A* Essay on Votes for women

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In 1649 a group of women petitioned Parliament for an equal share in 'the freedoms of
the state'. Parliament's reply was that they were represented in political affairs by their
husbands and that the women should 'go home and meddle with your housewifery. It is
fitter for you to be washing your dishes.' The petitioners may have been ahead of their
time, but 250 years later many men, and some women, too, still agreed with that
response. Women (over the age of 30) finally won the vote in 1918, the culmination of
some 50 years of concerted campaigning by women's suffrage groups. The year 2009
marks the centenary of the first suffragette hunger strikes and historians continue to
argue whether it was the militant suffragettes, the suffragists or the First World War that
was most responsible for gaining women the vote.
Nineteenthcentury progress
The women's suffrage movement in Britain began in earnest in the 1860s. By the time
the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded by the Pankhursts in
1903, the educational, legal and political position of women had improved dramatically
without the need for militancy. Girls received compulsory, free elementary education and
a privileged minority could even go to university. Women could sue for divorce and keep
control of their own wealth when married. Women could become Poor Law Guardians
and they could vote for and stand as candidates for district, parish and church councils.
In 1897, the newly formed National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS)
gathered 250,000 signatures for a petition to support a women's suffrage bill, which
passed its second reading in the House of Commons. This evidence of remarkable
progress suggests that sooner or later, with continued campaigning, women would be
granted the vote in general elections.

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The WSPU and early militancy
However, for one group of suffrage supporters, the WSPU, reform was happening too
slowly. Militancy was their answer and this initially involved heckling ministers and
campaigning at byelections. By 1906, they had acquired the name 'suffragettes' from a
critical Daily Mail article. In that same year, Millicent Fawcett, leader of the NUWSS,
even argued that the WSPU 'have done more during the last twelve months ... than we
have been able to accomplish in the same number of years'.…read more

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Parliamentary reaction
It was this final phase of militancy that can really be said to have hindered women's
suffrage, especially in Parliament. Despite widespread support for women's suffrage in
the Liberal Party, the Liberals could not be seen to give in to political violence, because
they were dealing with industrial unrest and a volatile situation in Ireland at the same
time.…read more

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NUWSS influence
The failure of the Conciliation Bills was partly caused by Liberals fearing that a new
female electorate would vote disproportionately for the Conservative Party. Similarly,
the Conservatives feared that a wider suffrage bill that included more men would benefit
the Liberals. As a result of what the NUWSS saw as the betrayal of government
promises, the union agreed to a pact with the Labour Party in 1912 and set up the
Election Fighting Fund.…read more

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Within a week of the declaration of war on Germany the government had agreed to
release the remaining suffragette prisoners in return for the WSPU suspending political
activity and helping the war effort. Both the NUWSS and the WSPU divided on whether
to support the war, but Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and other suffragettes
certainly played a significant part in the recruitment drive.…read more


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