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.
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 Milicent 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.
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.
“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.
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: