Votes for Women

Votes for Women British Depth Study

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Women's Rights in the 1890s

Women's rights were not equal but were improving.

  • 1857 Matrimonial Clauses Act - gave women the right to get a divorce through court if she could prove the husband guilty of cruelty, adultery or desertion.
  • 1870 Married Women's Property Act - gave women the right to keep their earnings when they got married (before given to the husband). In 1882 this was extended to property.
  • 1882 Married Women's (Maintenance in Case of Desertion) Act made men have to pay maintenance if they deserted the wife.
  • 1882 Guardianship of Children Act allowed women to be children's legal guardian if the husband died or left. They were also responsible for the children's property.
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Professions open to Women

  • Working-class women often worked e.g. in the textile industry. There was often poor pay and conditions.
  • However more jobs were becoming available due to new technology e.g. typists, telephone switchboards.
  • Middle-class women did not often work as opportunities for higher education were limited.
  • Queen's College London opened to train women as teachers in 1848.
  • Florence Nightingale opened training schools for nurses and established this as a respectable job.
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Arguments against Women's Suffrage

  • Idea of separate spheres - the public sphere was for men, women should just look after the home.
  • Too emotional to make a rational decision.
  • Don't fight in wars for the country - shouldn't get a say in whether we go to war.
  • Giving respectable women the vote will make them want to develop their careers and neglect their role as homemakers.
  • Rich women would only have the vote and vote Conservative. As there was a Liberal government, they were not keen to let this happen.
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Arguments for Women's Suffrage

  • Women's rights were improving and the vote would be a natural step forward.
  • Women had the vote in other countries such as New Zealand, so why not here?
  • Women could vote in local elections, proving that they coulf understand politics.
  • Women have different skills and expertise to men, so they could help decide about laws to do with domestic life.
  • Parliament's decisions affect women too so they should have a say.  
  • Women were doing jobs such as teaching and nursing that were previously considered men's jobs, giving them a more public role.
  • Respectable middle class women could not vote while uneducated, illiterate men could.
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The Suffragists

  • The NUWSS (National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies).
  • Leaders: Lydia Becker & Millicent Fawcett
  • Aimed to get the vote using peaceful methods and also improve women's lives in other ways. 
  • Men and women from all classes were members.
  • Main tactics posters, leaflets, meetings, petitions and rallies.
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The Suffragettes

  • The WSPU (Women's Social and Political Union).
  • Leaders: Christabel, Sylvia and Emmeline Pankhurst.
  • Aimed to give women's suffrage their undivided attention.
  • Only middle-class women were members.
  • Favoured violent tactics. Massive window smashing campaign. Often abused policemen and politicians. Chained to railings.
  • The police treated protesters harshly. There were many reports of abuse and sexual harrassment.
  • Suffragettes in prison began hunger strikes in 1909. The government's first response was force-feeding.
  • When this had no effect they introduced the so-called "Cat and Mouse Act" in 1913. They stopped force-feeding prisoners and released them when they became ill, only to rearrest them when they regained their strength.
  • Emily Davison became a martyr for the cause when she ran out under the King's horse and was killed at the Derby.
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Did the Suffragettes Help or Hinder the Campaign?


  • Gained so much publicity that the idea didn't seem so absurd.
  • Destroyed the theory that women didn't want the vote.


  • Turned moderate MPs against the idea.
  • Could be seen to be intimidating / blackmailing - gave the government an excuse not to give in and lost support they could have got from the justice of the case.
  • Supported the view that women are emotional / hysterical.
  • Only got the vote after they had stopped campaigning.
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Women at War

  • When war broke out in 1914, the Suffragettes stopped all campaigning for the vote and changed their name to the Women's Party, working closely with the government to get more men to enlist.
  • They thought that the government should introduce military conscription and gave out white feathers to those who hadn't enlisted as a symbol of cowardice.
  • However, Sylvia Pankhurst was a pacifist and set up her own organisation which concentrated on criticising the war.
  • The Suffragists disagreed with conscription but helped the war effort by setting up training schools for the new jobs that women had to do. 
  • Women over 30 finally got the vote in 1918 after the war, when they had proved that they can do the same jobs as men and kept the country running.
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