Campaigns for women’s suffrage

What was the position of women at the outbreak of World War One?

In 1910, the position of women was largely unchanged from that of the 19th century, when women lacked political, legal and individual rights. Men and women occupied different “spheres” or roles in life. Men were the protectors of the family and the breadwinners, with a part to play in government and professional life, whereas the primary role of a woman was to be a good wife and mother.


  • Women earned less than men (by as much as 40 per cent).
  • Women often had to give up their job when they married, and certainly if they became pregnant.


  • By 1914 boys and girls were both required to stay in school until the age of 14.
  • Girls studied domestic subjects that prepared them up to be good wives and mothers.
  • It was very difficult for women to get into university, and it was seen as a pointless waste of money.


  • Women could not vote in General Elections.
  • They could vote in local elections if they paid rates.
  • Women could not divorce their husbands and retain access to their children.
  • They could not keep their own property and money.

How did women try to change this position?

Suffrage societies were formed in the 19th century and came together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897. This group, led by Millicent Fawcett, campaigned for women’s voting rights through largely peaceful methods.

In Scotland, the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed in 1909 as part of the NUWSS. This group was nicknamed the Suffragists.

How successful were the Suffragists?

Through leaflets, letters, speeches and marches, the Suffragists obtained over 100,000 members and were supported by many (including men). The peaceful methods convinced many that women were capable of voting and deserved the right to vote.

However, some have argued that they achieved little in 40 years of campaigning and that there was a complete lack of progress by 1914. It has been suggested that they were too easily ignored by the government to make much of an impact. This led to some forming a more radical organisation.

How successful were the Suffragettes?

“Suffragette” is a term applied to a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a breakaway group which split from the main women’s movement in 1903 and was led by Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. The Suffragettes were frustrated with the slow pace of progress made by the NUWSS and its forerunners and believed more militant tactics were necessary to force the Government into enfranchising women.

They campaigned through the use of posters, demonstrations, heckling, chaining themselves to railings. By 1911, the Suffragette tactics were becoming more violent, with arson, bombings and vandalism commonplace.

In Scotland, the Suffragettes were led by Flora Drummond, who campaigned in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee especially. There were violent attacks on public buildings and there was an attempt to burn down the grandstand at Kelso racecourse.

Some have argued that the Suffragettes gained valuable publicity for the cause and that the Government could not ignore. Others have argued that their actions proved that women were too irresponsible to vote and that they actually delayed progress.

What was the impact of the War on women and the vote?

The suffragettes ended their campaign for votes for women at the outbreak of war. Both organisations supported the war effort. Women replaced men in munitions factories, farms, banks and transport, as well as nursing. This changed people’s attitudes towards women. They were seen as more responsible, mature and deserving of the vote. This culminated in 1918 with the passing of the Representation of the People Act:

  • Women over 30 who owned their own property, were married to a property owner, or were graduates could vote.
  • All men over 21 could vote.
  • The first female MP was elected in 1919.
  • All men and women over the age of 21 were given the vote in 1928.