In 1928 the House of Lords gave its approval to an Equal Franchise Bill by which women were entitled to vote on the same terms as men. The bill was passed quietly, without speeches, almost in the manner of someone repairing an obvious oversight. Thus ended, without drama, a struggle which had lasted just over sixty years and which had been waged, at times, with relentless bitterness on both sides.
The struggle to obtain equal rights for women can be said to have begun in 1792 with the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft's book, Vindication of the Rights of Women; but as a political issue it can be conveniently dated from 1867 when the philosopher John Stuart Mill brought in a Women's Suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill. This amendment was rejected. During the next twenty years, agitation was kept up by the various branches of the National Society of Women's Suffrage which sprang up all over the country under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett, the wife of MP Henry Fawcett. These societies, though very active, were intent on achieving their ambition by constitutional means and enlisted the sympathy of several polotitians. Certain minor gains were made but the real goal - votes for women - was as far off as ever due to the fierce hostility of the men in power. The quiet reasonable approach of Millicent Fawcett's Suffragists appeared to have failed. Now a new tactic came into being, the confrontational methods of Emmeline Pankhurst's Suffragettes.
Emmeline Pankhurst had been connected with the Manchester Suffragist movement from 1889 and by 1901 she was a member of the committee. Impatient at the lack of progress, she decided that shock tactics might be more effective. In this way the Woman's Social and Political Union was formed and later became the Militant Suffrage Society. They were to begin with a small group, hardly bigger than the Pankhurst family. There was Emmeline Pankhurst with her three daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, a teacher called Theresa Billington; and about twenty other women. Soon there arrived to join them a valuable new recruit, a mill-girl called Annie Kenney, whose courage and tenacity would greatly enhance the public awareness of the group. The W.S.P.U began operations in Manchester and right from the start they meant business. They denied themselves all luxuries so that the money could go to the cause. They submitted themselves to a strict discipline and worked ceaselessly to put their viewpoint to the public. Then in 1905, at a meeting of the Liberal Party, there came the incident that put the Suffragettes on the offensive. Annie Kenney, waving a small white banner emblazoned with the slogan 'Votes for Women' asked the speaker, Sir Edward Grey, if the Liberal Party would give women the vote. The question was ignored and she shouted it again. She was joined by Christabel Pankhurst and a riot ensued, ending when the two women were summarily ejected from the hall by the stewards and the police. The following morning the two women were brought up for trial for assaulting the police. Fines were imposed with the option of going to prison for seven days. They both chose prison. A packed meeting welcomed them when they were released. Annie Kenney was dismissed from her job at the mill and became practically a member of the Pankhurst family. From now on, she was a full time worker for the cause. The attacking phase had begun.
During the General Election of 1906, the Manchester Suffragettes were perpetually in action and grew steadily in numbers. Yet their leaders were not satisfied with the results. They decided to switch the scene of operations to the city of London. It was not long before the Suffragette Movement had developed into a tremendous force. It's membership included men and women from all sections of society, while its increase in numbers made it no longer possible for the government to dismiss it as an eccentric notion of a few women. Sympathy was gained by the brutal treatment they received whilst they were imprisoned. Forced feeding, solitary confinement and general mistreatment caused many people, who previously had not cared one way or the other about votes for women, to change their minds when they learned of such indignities. Meanwhile the struggle increased in ferocity. The Suffragettes invaded the House of Commons and were thrown out. They travelled all over the country, whenever there was a by-election, and made life misreable for any candidate who did not support their cause. On 21st June, 1908, the largest gathering ever witnessed in Hyde Park was organised by the Suffragettes. They were supervised by a total of no less than six hundred policemen. The government, however, took no notice and refused to meet a delegation from the various organisations that had assembled. This merely had the effect of making the women more determined than ever.
At last it looked as though the government was about to yield. In 1909 the new Parliament formed a committee for for Woman's Suffrage which came to be known as the Concilliation Committee. The Concilliation Bill was drawn up with the object of granting the vote to about a million women house holders. The Suffragettes called a truce during which they only indulged in propaganda. Between July and September, no less than four thousand meetings took place. By November it became obvious that the Bill was being quietly sidetracked. A deputation of the W.S.P.U. went to the House's of Parliament and there was a violent scene in which the Prime Minister was showered with glass and one of his colleagues was attacked by the infuriated women. The truce was ended on that day which came to be known as Black Friday and which ended with the arrest of over a hundred women. From then on the Suffragettes abandoned any attempt at moderation. In 1913 the cause acquired its first martyr in the person of Emily Davison. Miss Davison had just been released after serving a six month sentence for arson. She went straight from prison to the Derby and stationed herself at Tattenham Corner with a Suffragette petition in her hand. As the King's horse came galloping up she threw herself in front of it. She died four days later from the injuries she received.
Throughout the year 1914 the Suffragettes kept up the pressure and in May of that year, they attempted to reach Buckingham Palace where they hoped to present a petition to the King. The attempt failed and in a way it was the climax of the Suffragette Movement. The storm clouds were gathering all over Europe and very soon the Question of Votes for Women was swallowed up in the greater question of the deadly battle with Germany. The women who had chained themselves to railings now drove ambulances, made munitions, worked on farms and took the places everywhere of men who were fighting at the front. In the war their contribution was recognised by a patriarchal society and the labour of women became negotiable on the open market. When the war ended there was no longer any hostility to their demands; and the granting of their rights was merely a matter of time. In 1928 the Suffragettes achieved their aims, Votes for Women was no longer an issue, it now became a reality.