Suffragists or Suffragettes?

Women’s political history is something that has always been an interest to me from a young age. Growing up I was fascinated and politically inspired by the suffragette movement. But as my studies have took me further I have realised that the difference between a Suffragist and a Suffragette is a conversation that commonly occurs amongst women who follow and promote the votes for women campaign.

During the women’s suffrage movement, there were two main groups of women who dominated the streets and the news. These were The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), and The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929) was President of The NUWSS and Emmeline Pankhurst was the leader of the WSPU. Mrs Fawcett is remembered as the primary leader of the constitutional (non-militant) wing of the women’s suffrage movement and whilst Mrs Pankhurst’s WSPU did not use militant tactics at first, it did carry out a highly-visible militant campaign from 1905.

The movement for women’s suffrage is often marked as beginning around 1860 and ending in success in 1928. With the NUWSS around before the WSPU came on the scene, Mrs Fawcett didn’t agree with Mrs Pankhurst’s way of campaigning. Mrs Fawcett believed in using law-abiding, non-violent means to gain the vote for women, including petitions, lobbying and spectacular marches. She believed in women being respectful to the law, to be able to prove they can be ‘good citizens’.

On the 12th July 1910, The Women’s Franchise Bill passed its second reading where the home secretary, Lloyd George, declared it ‘anti-democratic’. With the bill being dropped, Mrs Pankhurst lead her Suffragettes to parliament. The women were forced back onto the streets by the police who manhandled them in a brusque and brutal way, and this became remembered as ‘Black Friday’. When a new bill was proposed the WSPU and the NUWSS organised a massive procession in June 1911. This was when outright militancy began. The new strategy that The WSPU carried out involved opposition to all parties and attacks on private and public property – never on human life. The campaign involved smashing windows, setting fire to property and post boxes, throwing acid on golf courses and other ‘men’s’ methods.

It’s safe to say that this period in the early 1900’s was an exciting yet tumultuous time for women in Britain. The argument for both parties are valid, but I must express my personal admiration for the WSPU, and Mrs Pankhurst’s Suffragettes. Although I don’t agree with violence solving issues, the period that these ladies lived in was a very detrimental time for women who were expected to carry out duties of a house wife and mother and nothing else. If I lived in this period I certainly would rebel against the overwhelming chauvinistic mentality of men, not only in high powers but at home too. I would have wanted equal rights for women, the chance for women to be educated fairly, the chance for women to vote. With the Government treating women so unfairly and the stigma that was attached to being a woman activist at the time, no wonder The Suffragettes wanted to destroy property of men. The frustration must have been unreal.

Mrs Fawcett is and will always be an advocate for the equality of women and highly respected, but I felt by her playing it ‘safe’ with the reoccurring thought of having to ‘prove’ that women could be ‘good citizens’ to gain equality – this in my opinion, was preventing the development of what women could really accomplish. Women are not to be tamed, we are far too passionate, and I think during the 1900’s the struggle of being understood by society for women must have been extremely difficult.

So what’s your opinion? Are you a Suffragist or a Suffragette? I would love to hear your opinion! Tweet me at @LabourFay

Fay Hough – Havering Co-ordinator & Youth Officer, Dagenham and Rainham CLP

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