Beginning in 1912, members of the Women’s Social and Political Union attacked property more indiscriminately than they had in the past. They broke windows, lit mailboxes ablaze, and cut telephone and telegraph lines. They vandalized art galleries, threw bottles at automobiles carrying politicians, and set empty buildings on fire. One demonstrator said, “This is a holy war…for women’s and men’s rights.”
The suffragists attacked property rather than seeking to harm people or risk human life. But newspapers reported numerous injuries as a result of their efforts, and some in the press characterized this aggressive new stage of attacks as ‘suffragette outrages’. The use of the word outrage is significant because bombing campaigns undertaken by Irish revolutionaries known as Fenians and anarchists were also called ‘outrages’.
Christabel Pankhurst, daughter of the male suffragist Dr. Richard Pankhurst and founding member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, welcomed this implication. She argued, “Why should a woman not make use of the same weapons as men? It is not only war we have declared. We are fighting for a revolution!”
In March 1913, Parliament passed legislation to deal with the negative publicity. The Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act—better known as the Cat and Mouse Act—allowed authorities to temporarily release suffragettes on hunger strike, and re-arrest them after they’d regained their health.
Influence of British Suffragists
The means to which the suffragists were willing go became apparent on June 4, 1913, at the Epson Downs racetrack. As the horses galloped around the final turn in one race, a young woman named Emily Wilding Davison climbed under the fence and stepped onto the track. She stood directly in the path of Anmer, King George V’s horse. She was trampled and died four days later. Her funeral attracted thousands and turned into a massive demonstration for women’s suffrage.
The influence of British suffragists did not stop at the nation’s shores. While studying in England, American activists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns also became involved in the Women’s Social and Political Union. They returned to the United States in 1910 and 1912, respectively, and, the next year, founded the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, later known as the National Women’s Party. It adopted the radical strategies of Britain’s Women’s Social and Political Union and promoted a federal amendment for women’s suffrage.
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Women Suffragists during First World War
When the First World War erupted in July of 1914, Emmeline Pankhurst showed that she was a patriot as well as a revolutionary. The Women’s Social and Political Union suspended its activities and focused on recruiting British women into the war effort on the home-front. Almost all other women’s suffrage organizations followed suit. Some two million British women entered the work force during the war.
American suffragists chose a different path. Through frigid temperatures, snow, and rain, some of them stood outside the gates of Woodrow Wilson’s White House with signs that read, “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” and “How long must women wait for liberty?”
After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party aroused the ire of some, who deemed their protests unpatriotic. But the picketers remained. And when they were arrested for obstructing traffic, the women protested their sentences by adopting the weapon of hunger strikes. The news of prison officials force-feeding the incarcerated women hit the newspapers and public sympathy shifted to the women’s cause.
Extension of the Voting Franchise to Women in 1918
Meanwhile, British parliamentarians in the House of Commons were reconsidering the cause of women’s enfranchisement. Former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith confessed that he had changed his views. He said, “How could we have carried on the war without them? Short of actually bearing arms in the field, there is hardly a service which has contributed… to the maintenance of our cause in which women have not been at least as active and as efficient as men.” With so many British soldiers lost on the battlefield, women were also needed all the more as the country tried to recover after the war.
And so Britain’s parliamentary Representation of the People Act extended the voting franchise to women in 1918. It was a significant victory but not a complete one for another decade. Only women 30 or older who met certain property qualifications gained suffrage. This amounted to some 8.5 million women. Meanwhile, the act gave all men 21 and over the right to vote.
The 19th Amendment to the US Constitution
That same year, Jeannette Rankin of Montana—the first woman elected to the US Congress—introduced a bill to give American women the right to vote. The legislation passed the House and failed in the Senate.
President Wilson, the object of so many protests by women’s suffragists, at last overcame his reluctance. Facing political headwinds of his own at the conclusion of the war, Wilson endorsed women’s suffrage, and the Senate passed a reintroduced measure in 1919. That legislation was circulated among the states as the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. It was ratified, and became law, in August 1920.
Common Questions about the Victory of the Women’s Suffrage Movement
The Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act—better known as the Cat and Mouse Act—allowed authorities to temporarily release suffragettes on hunger strike, and re-arrest them after they’d regained their health.
Britain’s parliamentary Representation of the People Act extended the voting franchise to women in 1918. However, only women 30 or older who met certain property qualifications gained suffrage. Meanwhile, the act gave all men 21 and over the right to vote.
In 1918, Jeannette Rankin of Montana— the first woman elected to the US Congress—introduced a bill to give American women the right to vote. The legislation passed the House but failed in the Senate. President Wilson endorsed women’s suffrage, and the Senate passed a reintroduced measure in 1919. That legislation was circulated among the states as the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. It was ratified, and became law, in August 1920.