Vote 100: How women got the vote

By Danielle Cuaycong

The prominent suffragette leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, once wrote in her 1914 biography, “Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it.” It has been a century since some women first gained the right to vote, but this anniversary has not just called upon all women to celebrate their achievements, but also to shed light on the extensive global movement led by women standing against sexual harassment in the past several months. It is an indication that many women around the world are still fighting for their rights, just as Pankhurst did.

In the late 19th century, the suffragist movement of the UK began at a time when Parliament denied access to women yet continued to expand its male intake. In 1897, the formation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies occurred, which consisted mainly of middle-class women, and increased in size to over 50,000 members. With the leadership of Millicent Fawcett, the initial movement was mainly moderate and peaceful, involving the lobbying of politicians, staging demonstrations, and campaigning to get public support.

However, this group eventually split, prompting a more militant division led by Emmeline Pankhurst to create the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. Pankhurst believed in “deeds, not words”, using a variety of techniques to demonstrate her point: leading angry street demonstrations (leading to the arrests of hundreds of suffragists), carrying out arson attacks, and bombing the chancellor of the Exchequer’s home.

Key events during this suffragette movement enabled the world to turn their eyes on the sad truth for women, due to the frequent clashes between the police and the public. On Black Friday (Nov. 18, 1910), these women demonstrated outside the Houses of Parliament.  Intense brutality occurred, leading to the arrest of numerous women. By 1913, the campaign had intensified significantly – Emily Davison died after throwing herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby as an act of protest, drawing enormous crowds of suffragettes at her funeral as news rippled around the world. Furthermore, Pankhurst was imprisoned for three years due to her cooperation in planning protests, evidence of the intense conflict that occurred.  

However, despite the fact that the Representation of the People Act was passed on Feb. 6, 1918, not all women actually gained the right to vote. The vote was only given to female property owners aged 30 and above, it would take a decade for Britain to extend the vote to women aged 21 and over. The suffrage movement was not exclusive to Britain with suffragettes across the United States, Asia and the Commonwealth. They exchanged ideas on gaining the right to vote through forums including the Paris Peace Conference and International Women’s Suffrage Alliance.

Fortunately, an abundance of legislation has been passed to advance women’s equality and women have made noteworthy progress in breaking the glass ceiling, with a record number of women currently running for office in the U.S. Despite this success, women in various parts of the world still deal with a lack of political representation, alongside social and economic inequalities.

More recently, light has been shed upon numerous issues including sexual harassment stories and gender pay gaps at the BBC, prompting the #MeToo campaign. Parallels can be drawn between the women’s suffrage movement and the #MeToo campaign, perhaps this is a sign that women are still fed up with the current systems of inequality.

Photograph: Leonard Bentley via Flickr 

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