The suffragist movement could be seen as the first progress towards equal rights between women and men. Historically dating from the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th, a group of women decided to fight for suffrage and have a voice and opinion in politics. It was a nuanced fight between the suffragists and external political groups.
The idea of providing women the same rights as men seemed, to many, to be a nearly shameful proposition. Especially as history had given each person a specific place defined by sex and gender. Moreover, women were portrayed as incapable of making an ‘adequate’ decision when voting, simply because they were women.
The possibility of parliamentary elections enabled conversation around distinct problems that affect women; for example, the patriarchal law gave men right over any aspect of their family and took all rights from women. The law had changed previously in an attempt to give women and men equal power and responsibility for their children following a divorce. This change came as a result of the progress of the feminist-suffragist struggle.
Female Suffragist Movement: Progress Amplifying the Struggle
Taking a step forward meant taking two back. Historically, women were considered hysterical, irritating, crazy, and disagreeable when they stood up for something that wasn’t right; when they decried violence or the failings of the State; when they justified and argued against established structures from the concepts of the Catholic Church or distinct religions, medical science, psychoanalysis or the Patriarchy. This is to say the process of a struggle to obtain basic rights can take years.
Moreover, in an amplified understanding of the struggle, there are also divisions in the feminist groups about how to bring an end to their issues. The division was resolved when an internal election was performed. Between the groups known as suffragists and suffragettes, the only difference was the method of lobbying the State. The suffragists focused on the struggle through legal means; conferences and talks, whilst the suffragettes proceeded to perform public denouncements, protests, work strikes, and hunger strikes.
Ainhoa Campos Posada provides further background in an article for National Geographic. In 1848, the Seneca Falls Manifest (the first convention for women’s rights that was organised in the United States) saw the first request for female suffrage.
It would be in 1869 when the United States opened a path toward women’s rights by approving the female vote in the county of Wyoming, but black women were still not allowed to vote. Nevertheless, this amplified the possibility of female suffrage in Great Britain and the rest of Europe.
It was in 1897 when different organisations of suffragists, together with Millicent Fawcett, created the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). This group charged itself with gaining ground in the political landscape with distinct politics involving public conferences and protests in front of Parliament. Four years earlier, in 1893, New Zealand approved female suffrage without restrictions, becoming the first country that allowed the right to vote for women, universally.
The British Suffragists
This is how the struggle grew: distinct groups with the same goal appeared. Ainhoa Campos Posada describes various cases like that of Margaret Nevinson, a feminist who grew up with the tradition of domestic femininity, who considered the public presence and public discourse of women to be somewhat shameful and violent and still found herself in favour of female suffrage. Posada also presents the case of Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) who believed that the movement should work as an army. Her militancy was based on justified violence.
The WSPU was losing members over the years, as women were reflecting that violence exercised against members of Parliament and against institutions was not providing fruitful progress in regards to the right to suffrage, but was rather distancing them from their goal. Fawcett’s NUWSS was gaining more members, although the women of WSPU were considered heroines because they served time in prison as a result of their protest. This didn’t mean that the actions of the WSPU were not without credit, but they were losing ground.
When Personal Interest is Placed Above Society’s Needs
The arrival of liberalism and the construction of an industrial society allowed women to become part of the workforce and make an income. However, these conditions were precarious compared to an improvement in the status of men.
The suffragist movement’s struggle also encompassed work, political and social grievances. They consolidated their strength in the middle class but didn’t create a gigantic group of women, which was due to working women and, above all countrywomen, prioritising their work-life and class divide over gender equality.
This implies that the decisions owing to the great social and economic gap between social classes were being questioned, at a time when this same social gap saw the need for traditional gender and sex roles to remain. The struggles between the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th Century were acclaimed because inserting oneself into the suffragist movement would entail problems with one’s employer, with the law; causing discredit in the workplace and of gender, among other things.
This does not delegitimise the feminist groups that combined the struggle for gender equality with class struggle. It simply shows the nuances of the struggle that existed and still exist to this day.
The personal interests of the political activists seemed to supersede the needs of society. For example, in 1912, the British Parliament refused to discuss female suffrage because various liberal government officials believed that the women who they’d be giving the vote to, would vote for the Conservative Party under the idea of equal rights. This is to say they didn’t see the suffragists as in line with their principles, but rather far from them. Facing this negativity, Pankhurst retaliated by: breaking glass in Parliament and causing massive damage to property, by using incendiaries and bombs.
The Body as a Necessary Part of the Struggle
The explosion of the First World War interrupted debates, protests, and the focus on suffragists and petitions to gain equal rights. Nevertheless, Fawcett’s NUWSS continued to fight despite patriotic and warmongering movements. Parliament and society were convinced to approve the law of female suffrage following the need for women to replace men in certain social spaces. The term, ‘replace’ was understood as implying ‘they have the same drive and intellectual ability as men’, participation in the workforce that acted almost like a biological, anthropological, and historic discovery.
In February 1918 female suffrage was approved for women over the age of 30 in England. The struggle continued for a further ten years against inequality in institutional rights, before, in 1928 the law provided universal suffrage for men and women.
In this way, women’s bodies have been one of the necessary categories in the progress of women’s struggle. The bodies of British suffragists weren’t only relevant during wartime but also through the reappropriation of places that prohibited the entrance of a female body and in terms of martyrs. The latter is seen in the case of Emily W Davison and the horse race of 1913, who threw herself in front of a carriage as a statement for female suffrage, was trampled by a horse, died days later and her face appeared on the cover of the Daily Mirror.
Before her death, Davison had been arrested nine times and it is assumed that she was force-fed during her time in prison some forty times. Another historic case is that of the French Olympe de Gouges, who in the ‘Declaration of the rights of women and citizens’ of 1791 asserted the need for equality between women and men. The result of her action was to become known during the French Revolution, go to trial without a lawyer to defend her, and then be sentenced to death.