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Who Were the Women Leading the Suffrage Movement in the UK?

By Yann, published on 17/08/2019 Blog > Academia > History > Wonderful Women: Leaders and Important Figures of the Suffrage Era

“I believe that the influence of woman will save the country before every other power.” -Lucy Stone

Women are spectacular beings that are simply wonderful at everything they do. Whether they are mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts, teachers, doctors, politicians, or astronauts, women have the ability to complete tasks with love, purpose, and determination.

Nevertheless, it is important to state that for many decades, even centuries, young girls grew up believing that they were inferior to boys and could not complete the same grand things. After years of mistreatment, women around the world began to meet and discuss important issues; this resulted in a movement known as the suffrage. 

In today’s article, we will discuss the most powerful women who led the suffrage and contributed to helping all types of women to earn equal rights. 

Millicent Fawcett

the best campaigners A proud advocate of women’s rights, Millicent Fawcett spent a lifetime campaigning for women. (Source: Evening Standard)

The story of Millicent Fawcett is not a rags to riches tale. Fawcett was born in 1847 in the region of Suffolk, England to a prosperous middle-class family. Nee Garrett, Fawcett was sent at an early age to London with her sister to study at a reputable and prestigious boarding school in Blackheath.

Having received an education in London, Fawcett developed an early interest in literature and education. 

Nevertheless, a pivotal moment in Fawcett’s life that inspired her to advocate for women’s rights occurred when she was just 19 years of age. What was the occasion? She went to see a speech delivered by MP John Stuart Mill; he was an early supporter of women’s rights and suffrage. Stuart Mill made a significant impact on Fawcett and she became very involved in campaigning for women’s rights. 

Despite the age difference, Millicent Garrett married Henry Fawcett who was also a proud supporter of women’s rights. After his death, she dedicated even more of her time to supporting women’s rights and became the leader and president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).

Although mild in her tactics to campaign for women’s rights, her efforts greatly contributed to gaining publicity that eventually resulted in women’s equal voting rights in the UK in 1928. Fawcett commented the following about the 1928 decision to let women over the age of 21 vote in public elections:

“It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20th, 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning.”

A truly fantastic woman that left her mark on the contemporary world for her efforts in campaigning for women’s equal rights. 

What’s the difference between suffragettes and suffragists?

Emmeline Pankhurst

Born as Emmeline Goulden on July 14, 1858, in Manchester, England, she married Richard Mardsen Pankhurst and slowly became the legend known as Emmeline Pankhurst. It is important to state that her husband was a great friend of MP John Stuart Mill who was an early campaigner for women’s rights.

Emmeline Pankhurst spent her life fighting for women’s rights and raising awareness about the injustice faced around the world towards women who did not have equal voting rights as men. 

Notable victories achieved by Pankhurst include the founding of the Women’s Franchise League (WFL) which secured for married women the right to vote in elections to local offices and her active participation in the WSPU led to many achievements for women.

Pankhurst was known for her militant campaign strategies that reaped results yet ended in imprisonment in many cases. Both her parents were advocates of equal rights for men and women and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia joined her in the fight against the British government to make women’s suffrage a reality.

Emmeline Pankhurst died in June of 1928 and the Second Representation of the People Act became law in July of that year making it completely legal for women over the age of 21 to vote. Her legacy has forever been remembered by the British people and in other countries worldwide. For example, she was named one of the 20th century’s most important people and in 2015 Meryl Streep wonderfully played her on the silver screen.

Dame Christabel Harriette Pankhurst

advocates for change Christabel Pankhurst was made a DBE in 1936 for her active participation in the women’s suffrage movement. (Source: ThoughtCo)

Christabel Pankhurst was born into a family of women’s suffrage advocates. Her mother Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst supported movements, delivered powerful speeches, and led women’s groups to victory.

Since Christabel was raised around the suffrage movement, it was no surprise that in 1902 she started to play an active part in helping women achieve the right to vote. Also, in 1903 she became an active founder and member of the WSPU which was led by her powerful mother Emmeline Pankhurst, probably the most famous suffragette of all time.

Christabel had a powerful voice and was effective at delivering powerful speeches in front of large audiences of women. 

In 1912, Christabel was involved in the increasingly more aggressive campaigns led by the WSPU; harmless public demonstrations had turned into window breaking and arson.

Christabel was the writer of the newspaper called The Suffragette and stood for election in 1918, after the war, as a potential candidate for the Women’s Party.

How did she become a dame? 

In 1936, her life’s work of campaigning for the equal rights of women was recognised and she was made a DBE. She died in 1958 at the age of 77.

Emily Wilding Davison

Emily Davison was born in 1872 to parents Charles and Margaret in Greenwich, London. She went to Oxford University to become a school teacher.

In 1906, Davison joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and was responsible for militant actions such as arson, assault, and obstruction of public property. Many other suffragettes were in awe of Davison’s daring attitude and striking techniques to get people’s attention focused on the suffrage movement.

Her aggressive tactics led to her imprisonment on nine different occasions. She was also involved in many hunger strikes, seven to be exact, to gain awareness for women’s equal rights.

While imprisoned at Halloway she attempted suicide claiming that many people were itching for a tragedy. 

Emily Davison died at the age of 41. How? From injuries acquired at the Epsom Derby in 1913 when she jumped in front of King George’s horse while it was still running on the tracks. It is still uncertain whether Davison’s actions were suicide or a powerful feminist movement to raise awareness for the suffrage movement. Nevertheless, thousands attended her funeral in support of her fierce efforts towards women’s rights.

Maud Arncliffe Sennett

Born in 1862 in London to a family who owned a confectionery business, Maud Arncliffe Sennett became interested in the women’s suffrage movement in 1906. She was an active member of both the Women’s Freedom League and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). 

Throughout her years of campaigning, Sennett participated in marches, public meetings, and other events to raise awareness for women’s rights. 

While not one of the most prominent leaders of the suffragette change, she had an intriguing angle of the entire movement that she recorded in various scrapbooks. In total, she fabricated 37 volumes of scrapbooks that included press cuttings, pamphlets, leaflets and letters all pertaining to the suffrage movement in England.

Her scrapbooks may have been nothing but a hobby at the time; however, after many years they have proven to provide invaluable information about the suffrage movement and noteworthy events that made it so important. Her scrapbooks now belong to the British Library since they were donated by her husband after her death.

Dora Thewlis

campaigning for women's rights Dora Thewlis is an inspiration for young girls everywhere. (Source: Historical Association)

One of the most iconic photographs of the suffrage movement is of a young girl being taken away by two police officers. Who was this young girl who’s story appeared on the front page of the Daily Mirror and was frequently followed by other newspapers? Dora Thewlis. 

Dora Thewlis was only sixteen years old at the time she took part in a mission to break into the House of Parliament in 1907. 

Dora had joined the WSPU and was a proud young girl who wanted to be involved in activism. Her parents fully supported her decisions since they had raised her in an environment of socialism where everyone’s voice deserved to be heard. She is quite noteworthy since despite her young age she demanded to receive the same punishment of imprisonment as the other suffragettes. 

The six powerful women mentioned in today’s article are outstanding role models for young girls who want to see their dreams come true and grow up in a world where judgement and comments of inability are a thing of the past. The suffrage movement helped women achieve equal rights so that they could also earn equal opportunities.

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