Early suffragist campaigning
From the late 18th century, some people advocated rights for women as citizens equal to that of men. Women played a part alongside men in general agitation for political reform in the early 19th century.
Some working class men could vote
During the 19th century, the franchise was extended to include more men both in the Second Reform Act 1867 and the Third Reform Act 1884.
Approximately 58% of the adult male population was able to vote by 1900. This included some working class men. Many women who were denied the right to vote were in similar circumstances to these men, being rate-payers and subject to the same laws of the land.
There was a growing sense of injustice and from the mid-19th century onwards groups of women joined together to campaign for the vote. They were known as suffragists.
Suffragist groups existed all over the country and under many different names but their aim was the same: to achieve the right to vote for women through constitutional, peaceful means.
There were regional groups, especially in urban centres like Manchester, which held public meetings and petitioned at local level. At national level, key individuals included Millicent Fawcett and Lydia Becker.
Millicent Fawcett and the NUWSS
In 1897, regional societies with no political party allegiances established to lobby peacefully for the Parliamentary vote came together to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).
They were led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929). Garrett published widely on women's issues and was a frequent public speaker on women's rights. She was married to an MP, Henry Fawcett, and regularly sat in the Ladies' Gallery of the House of Commons to watch the debates. Her tactical and determined leadership of the NUWSS made it a substantial and influence force in the campaign for women's votes.
The suffragists believed in achieving change through parliamentary means and used lobbying techniques to persuade Members of Parliament sympathetic to their cause to raise the issue of women's suffrage in debate on the floor of the House.
Between 1870 and 1884 debates on women's suffrage took place almost every year in Parliament. This succeeded in keeping the issue in the public eye as Parliamentary proceedings were extensively covered in the national and regional press of the time.
There was some criticism that by concentrating so heavily on activities in Parliament, the movement sacrificed opportunities to mobilise mass support throughout the rest of the country.