In the early 1800s, women were second-class citizens. Women were expected to restrict their sphere of interest to the home and the family. Women were not encouraged to obtain a real education or pursue a professional career. After marriage, women did not have the right to own their own property, keep their own wages, or sign a contract. In addition, all women were denied the right to vote. Only after decades of intense political activity did women eventually win the right to vote.
The word “suffragette” was first used to describe women campaigning for the right to vote in an article in a British newspaper in 1906. At the time of Falling Angels, two-thirds of the male population could vote. Those who could not included men who did not own property or pay at least £10/year in rent, servants who lived with their employers, criminals and lunatics.
During the 1850s, the women’s rights movement gathered steam, but lost momentum when the Civil War began. Almost immediately after the war ended, the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution raised familiar questions of suffrage and citizenship. Some woman-suffrage advocates, lead by Susan B. Anthony, believed that it was their chance to push lawmakers for truly universal suffrage. In 1869, this faction formed a group called the National Woman Suffrage Association and began to fight for a universal-suffrage amendment to the Federal Constitution, in America.
Although British women and men had been arguing for both universal and women’s suffrage since the 1860s, the movement for women’s votes accelerated much later. When Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 – a more radical organization than some of the earlier ones fighting for suffrage, the movement got a better push. Its slogan was “Deeds Not Words” and the WSPU became more and more militant with the passing years, but the British Government kept denying women the right to vote. From 1908 the WSPU adopted the colour scheme of purple, white and green: purple symbolised dignity, white purity, and green hope.
At the turn of the century, women reformers in the club movement and in the settlement house movement wanted to pass reform legislation. However, many politicians were unwilling to listen to a disenfranchised group. Thus, over time women began to realize that in order to achieve reform, they needed to win the right to vote. For these reasons, at the turn of the century, the woman suffrage movement became a mass movement.
On 18 November 1910 a protest in Parliament Square turned violent and police beat many suffragettes. After that the movement began to wage guerrilla warfare, orchestrating systematic window-smashing and arson attacks. As it became more radical and violent, the WSPU lost many of its supporters. In June 1913 Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under the King’s horse at the Derby racecourse and was killed. She was the only suffragette to die for the cause and was made into a martyr.
In Britain, “militant suffragette demonstrations subsequently became more aggressive, and the Government took action. Unwilling to release all the suffragettes staging hunger strikes in prison, in the autumn of 1909, the authorities began to adopt more drastic measures to manage the hunger-striking suffragettes. In September 1909, the Home Office became unwilling to release the hunger-striking suffragettes before their sentence was served. Suffragettes became a liability because if they were to die in the prison’s custody, the prison would be responsible for their death. Therefore, prisons began the practice of force feeding the suffragettes through a tube, most commonly a nostril or stomach tube or a stomach pump.”
In the 20th century leadership of the suffrage movement passed to two organizations. The first, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, was a moderate organization. The second group, the National Woman’s Party (NWP), under the leadership of Alice Paul, was a more militant organization.
Women in the suffrage movement contributed to the war effort in many ways, by raising funds, selling war bonds, working in factories, and serving as nurses. In 1918, under the combined pressure of the NWP’s public efforts and the NAWSA’s lobbying, President Wilson agreed to push publicly for woman suffrage. He addressed the Senate in support of the 19th Amendment to enfranchise women. In his speech he argued that woman suffrage was needed to win the war and should be supported as a war measure. In 1919 both the Houses finally voted to approve the 19th Amendment.
The woman Suffrage Movement leaders were brilliant political strategists who manipulated an intricate governmental system to achieve their goals. Movement leaders were part of a full-fledged, highly organized political movement with its own philosophers, organizers, strategists, lobbyists, and fundraisers.
Some abolitionist men were supporters of women’s rights. The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was presided over by Lucretia Mott’s husband, James Mott. Thirty-two men, including Frederick Douglass, signed the Declaration of Sentiments. Beginning in about 1910, men began forming Men’s Leagues for Woman Suffrage. In 1912, the National Men’s League had 20,000 members.
In Tennessee, the last state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment, one young state Congressman had been planning to vote against woman suffrage. However, after listening to pleas from his mother, he promised to vote for suffrage if his vote was needed. When the time came, and one vote was needed to ratify the amendment, he kept his promise and voted for suffrage.
In 1923, the National Women’s Party proposed an amendment to the Constitution that prohibited all discrimination on the basis of sex. The so-called Equal Rights Amendment has never been ratified. On 2 July 1928, a law was passed allowing all women over the age of 21 to vote.
In India, the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) was founded in 1917. It sought votes for women and the right to hold legislative office on the same basis as men. These positions were endorsed by the main political groupings, the Indian National Congress and the All-India Muslim League. British and Indian feminists combined in 1918 to publish a magazine Stri Dharma. In 1919 in the Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms, the British set up provincial legislatures which had the power to grant women’s suffrage. In the Government of India Act 1935 the British Raj set up a system of separate electorates and separate seats for women. In 1931 the Congress promised universal adult franchise when it came to power. It enacted equal voting rights for both men and women in 1947, when India gained independence.
The Women’s Suffragette Movement had many leaders worldwide, such as Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, Alva Belmont, Alice Blackwell, Inez Boissevain, Olympia Brown, Lucy Burns, Laura Clay, Abigail Duniway, Crystal Eastman, Charlotte P. Gilman, Kate M. Gordon, Louisine E. Havemeyer, Mary G. Hay, Isabella B. Hooker, Julia W. Howe, Florence Kelley, Daisy Lampkin, Miriam F. Leslie, Anne Martin, Esther Morris, Lucretia C. Mott, Maud Park, Alice Paul,
Rose Schneiderman and many others.
Without the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the voice of a major part of the masses went unheard. Fortunately, that isn’t the case in the present day, simply because women from all across the globe took up the responsibility of fighting for women’s rights a little over a century ago.