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History of Women’s Rights in Britain

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Published: Tue, 19 Dec 2017

British society has undergone many changes in the period before the 1st World War, the industrialization that changes in women’s life “promoted women’s independence and emancipated them from the patriarchy” (June Purvis, Jane Humphries, 1995, P86). During that time British society has undergone a radical change in employment levels and composition of social classes. While the men were at the front, the English women participated massively in the war effort in the arms industry “the munitionnettes”, and the political struggle to conquer the right to vote was conducted by the suffragettes. The year1918 is considered a transitional year in the acquisition of voting rights given to English women. O’Neil W.L described the vote as a reward gave to women for their dedicated service during the war. (“Their performance on the home front won English women to vote”, 1969, p79) However, it appears obvious to ask why the vote in 1918 under the “Representation of the People Act” gives the right to vote only to women over 30 years and excluded young women who worked in munitions factories. The economic and social role played by women during the First World War has helped give them the right to vote, however, other factors must also be taken into account. We first explore the time period before the 1st World War that led to electoral reforms of 1918 and the years of struggle and activism. Similarly, we show the action undertaken by the suffragettes before and during the war but also the social and economic role of women. Finally, we analyze the consequences of granting the right to vote.

The British suffragist did not plead equality of gender, but instead justified their claims by the difference between men and women (M.Pugh 1992, p3). It is judicious to remember what the political rights of English women were especially before 1918. Women have not always been excluded from parliamentary elections. The following years show, however, through the action of the first organizations suffragists, slight changes in the legislation for women: in 1869, the taxpayers and single women won the right to participate in municipal elections (“Borough election”), the “Education Act of 1870, opened the “school boards” to women (June Purvis, 1995, p280), the” Municipal Corporation Act of 1882 allowed them to elect representatives to the Municipal Council. The law on property rights for married women ( “Married Women Property Act”) (June Purvis, 1995, P283) was also significant in that it represents a clear recognition of legal emancipation, because before “a married woman’s property was owned by her husband “(June Purvis, 1995, p76). The Married Women’s Property Committee (J. Purvis, 1995, P282) founded in 1865 by Dr. Pankhurst had always believed that before fighting for the right to vote, women should have control of their own money ( married women had no legal existence from their husbands, they had no rights over their property). It was done in 1882. In 1894, the government gives the right to vote to married women. No more reforms came after 1894 in favour of the improving of the women situation. The suffragist movement starts with two majors “rivals” ideological organisations: “The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (J. Purvis, 1995, P296).

In 1861, on 10380558 women in England and Wales, there were 2293752 bachelors and widows (A. Rosen, 1974, p3). Employment opportunities for women of the middle class were also very limited: education except universities comprised 72.5% of women (Lee Holcombe, 1973 P203) but very poorly paid, and domestic work. This difficulty of single women to find a job paying enough incentive to “Ladies of Langham Place” (J. Purvis, SS Holton, 2000, p59) to begin a series of campaigns from 1850 and was certainly one of the reasons led to the emergence and expansion of the feminist movement.

First suffragist organised movement appeared in 1867, when a new electoral law voted by the Liberals, widened the electorate to male workers in cities and nothing to women. The indignation of women increased when the electoral reform of 1884 by Conservative gave the vote to agricultural workers and nothing to women. In 1897, the movement was reorganised and consolidated within “National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies”, chaired by Millicent Garrett Fawcett (J Purvis, S S Holton, 1995, p285) who claimed “the parliamentary franchise for women on the same terms as it is or may be granted to men”. The NUWSS directed his efforts by “conversion” of the public opinion and adopted a neutral attitude with political parties.

The main militant and most famous suffragist movement is the “Women’s Social and Political Union”, founded in October 1903 in Manchester by Emmeline Pankhurst in order to promote, through social and political work, interests of workers. Christabel, the eldest daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst noticed how constitutional action of Mrs. Fawcett is unsuccessful decided to participate in a political meeting, harassing MPs. “Deed not Words” was their “permanent motto” (J. Purvis, Sandra Stanley, 2000, P111). On October 13, 1905, at a Liberal Party meeting in Manchester, Christabel and Annie Kenney (youngest member of the WSPU) attempted to question Sir Edward Gray on the future intentions of the Liberal government on the issue of women’s suffrage, “Will the Liberal Government, if returned, give votes to women?”(June Purvis, 2000, p112)” They received no reply, they were forcibly evicted by policemen, and Christabel “committed the technical offense of spitting at a policeman in order to be arrested.” They did not pay the fine and were sent to jail for three days (S. Pankhurst, 1931, p189-191).

Across the country, the suffragettes began to disrupt meetings and prosecute ministers who appeared in public. Imprisonment multiplied, made of a suffragette as a ‘martyr’ (J. Purvis, M. Mulvey-Roberts, 2000, P159). In June 1906, Christabel took the head of the party and announced that WSPU will adopt an impartial attitude towards all the other candidates. On October 12, 1907, a constitution written by Teresa Billington was adopted (Andrew Rosen, 1974, p72), is providing the primary objective of obtaining the right to vote, which was used to establish equal rights and opportunities. Six strategies were considered, including the main lines: “opposition to all government,” Participation in Parliamentary Elections in opposition to the Government candidate and independently of all other candidates, “vigorous stirring” and “education of public opinion”.

In 1909, began the second phase of militant action, with hunger strikes (J Purvis, 2000, p160) (to obtain the status of political prisoners) and new methods more violent, which the government responded with repression. The demonstrators were brutalized, arrested, and the hunger strikes were controlled by ordering to “force” suffragettes to feed (J Purvis, 2000, P145). After 1911, however, activism became increasingly violent; methods of WSPU did not generate support from the public opinion and politicians. The suffragists had begun to break windows, cause arson, setting fire to letterboxes, thereby attracting the growing hostility of the population. A significant number of suffragettes left in 1907, the WSPU, and follow direction of Mrs. Charlotte Despard, with “the Women’s Freedom League”, which advocated passive resistance, for example, “tax-resistance”, to refuse that single women to pay tax (J. Purvis, 1995, P291-292) or to participate in the census.

The suffragette’s actions have seriously undermined the unity and the strength of the suffrage movement. By transgressing the laws, the suffragettes knew to seek attention to women’s demands by refusing to obey the laws made by men only, to discredit the government by revealing its inability to respects laws and to pressure the government in order to have positive answer to their request. The militant activities were attributed to hysteria “activist hysteria (J. Purvis, SS Holton, 2000, p159), they went against the goals they set themselves.

In1908, was created the “Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League”, headed by Mrs. Humphry Ward, and their objectives where, first “to resist the proposal to admit women to the parliamentary Franchise and to parliament” and, “to maintain the principle of the representation of women on municipal and other bodies concerned with domestic and social affairs of the community “(J Purvis, 2000, P208).

Even if inequalities still existed, we must recognize that progress has been made since the mid-nineteenth century with “the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) (J. Purvis, 1995, p76), the custody of Children (1873), the property rights for married women (1870 and 1882), the right to vote in municipal elections (1869). We must also remember that the idea of women’s suffrage is in the minds of the population.

The WW1 and the departure of men to the front emphasized the female workforce, with highlighting condition of work, prejudices, and discriminations at work. The declaration of the war cause important unemployment especially for women. In September 1914, 44% of women workers were unemployed against 27,4 % for men (MN Bonnes Raud, 1992, p357). In January 1915, 2 million of men in a total of 10, 6 million of men joined the army (M Pugh, 1992, p19). In March 1915, the Ministry of Commerce called to any woman wishing to participate in the war effort by working in industry, agriculture or commerce, to register on “Register of Women for War Service “. First, it was individual initiatives; women replace their husbands in shops, in offices. The women learned to perform in difficult factories, thus ending the reluctance of employers to hire them. Women held positions reserved for men (bus drivers, inspectors, window cleaners) and worked in munitions factories needed for the war. Women worked not only in the army industry but also in administration, and banks. Women had lower wages against men, before 1914, women worked and earned less than the half of men wages. The “Treasury Agreement” of 1915, did not stop the wage discrimination between men and women. The agreement ensured equal pay for work piece without mentioning hourly wages. In 1906, the female wage in textile was 58,5 % lower then men’s wages, the average female wage was 43,7% less than men. (AL Bowley. Wages and Income in UK since 1860 (CUP 1937): MN Bonnes Raud p333).

Between July 1914 and July 1918, the number of employed women rose from 4.93 million to 6.19 million, an increase of 1.26 million (M Pugh, 1992, p20). The war enabled women to access a greater number of jobs, sometimes better paid and more rewarding. The office work was more successful than agriculture for which we recruited many women (note 30 P66) but the conditions were not only harsh but also very similar to domestic service (M Pugh, 1992, P23).

In October 1918, the Parliamentary gives to the right to vote for English women over the age 30. Women over 21 years waited until 1928 to get the right to vote equal to men. Laws counted many injustices in 1918 and to causes to defend were still numerous in divorce, succession, inheritance, right to vote, laws on nationality, child custody, employment opportunities and wages. Regarding wages, in 1970, the parliament voted a law on equal pay “Equal Pay Act”. Ten years after 1918, were characterized by numerous laws that change the legal and the personal status of the English women. Married women and mothers obtained to be treated with more justice and humanity. The Property law of 1922, “Law and property Act” recognized the equality of husband and wife, father and mother, son and daughter when a parent or a child died. Three laws dealing with divorce, the custody of children aim to more equality: the “Matrimonial Causes Act” of 1923 correct the Act of 1857 and made adultery a reason for divorce, “The Summary Juridiction Act” of 1925 increased the number of reason for women to separate from her the husband, and abolish the obligation for a women to leave her husband before initiating proceedings against him; “The Guardianship of Infant Act” granted to both spouses equal rights for custody of child in the case of divorce or separation.

Regarding the status of single mothers “Affiliation Orders Act” of 1918, increased alimony to pay by the father for an illegitimate child, “The bastardy Act” of 1923, “The Legitimacy Act” of 1926, legitimized the born of the children outside of the marriage in the case of previous marriage, and “Illegitimate Children Scotland Act” of 1930. In 1926, a law of adoption “Adoption of Children Act” gave more security to the adopted child and parents that enable to increase the number of adoption. In 1925, the “Widow’s Orphan’s and Old Age Pensions Act” gave more social justice for widows, orphans, old-age people. Finally in 1925, the “Criminal Justice Act” ended the presumption that married women who committed crimes in the presence of her husband did it under duress of him.


The traditional conception of women in Britain was strengthened by the First World War, with improvement in social policy and especially, in getting the right to vote and to be in the workplace. Indeed, if the right to vote should be considered as “reward” given to women, the first awarded were mothers but no young women who worked in factories because law established a minimum age of 30 years. Failures by the suffragist movement before 1914 show the little interest of politicians in women claims. However, they were able to use propaganda to attract women to work in industries. The pres showed pictures of women wearing trousers fashioning shells, or a post-office worker with a uniform driving trucks post. Once the war ended, in 1920, two thirds of women who had entered the workforce between 1914 and 1918 had left. A year later, the number of working women was slightly higher than in 1914 (A. Marwick, 1977, p 162).

In February 1919, the number of workers had declined overall by 12.9% to -44.1% in the metallurgical industry, and -78.6% in the national armaments factories, the positive figures include clothing and food (MN Bonnes Raud, 1992 p447).

The work of women proved that it was temporary propaganda supported by the government and the press. Inequalities among women in the workplace existed (type of job, wages), and they were not integrated like men. Women became certainly more aware about their values and men discovered that their wives, mothers, and young women are able to play an important role in the British history.


A. Marwick, Women at war, 1914-1918, London : Croom Helm (for) the Imperial War Museum, 1977.

Andrew Rosen, Rise up, women! : The militant campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903-1914: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974, P3.

E. Sylvia, Pankhurst, The suffragette movement: an intimate account of persons and ideals, London: Longmans, Green, 1931 P189-191.

Jane Purvis, Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945. An Introduction. 1995.

Jane Purvis and S.S. Holton (eds.) Votes for women, 2000.

Lee Holcombe, Victorian ladies at work: middle-class working women in England and Wales, 1850-1914, Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1973.

M. PUGH, Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain 1914-1959, Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1992.

MN Bonnes Raud, Les femmes au service de l’institution militaire en Grande-Bretagne pendant la Première guerre mondiale (Doctorat, Bordeaux 3, 1992), P357.

O’Neill, William L, The woman movement: feminism in the United States and England, London: Allen & Unwin, 1969, P79.

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