The Tenacious Suffragettes


Reading Time: 5 minutes

by Joni

If the tenacious suffragettes had not been just that, tenacious, where would women be today? Like my terrier who won’t let go of a sock, they held on and on. For decades, they fought the supreme battle for women’s rights, especially the right to vote.

Their battle was prolonged and full of suffering. Some died for the cause, most spent long weeks in prison in dreadful conditions. They endured force feeding, beatings and solitary confinement, but they succeeded. Here is their story.

History Of The Tenacious Suffragettes

Suffrage (the right to vote) was not granted to all women in a country at the same time. It mattered whether you were single, widowed or married and if you were over a certain age. 21 or 30-years being the usual cutoff age. Race also determined your eligibility. In the usual fickle nature of politics, governments changed and revoked the rights to vote. Promises were often broken.

Interestingly, the countries first granting suffragettes and women’s rights are not those you would expect. The history of the process is very interesting and surprising.

First Women To Vote

New Zealand in the South Pacific was the first self-governing country in the world where all women gained the right to vote in 1893. However, South Australia trumps this because women gained both the right to vote and stand for election in parliament in 1894. Elsewhere in other Australian states, women could not vote, as Australia did not federate and become one nation until 1900.

The timeline of the granting of women’s rights to vote extends over a century as country after country conceded the equality of men and women. Some still have not granted women this right or have revoked the right. Saudi women only gained the right in 2015.

A Woman’s Battle

Yet, in Mother England, women had to wage a militant campaign before they were granted the same right. In 1999, Time named Emmeline Pankhurst as one of the most important women of the Twentieth Century for her political activism, that resulted in the granting of Women’s Right to vote.

Pankhurst followed Mary Wollstonecraft, the First Feminist, as an activist for women’s equality. She ranks as a pioneer along with American suffragette, Susan B. Anthony.

Emmeline Pankhurst, A Tenacious Suffragette

Emmeline’s parents were politically active. The French Revolution, with its combative mode of action, inspired her to become a militant. Born as Emmeline Goulden, on the Isle Of Man in 1858, she was one of five daughters. Is it a coincidence that the Isle of Man was the first UK territory  to grant women’s vote in elections? They must breed women tough there. The battle by suffragettes and women’s rights raged.

Emmeline’s early reading matter included Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Pilgrim’s Progress. These quasi-political stories surely influenced a young girl’s thoughts. Her mother subscribed to The Women’s Suffrage Journal and at 14, Emmeline accompanied her mother to a meeting. At 20 she met 44-year-old barrister, Richard Pankhurst who advocated women’s rights.

They married a year later, in 1879. Though married, Emmeline, with Richard’s blessing, refused to become a household domestic machine. Society’s limitations were not for her.

Instead, a butler helped run the house as five children arrived in the next ten years. She had three daughters and a son. Tragedy struck the family when their son died in infancy. Later, she had another son and gave him the same name.

The Tenacious Suffragettes Get Active

Their Russell Square home became a meeting place for political intellectuals and activists. Initially, the activism was peaceful and focused on votes for single and widowed women, as it considered married women could use their husband’s voice as a substitute for their own. Besides, woman had to echo her husband’s voice and beliefs. She was not even permitted a passport in her own name. So why would she need her own voice? Such were the attitudes and values of the 19th century.

Pankhurst and her husband formed a new group called Women’s Franchise League dedicated to voting for all women. In addition, the League supported equal rights in divorce and inheritance and as such these ideas were extremely radical for the time.

The Pankhursts moved to Manchester for business reasons. It was here that Emmeline emerged from her husband’s shadow. She joined the Independent Labour Party, though they first rejected her due to her gender. In a different time, Ruth Ginsburg, an American Supreme Justice, would say, “The gender line helps to keep women not on a pedestal, but in a cage.”

One of her first actions, once elected, was to help the poor, especially children living in the workhouses. Sights there of children and very pregnant women forced into servitude, motivated Emmeline’s militancy and push for reform.

Her life entered a new stage when Richard died, and she was left in debt. She had to work and found a position at the Registrar of Births and Deaths. With access to real data, Emmeline became more convinced that women needed the vote, otherwise their lot in life could never improve. Before long, her daughter, Christabel, joined the fight.

Militant Suffragettes

Though there was progress towards equal rights, it was very slow. Impatient, Emmeline become a militant and forced the issue into the public arena. Speeches did not achieve action fast enough.

In early Victorian Britain, as in many countries, it was controversial to suggest that women should be able to voice an opinion, especially a political one. Women’s place was in the home, breeding and rearing children and servicing their menfolk. Such society is patriarchal and many still exist to this day. Susan B Anthony was another American social reformer and a women’s rights activist, who was a public orator.

In fact many women argue all societies are still patriarchal. But modern women often do not know the struggle that just a few of their sisters endured to secure the privileges women have today. Womanomics was a foreign concept and, in most places, still is.

Prison For The Tenacious Suffragettes

Between 1905 and 1918, when the British parliament granted partial suffrage, Emmeline endured seven stints in prison. By then her other daughters, Sylvia and Adela were also in the fight along with sister Christabel. All Pankhurst women spent time in prison for their activism.

Prison was not a pleasant place to be for the tenacious suffragettes. There were no comforts, just rats, fleas, cockroaches, meagre food and little sanitation. In addition, the courts imposed solitary confinement and enforced silence to make the six-week stints torturous. When the women prisoners went on hunger strikes in protest, warders  tied them to a chair and force-fed them, using tubing.

The imprisonment, however, just made the women more determined and more militant. They attacked police and placed bombs in public places, smashed windows and destroyed property. Their actions led to the formation of a younger group of female hot heads. Led by Adela Pankhurst, they became even more violent from 1907 to 1913.

War Leads to Women’s Rights

The outbreak of World War One put a temporary halt to militant suffrage activities, as the women rallied around to support the war effort along with all women. With the marvellous input of female labour during the war, it was hard for men to argue that women could not contribute to society.

Women toiled on farms, worked in munition factories, and proved their usefulness and bravery was as great. Some argued it was greater than men. They truly kept the home fires burning while men were fighting at the Western Front.

The British parliament granted the vote to women over 30 in 1918, at the end of the war. All around the world, women had to fight a similar battle to earn the right to vote and participate in politics.

Women have a unique voice that reaches far beyond their immediate sphere of influence. Many women pioneers changed the world.

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Joni Scott is an Australian author with two published novels: Whispers through Time and The last Hotel. She co-hosts a women’s blog; and has her own website;

Check out more posts at Whispering Encouragement

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    Joni Scott writes from personal experience of her roller coaster ride through life. Joni co-hosts a women’s blog. Joni also writes short stories and has three published novels. Visit Joni on her website.
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