From committing acts of civil disobedience to reforming children’s education, meet three of the UK’s most prominent figures in the women’s suffrage movement.  

There were many supporters of the women’s suffrage movement in the United Kingdom at the turn of the nineteenth century. Tireless campaigns for political and social reform were launched on issues such as women’s voting rights, working conditions, and birth control.

From acts of civil disobedience to free school meals, we outline the achievements of the UK’s three most prominent figures in women’s suffrage.

 

Emmeline Pankhurst: The Leader

Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline attended her first women’s suffrage meeting as a child alongside her mother. Between then and becoming the most famous suffragette she pursued a rigorous education at a Parisian finishing school.

Emmeline was appointed Poor Law Guardian in 1893. She became more committed to women’s suffrage after witnessing the devastating living conditions at Chorlton Poor House. That year she began to organise outdoor meetings her local park in Manchester, drawing crowds of as many as 50,000 to hear prominent speakers from socialist and labour movements.

 

Women’s Social and Political Union

Along with her three daughters—Christabel, Sylvia and Adela—Emmeline set up the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Promoting direct action, the WSPU sought to bring women’s suffrage into the public eye.

Later that year Christabel simultaneously increased party membership and sent shockwaves across the nation. While attending a speech by Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, Christabel and a fellow WSPU member shouted: "Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?". The pair refused to leave, resisted arrest, and assaulted a police officer.

 

Arson and hunger strikes

Emmeline Pankhurst arrested

From 1907 Emmeline and the WSPU became more militant. In 1908 Emmeline was arrested and imprisoned for six weeks after smashing the Prime Minister’s widows.

Later that year she and Christabel were arrested again, this time for publishing a pamphlet about the women’s suffrage movement. Appalled by the conditions in prison, Emmeline embarked on a hunger strike and was released from jail.

As a result of her prison activism—and of those who followed in her footsteps—the Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act was introduced in 1913, to safely process the release and recuperation of prisoners in poor health before they were ordered to complete their sentence.

Read more: Carey Mulligan talks sexism in the film industry and Suffragette

 

Emily Davidson: The Martyr

Emily Davidson

After the death of her father, Emily Davidson was forced to leave her Royal Holloway University education prematurely. Although she passed exams at Oxford University, women were not permitted to graduate.

Undeterred by institutional sexism, Emily worked as a governess and school teacher until she could afford to attend and graduate the University of London with a degree in English.

 

Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God

In 1906 Emily joined the WSPU, giving up her hard-won teaching career three years later to fully commit to activism.

During 1909 she was arrested numerous times. Once for attempting to hand a suffrage petition to the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Another time for throwing stones at the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The stones were wrapped in paper which read, 'Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God'.

Emily was sentenced to two month’s hard labour in Manchester’s notorious Strangeways prison. It was here she was subjected to forcible feeding after committing to a hunger strike, which she later described as a hideous torture.

 

Martyrdom

Convinced the women’s movement would not achieve its goals without a martyr, Emily made two unsuccessful attempts to take her own life at the prison.

The second attempt was a desperate effort to draw attention to the maltreatment of women in the prison system, in which Emily jumped from 40 feet down an iron staircase. Labour party leader James Keir Hardie appealed to parliament about her poor treatment and in 1910 Emily sued the prison doctors and was awarded compensation.

After she had made a fully recovery from her fall, Emily commenced with plans to bring media attention to the suffrage movement.

In 1913 she attended the Epsom Derby and slipped beneath the barrier, walking out onto the track and in front of the King’s Horse, Anmer. Emily Davidson sustained severe head injuries from the incident and died some days later.

Her funeral procession through London drew huge numbers and though her actions divided opinion at the time, history has remembered its martyr.

 

Annie Besant: The Voice

Annie Besant

In 1867 at the age of 20, Annie was married to Frank Besant, the soon-to-be vicar of Sibsey. Not long into their marriage Annie’s faith began to waiver.

After a number of arguments about Annie’s personal income (which she made as a writer), Annie refused to attend communion and was forced to leave her devoutly Christian husband, taking her daughter with her to London.

A year later Annie joined the National Secular Society and developed a close relationship with fellow member Charles Bradlaugh—editor of the radical newspaper the National Reformer. Annie and her daughter moved in with Charles and his three daughters. Together they wrote many articles on women’s suffrage, marriage and workers’ rights.

 

Birth control

In 1877 the pair were charged with obscene libel after they published a book advocating the practice of birth control. The ruling was later overturned in the appeals court.

Later Annie published her own book on the subject titled, The Laws of Population, in which she pushed for a national debate about childbirth, health care and poverty among the working classes. The book was held as lewd and obscene by the national press, and as a result of the media attention, her former husband filed for fully custody of their children.

 

Match girls’ strike

Match girls' strike 1888

Undeterred from the cause of women’s rights, Annie joined the Socialist Democratic Federation and quickly became friends with leading member George Bernard Shaw.

Annie increasingly became a leading voice on women’s working rights and was renowned as a great orator at debate. Between the years 1887 and 1888, Annie campaigned to improve the working conditions of women workers at Bryant & May match factory, who were prone to industrial injuries.

She helped workers organise the Match Girls Union and after three weeks of strikes, demonstrations and letters of support, the union succeed in obtaining reform—an event widely regarded as a landmark of British Socialism.