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Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Wilding Davidson and the Suffragette movement during World War 1

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Voting is something almost all adults in our country can do, but this hasn’t always been the case. In 1918, after many years of protests, changes were coming.

Up until around 1850 only 1 in 10 people could vote in general elections and none of those people were female!

Over time more men became eligible to vote in elections, and women too began to demand equality, or “suffrage”, which means the right to vote. Different groups began to organise activities to protest and fight for change.

In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst set up a new organisation called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). 

Newspapers started to use the term “Suffragettes” to describe the women who were part of this new movement. The women chose a colour scheme of purple, green and white. Purple was meant to represent dignity, white for purity and green for hope.

Whilst many women, (and some men), were behind the same cause, they would protest in many different ways. 

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The majority of Suffragettes or Suffragists would be peaceful in their protests with marches and peaceful demonstrations, writing letters and petitions and debates held in public places to convince others of the arguments.  

Emmeline Pankhurst’s methods, and those used by some of her followers, however, could be extreme and sometimes violent, such as setting fire to buildings and smashing windows. 

Emily Wilding Davidson, one of the members was sent to prison nine times, and was force fed because she refused to eat. She once spent the night hidden in Parliament to claim it was her address on the census. She was killed at the 1913 Epsom Derby horse race, when she stepped out in front of the King’s horse.

She wasn’t the only woman to refuse to eat in prison.  Many women would starve themselves in protest, so many in fact, that the government had to make a law to permit women to be released if they were weakened, but that once they had returned to health, they would be re-arrested. 

Of course, then the women would starve again, and so would go between prison and their homes many times – this government Act was known as the Cat and Mouse Act. Forced feeding was frequently used by prison officers. It was a horrific and barbaric practice. They would force a tube into a woman’s throat and into her stomach and pour food and liquid down.  

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There are different views about whether it was right for the Suffragettes to use violent means to protest. 

Just like protests today, such as those for climate change, sometimes disruption and damage is caused on purpose in order to get people to stop and listen. 

Other people think that you should never break the law, even if you are trying to change things for the better.

The Great War largely caused the protests to cease because everyone, even some of the most militant Suffragettes threw themselves into the War Effort. 

As the men left for war, women took on their jobs and some people thought that this was a sign that the tide was changing.

Others saw it as unavoidable and would point out that it was clear these jobs were temporary only, and the pay was less than that received by men, even if the work was dangerous, such as the work in munitions factories.

After the war was over women were expected to return to their homes and leave the jobs for the menfolk.

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What is clear is that many women revelled in being able to work, sometimes for the first time, and to make a difference. One of these women, Naomi Loughnan said in 1917, that she was  “sick of frivolling” and “wanted to do something big and hard, because of our boys and of England”. 

Previously women had been restricted to certain types of work, such as domestic work in homes. 

Factory work was often more interesting with better conditions. As women eagerly stepped up to take on these roles the way women were seen in public would change.  

In 1918 after a long campaign some women did get the vote as a result of the Representation of the People Act. This meant that around 8.4 million women could vote if they fulfilled the right criteria. 

They had to be over 30, householders, wives of householders, occupiers of property of an annual value of not less than £5, or university graduates.

This still left many millions of women without the vote, many of whom had worked hard in men’s roles in the war, something that would take a further decade to change.

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The Great War

The Great War - Life through a Child's Eye.

More From The Great War