The Suffragette Movement – A divided cause?
by Gwyn Wallis
From a young age, I have always been drawn to the Victorians, with memories of being taken to museums by my parents being entrenched in my mind. This fascination was cemented after taking Pete Yeandle’s module ‘Victorian Values Reconsidered’, which I found truly thought provoking. Given that women’s rights issues have remained front and centre of political discourse since the nineteenth century, I decided to focus on the Suffragette movement for my dissertation. I was intrigued by the similarities between responses to their protests to some of the backwards reactions we are seeing today. As I am writing this piece, articles are being published comparing suffragette militancy to the actions of Extinction Rebellion, bringing a contemporary element to my completed project.
Alternative histories of significant female protests, including women’s suffrage, campaigning should not be ignored. Protests for women’s rights are likely to continually occur, especially as we see a continued dominance of male politicians and global leaders. Past protests are a crucial part of our history so it no surprise they continue to be deeply and rigorously researched. It was in this context that the idea for my dissertation developed: I wanted to research distinctions in women’s suffrage campaigns in their own chronological context, but also to apply this learning to thinking about current debates about rights-based protesting.
My dissertation aimed to explore the relationships between violent and non-violent suffragette groups, questioning the extent to which the movement was openly divided and exploring the view that, although tactics of different women activists may have varied, they shared similar overall objectives. For instance, it is possible to identify clear and irreconcilable divisions between female suffrage campaigners in the relation to the use of violent tactics – violence, here, is defined to include violence against property as well as violence against self through such campaign methods as hunger strikes and risk of physical harm. The concept of militancy was particularly significant in my research, as the term is being used more regularly in media reporting of environmental protests of today. Studies of suffragette militancy overwhelmingly focus on the distinctions between violent characteristics of some women activists compared to those who deployed constitutional methods, mainly considering the positives and negatives of militancy as an overall strategy. My research was focused on two main questions – about what united and what divided the varying groups of women that constituted the suffrage movement.
Women’s activist groups included the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the non-violent, militant Women’s Freedom League (WFL) and the non-militant, constitutional National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). To gauge the objectives of the various women’s campaign groups, and to explore themes of consensus versus divergence of objective, my research studied each of these groups in turn. The idea behind the project was really to consider each group’s discourse through a close reading of each group’s own publications. These included bespoke newspapers, pamphlets, and other campaign literature. This enabled access to women’s voices from the period. This approach also allowed me to consider if, and how, the language of suffrage campaigning changed over time. Exploring the narratives of each of these three groups and examining how the national press responded to the different groups, provided substantial evidence that distinctions with the suffrage movement were not only known to the women activists but also to the general public. For instance, while some women favoured implementing increasingly ‘militant’ tactics, not all women agreed with the protests, which means historians need to recognise the diversity within the movement. It can’t be assumed that suffrage was a fully united cause. The extent to which these divisions hindered the realisation of the objectives of the women’s suffrage movement is therefore a topic for further exploration.
Completing my dissertation in my final year of my studies was the most rewarding and gratifying piece of work in my university experience. I am extremely proud of the work I produced with the help of my advisors, especially since my research might help others to think differently about the topic.
I completed my bachelor’s degree in History in July 2022, which included an Industrial Placement year. The wide range of modules allowed me to push my boundaries and explore research I had not considered before. I was also fortunate enough to take a trip to Berlin in my first year, which was one of my highlights. After thoroughly enjoying my Loughborough University experience, I decided to continue my studies at Loughborough and I am now completing a MA in International Security, allowing me to bring my knowledge and analytical skills from undergraduate level into a fast-changing environment of the security sector.
Some recommended readings
- Adams, Jad. Women and The Vote: A World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
- Bearman, C. J. “An Examination of Suffragette Violence.” The English Historical Review 120, no. 486 (April 2005): 365- 397.
- Green, Barbara. “The Feel of the Feminist Network: Votes for Women after the Suffragette Women.” A Cultural Review 27, no. 4 (2016): 359- 377.
- Harrison, Brian. “The Act of Militancy: Violence and the Suffragettes, 1904-1914”, in Peaceable Kingdom: Stability and Change in Modern Britain edited by Brian Harrison, 24-81. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1982.
- Kingsley Kent, Susan. Sex & Suffrage in Britain 1860-1914. London: Routledge. 1990.
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