Women and the Vote
Emmeline Pankhurst's birth certificate shows she was actually born on 15 July 1858. However she always celebrated on 14 July, and in speeches she spoke of how she found it inspirational to be born on Bastille Day, 14 July.
From the middle of the 19th century many women campaigned peacefully to obtain the right to vote. They organised themselves into groups, held meetings, sent petitions to Parliament and tried to persuade MPs to change the law to enable them to vote. These non-militant women were known as 'suffragists'. In 1897 all these small groups came together to form one large group: The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Fawcett. However, the Government continued to ignore their plea or recognise the activities of the NUWSS.
Votes for Women! A Petition of the Mistresses of Dulwich High School - 3 November 1884.
The petitioners argue that two million of the least educated section of the Community (i.e. agricultural and other labourers) will be added to the electorate by the Bill and that it was therefore unjust to exclude from its provisions "educated and intelligent women who are head of households''. The male county householders successfully obtained the vote, but women had to wait another thirty four years for their enfranchisement.
By 1903, the campaign for the right of women to vote had taken an important new turn. That year Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and her three daughters started the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester with the motto 'Deeds not words'. They were referred to as the 'Suffragettes' for the first time in 1906, in an article in a British newspaper. The Pankhursts and their supporters were determined to win the right to vote by any means. They campaigned tirelessly and sometimes violently to achieve their aim which sometimes resulted in arrests, the shouting down of Ministers, protesting in Parliament and in the streets. Asquith, who was Prime Minister at the time, was strongly opposed to women obtaining the vote and did nothing to further their cause.
Suffragette Banner, October 1908 (HC/SA/SJ/3/1).
This banner, demanding the right to vote for women, was unfurled from the Ladies' Gallery in the chamber of the House of Commons by suffragettes during a protest on 28 October 1908.
The banners were an important feature in suffragette marches and helped to distinguish between the various groups.
Many banners were made of simple white cotton or calico, with lettering in black, but others were very colourful and woven from a variety of materials.
Police Report: Emily Davison found in ventilation shaft, 4th April 1910. (HC/SA/SJ/10/12/26)
Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913), was a militant member of the WSPU, which she joined in November 1906. She was arrested several times for various offences, such as window breaking. Whilst in prison she went on hunger strike for periods lasting a few days to several months. This document refers to an incident when she was arrested for hiding in a ventilation shaft in the House of Commons. When asked what she was doing there by the Policeman who discovered her, she replied 'I want to ask a question in the House of Commons'.
It was not the last time that Emily's name appeared in Police reports and other documents within this file refer to her: on the 19th April she is reported for having thrown a hammer through the division lobby window, a document of the 30th mentions the result of her trial, and on June 26th she is found on a staircase near the Reading Room of the Commons.
Emily Davison died on 8 June 1913, as the result of fatal injuries she had received 4 days earlier. She had rushed onto the race course at Epsom during the Derby and had attempted to hold the Bridle of the King's horse.
Letter from Emmeline Pankurst to Lloyd George, December 1916 (LG/F/94/1/27)
A Changing House: the Life Peerages Act 1958Part 2: The first women in Parliament 1919-1945Back to the Parliamentary Archives Home Page
By 1907 Emmeline Pankhurst had moved to London in order to further a national movement with paid organisers and enthusiastic volunteers. She had turned the WSPU into a political force which roused the country, much to the dismay of the Liberal Party. However, at the outbreak of the First World War, Pankhurst suspended the activities of the WSPU. She concentrated her efforts instead on support for the War and she helped the government to recruit women into war work, especially in munitions factories. That she was keen to be consulted on matters of government is clear from this letter to Lloyd George who had just become Prime Minister.