathy and support grew for the
suffragettes. Many people in Britain thought the police and government
overreacted, putting women in jail for three months just for holding a
meeting and then force feeding them whilst in jail, seemed
unnecessary. Support grew further and new members for both the
suffragettes and the suffragists swarmed in. Mrs Fawcett and the NUWSS
did not approve of the suffragettes tactics but admired their courage.

In 1911 it seemed as if the longs years of waiting would finally be
over and that the women's campaign was about to succeed. In May of
1911 Parliament gave its first reading on the Conciliation bill, which
would give women the vote. It had the support of all parties, and was
passed by a massive majority of 167. The government announced that it
would proceed with the bill the following year. Then, in November, the
government changed its mind and dropped the Conciliation bill. It
introduced the Franchise bill, which didn't mention women but said
that parliament could add women to the new bill if it wanted. When
MP's tried to introduce women suffrage to the bill, they were told
that it would change the nature of the bill so much that it would have
to be withdrawn. The supporters of women suffrage were infuriated. Two
hundred women suffragettes were arrested in scuffles with the police.
This setback triggered a wave of violence. The suffragettes organised
window smashing across the whole of the London. Suffragette leaders,
including Mrs Punkhurst were imprisoned. In prison they once again
went on hunger strike. This time instead of force feeding the women,
the government released them when they became very ill and close to
death, then rearrested them when they had recovered enough to return
to prison. This became known as the 'Cat and Mouse act' because the
government was playing with the hunger strikers like a cat plays with
a mouse. During 1913 Mrs Pankhurst went in and out of prison twelve
times. Each time she went back more fragile and each time the
suffragettes reacted more angrily and violently. Moderate suffragette
leaders withdrew from the increasingly violent organisation and Mrs
Pankhurst's daughter Christabel was left to run the suffragettes
campaign from Paris

It seemed to many people that the suffragettes' campaign was out of
control. When Prime Minister Asquith visited Dublin, an axe was thrown
at him, just missing him. Bombs were planted in railway stations and
in Westminster Abbey. An explosion led to a fire at the home of David
Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The violence played
into the hands of the anti-suffragists. Prime Minister Asquith was
against women's suffrage and the violence gave him a good excuse not
to give in. He argued that if he gave in to such threats it would
encourage other groups to do the same. The government knew that there
were other groups such as dockers and miners who were ready to strike
for better pay. Furthermore some MP's argued why should they give the
vote to violent criminals, what kind of extreme parties would they
vote for. The violence also turned many moderate MP's, who had
previously supported women's suffrage against it. When women's
suffrage was debated in Parliament In 1913 it was defeated by 48
votes. Lloyd George said:

'Haven't the suffragettes the sense to see that the very worst way of
campaigning for the vote is to try to intimidate or blackmail a man
into giving them what he would gladly give otherwise?'

The NUWSS worked hard to win back the support of the public, which the
suffragettes were losing. It encouraged poor working women to join by
not making them pay a membership fee. Over 50,000 more women had
joined Mrs Fawcett's organisation by 1914. By the summer of 1914,
however the situation looked almost hopeless. In August 1914
suffragettes and suffragists halted protest, because if they had
carried on any publicity would have seen them as being as bad as the
German's, which would be bad publicity seeing as the war had just
started. In addition a lot of women got the jobs that men had while
the men were of a war and the women were very good and efficient at
the jobs they had taken up.

It is clear that a range of events conspired to make sure women did
not secure the vote between 1900 and1914. Although publicity was
clearly vital to the success of the women's campaign, it was the use
of violence that was the main reason for the failure of their
campaign. This was because prime minister Asquith was against women's
suffrage, and the violence gave him a good excuse not to give in. It
was his determination to fight back that saw the introduction of the
cat and mouse act. This was based on his firm belief that if he gave
into violence and demands of the women's campaign then other groups
would do exactly the same and he would be seen as a weak leader.
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