Did the suffragettes win women the vote?

1. Deeds not words

With fewer freedoms and rights than men, in 1900 women were second-class citizens in Britain.

Hundreds of thousands of supporters held meetings and signed petitions. However, some women believed that only direct action could force change. Derisively labelled ‘suffragettes’ by Daily Mail journalist Charles E Hands, they formed a new militant wing of the women's suffrage movement.

These women staged headline-grabbing stunts, chaining themselves to railings and attacking property. Yet they risked turning the press and public against their cause. Would their tactics prove effective when war was looming?

2. Why women needed the vote

Women had argued for – and won – new rights in the 19th Century. However, without the vote campaigners thought there was little incentive for politicians to improve the lot of women further. They believed MPs only cared about issues that affected the men who were able to vote for them.

3. Moderates and militants

The campaign for women's suffrage - the right to vote in elections - involved both moderates and militants. At first they worked well together to reinforce each other but as suffragette actions became more extreme some observers thought they might derail the campaign.

An Edwardian cartoon satirising the idea of women winning the vote.

In Edwardian Britain, men and women were thought to belong to separate public and private spheres, as cartoons of the time show. Those against votes for women argued bringing women into the public sphere would overturn this 'natural order'.

1 of 8

4. CLICKABLE: Dangerous women

Militant suffragettes forced the public to think about votes for women. But their violent actions were used by opponents to justify withholding votes from women.

Click the hand to watch suffragettes explain their actions in remarkable BBC archive.

5. How WW1 changed women's fortunes

By 1914 it was clear women would eventually get the vote. Years of peaceful protest had convinced an increasing number of MPs to support female suffrage. Other countries including Australia had extended voting rights to women, making Britain look behind the times.

However, the First World War had a huge impact on the ongoing struggle. Many suffragettes gave up campaigning to support the war effort. When peace returned, Britain felt like a very different place.

Rethinking British democracy

Millions of British men fought in the First World War, but a third of them had no right to vote. Women, who had proved they could do the same jobs as men in factories, offices and on the land, also had no representation. David Lloyd George's coalition government knew it was time for a fundamental rethink of who had access to the ballot box. MPs from different parties who supported female suffrage could now band together to support such a decision.

Women win a partial victory

In 1918 the Representation of the People Act extended the vote to all men over 21, and to some groups of women over 30. However, this was not simply a reward for the vast sacrifice that women had made for the war effort. Some historians have suggested the government intended these women to be a 'moderating' influence on radical younger male voters. It had the added advantage of taking the heat out of the female suffrage movement.

Yet more than half of women still did not have a say in electing their government. Moderate campaigning would continue until 1928 when women were finally granted the vote on equal terms to men.

Some historians claim that winning the vote had little to do with women. Click play to find out why. Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power (BBC Two, 2015).

Learn more about this topic:

Emmeline Pankhurst and The Suffragettes
collection
100 years of the Womens' Movement
collection
Hunting for History
collection