Our women’s history expert Dr Stella Moss outlines the top five things we can learn from the suffrage campaigners
Commitment is key
Suffrage campaigners had absolute clarity about their aims, and pursued them with extraordinary determination. In the face of major criticism from powerful political leaders, as well as many among the population, they remained steadfast to their cause, often over several decades. Hunger-striking, one of the best known aspects of the suffrage campaign, was hugely controversial. Following imprisonment for criminal acts like arson, some suffragettes turned to hunger-striking in protest at their treatment. Many were consequently force-fed, which caused considerable physical and psychological distress. In hunger-striking, then, we can discern the unrelenting and unequivocal commitment of the suffragettes to their cause.
Lead from the front
Across the suffrage movement, strong and charismatic leaders had a huge impact on the direction and impact of campaigning. As President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), Millicent Garrett Fawcett worked with steadfast determination to build support for a platform of franchise reform, criss-crossing the country to speak at meetings and petitioning political leaders, despite many disappointments and much criticism from anti-suffrage commentators. As leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Emmeline Pankhurst was a redoubtable and charismatic leader, who was unafraid to turn to militancy in the attempt to further the suffrage cause.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, respectable femininity demanded that women behave in socially conventional ways, prioritising family life and respectability above all. Politics was deemed to be the preserve of men. Many suffrage campaigners overthrew such conventions in highly visible (and often vilified) ways. Tactics adopted by suffragettes included window-breaking and arson attacks – a far cry from the ideals of respectable conduct espoused by etiquette manuals. In turn, the willingness of campaigners to defy convention generated considerable publicity, while the lengths to which individuals went in defying social norms came to be seen as evidence of their political commitment.
Build grass-roots support
The suffrage movement was rooted in grass-roots local activism. Across the country, hundreds of local community branches acted as beacons for the suffrage message. Local meetings of the NUWSS, the WSPU and other organisations were central to the suffrage movement, helping to build grass-roots support. Branches held meetings, debated policy and tactics, raised campaign funds and built local support for the suffrage cause, and as such, were pivotal to the eventual success of the suffrage campaign.
Spread the word
The suffrage campaigners were visible and vocal, generating publicity and attention for their cause. Campaigners came to know the value of large-scale public events in provoking debate about the women’s vote and political and social discrimination against women more broadly. In 1907, for instance, the so-called ‘Mud March’ was the first large-scale gathering: over 3,000 campaigners marched through London in appalling weather to demand women’s suffrage. Leaders also understood the value of a strong visual presence, and promoted the use of the suffrage colours of purple, white and green on campaign banners, flags and badges. The suffrage campaign knew the value of making their cause highly visible and easily identifiable.