Campaigning for women’s rights

5.4 Campaigning for the suffrage

Suffragette campaigning in the early 20th century

George Eastman House Collection

As we have now established, a number of inter-related factors were instrumental in enabling women to become more assertive in the public sphere. A combination of opportunities such as the right of some women to vote in local elections, to vote on School Boards and be elected as Poor Law Guardians together with widening educational provision served to demonstrate that women could undertake responsibilities beyond that of the home environment. Public perceptions of women were gradually changing; in the eyes of the law women were entitled to a greater degree of autonomy as individuals as well as protection from abusive home circumstances. But there remained a major discrepancy in terms of civil rights between men and women. Whereas the former could choose political representatives, women were still deemed unsuitable to exercise the vote. How did women redress this particular grievance?

Revisit the timeline studied earlier in order to ascertain when the various suffrage organisations were founded. Two main bodies would dominate the campaign for the vote between 1900 and 1918: the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). In terms of aims, both sought equal and thus limited suffrage with men, but their methods of protest soon diverged, from an initial concentration on mass meetings, demonstrations and petitions to, in the case of the WSPU, more violent tactics – criminal damage to shops and public buildings, arson attacks, and the controversial decision, once imprisoned, to go on hunger strike. The image therefore of the suffragettes was subjected to much public scrutiny, and many were often the target of blunt, unsympathetic portrayals in the press.

Group activity: Analysing visual sources

The suffrage campaigners were a tempting subject for cartoonists seeking to ridicule women who seemed so willing to display what anti-suffragists regarded as unfeminine characteristics. Similarly the suffragists (NUWSS) and suffragettes (WSPU) resorted to evocative visual comments about the arbitrary manner in which government and the authorities were suppressing their rights to protest, thus denying them their entitlement to the vote. Both sides appealed to emotions, both sought to gain converts to their view, with the women in particular casting themselves as victims of an intolerant male-dominated society. For historians, cartoons and posters, as just one genre of visual evidence, can be very useful but we need to ask the right questions of the cartoons in order to appreciate both their strengths and weaknesses as historical sources.

Your ability to evaluate primary sources depends on your understanding of the context in which they were produced. The story of the suffrage movement is very detailed but try and obtain a sense of how the movement developed by reading: 1) this account of the NUWSS on the Spartacus Educational website and 2) the WSPU on the same website. Pay particular attention to how the two organisations gradually adopted different campaign tactics.

  1. The anti-suffrage view.

    Have a look at the cartoons on the History of Feminism site and the site. Think about the kind of questions that should be asked of any visual source: What can we learn about what the illustrator is thinking? What does the source actually reveal? What are the motives of the illustrator? What message does s/he intend to convey? How can we support that conclusion? Is there other supporting evidence? How useful is the source to the historian?

    Select two of the cartoons and write down the answers to the questions.

  2. The suffragettes promoted their views through what were often very graphic posters, sometimes showing images of women being force-fed. Do an internet search for ‘suffragette posters’ in order to view some examples of these posters. (Here are some examples of suffragette posters found via a Google search.) Select two examples of a suffragette poster and ask of those sources the same questions as the ones set above. Note down your answers.

  3. Finally, go to the Women’s rights forum and with your fellow students discuss these questions with reference to both the anti- and pro-suffrage sources:

    • In what respects are these visual sources of value to historians?
    • What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of these sources?
    • What further evidence, if any, would be useful to us in assessing these sources?