In 1865, in Britain, John Stuart Mill had publicly voiced support for women’s suffrage. In 1866, when he got elected as Member of Parliament, a group of women approached him to see if they could enlist him in their cause. John agreed to present a petition for women’s suffrage to the House of Commons, but he had a condition.
John Stuart Mill’s Support
John Stuart Mill asked the women to secure at least 100 signatures in support of their cause. They succeeded in collecting 1,521 signatures; and Mill presented their petition on June 7, 1866.
In speaking to the petition’s merits, Mill asked whether there could be any “adequate justification for continuing to exclude an entire half of the community, not only from admission, but from the capability of being ever admitted within the pale of the constitution.” Echoing an argument heard also in the United States, Mill asked, “Do not women pay taxes?” Well, since they did, Mill said, the denial of their suffrage violated one of the “oldest of our constitutional maxims…that taxation and representation should be co-extensive.”
He then proposed that another piece of legislation under consideration be amended to replace the word man with person. This proposal went down in defeat by a vote of 196 to 73, but Mill nevertheless called his support of the women’s petition as “perhaps the only really important public service I performed in the capacity as a Member of Parliament”.
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In 1867, Parliament reduced the property qualifications for Britons to vote—roughly doubling the eligible electorate—but women remained excluded. Queen Victoria herself viewed as ‘mad, wicked folly’ the proposed widening of the vote to include women.
In 1884, further reforms extended the voting franchise to 40% of Britain’s male population of Britain, and again to not one female.
Some years later, in 1897, a new women’s rights organization—the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies—was formed out of 17 different groups, under the leadership of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a longtime proponent of the women’s vote.
The National Union became the most important suffragist organization in the country, counting more than 21,000 members by 1910. And although its leaders were women of privilege, the organization included working class females, as well. But the National Union failed to make much headway either.
Women’s Social and Political Union
Thus, in 1903, the widow and two daughters of the male suffragist Dr. Richard Pankhurst formed a militant new group, called the Women’s Social and Political Union (the WSPU for short). Led by the late lawyer’s widow, Emmeline Prankhurst, and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, its motto was: ‘Deeds, not words’.
At the time, British subjects could watch Parliament tend to their business. But even here, women were second-class citizens. A visitor’s gallery for women spectators was designed to prevent women from distracting the parliamentarians at work. It offered up a poor view and cramped, stuffy conditions. But this didn’t stop a group of women from filling the gallery one day in May 1905 for a debate on women’s enfranchisement.
The day’s debate ended without any consideration of the bill, however. And so a furious Emmeline Pankhurst walked out of the building in protest and she called for other female spectators to join her.
Outside, the police forcibly pushed the women away as one veteran suffrage activist began to speak. But they were allowed to gather near the gates to the royal church, Westminster Abbey, where they ‘made speeches, and adopted a resolution condemning’ Parliament’s inaction. In Mrs. Pankhurst’s mind, “this was the first militant act of the WSPU.”
Attempt at Political Outreach
Meanwhile, Britain’s Liberal Party seemed to be ascendant, and most expected that it would defeat the Conservative Party in upcoming elections. So, the WSPU resolved to recruit Liberal leaders in support of the women’s suffrage bill.
In one attempt at political outreach, the group sent Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney to a trade hall event in Manchester that the Liberal leader Sir Edward Grey was scheduled to address. The two women brought along a banner that could be unfurled at the appropriate time to convey their message, in the event that they were barred from speaking. It read, “Will you give votes for women?”
After several speeches, Annie Kenney rose and asked, “Will the Liberal Government give votes for women?” She was promptly ignored. So, Annie and Christabel climbed onto their chairs, and asked again, “Will you give votes for women?” Greeted with silence, the women unfurled the banner. Still, Edward Grey refused to dignify them with a response.
‘Prison, or Votes for Women’
Police ejected the pair. Yearning for more publicity, Christabel spat in the face of one of the officers. She was duly charged with assault. The court issued a fine. But the women refused to pay. And so, Christabel received a sentence of one week in prison. Annie Kenney got three days.
Their cause received newspaper coverage. And a new campaign—‘Prison, or Votes for Women’—was born. It inspired other women to become involved. The well-born socialist Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence said that it was this incident that prompted her to join the crusade.
Her enlistment proved to be a turning point. She gave the Women’s Social and Political Union a room in her apartment at the former Clement’s Inn, on what today is the campus of the London School of Economics and Political Science. She also took over as group treasurer and appealed for support from her circle of friends, including Keir Hardie, the Labour Party’s leader. The group now resolved to gain the attention of other members of Parliament.
Common Questions about the Rise of Suffrage Activists and Formation of Formal Organizations
In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed out of 17 different groups, under the leadership of Millicent Garrett Fawcett.
In 1903, Emmeline Prankhurst, the widow of the male suffragist Dr. Richard Pankhurst, and her two daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, formed the Women’s Social and Political Union.
After women suffragist Christabel Prankhurst was charged with assault, she received a sentence of one week in prison, and Annie Kenney got three days. Their cause received newspaper coverage, and a new campaign—‘Prison, or Votes for Women’—was born. It inspired other women to become involved.