by Roger Childs

Where was this? How about that cradle of civilisation, the United Kingdom?  Here in New Zealand we celebrated 125 years of women’s suffrage last year and, as we often trumpet, we were the first nation to do so, even though a few American states beat us to the ballot.

Over here the process of women gaining the suffrage was peaceful, mainly based around letter writing, petitions, speeches and marches. Also the coming to power in 1891 of a Liberal government which proceeded to institute a wide range of social, economic and political reforms, was a critical factor. Even though Premier Seddon was against women getting the vote, the law was passed in 1893.

British women would wait another 25 years.

I watched a fascinating and brilliantly constructed History channel docudrama last night called Suffragettes, which catalogued the fight by British women to win a right which is taken for granted today. The woman who narrated this excellent programme also acted in reconstructions of particular events. As well as the acted-out segments, there was plenty of live footage and quotes from the time, as well as maps, photographs, posters and newspaper headlines. This was superb entertainment on an aspect of early 20th century history Britain would probably rather forget.

Many suffrage bills went before the Houses of Parliament before World War One, but they all failed to pass. Women would have to wait until 1918 when the male politicians basically conceded the suffrage to ladies over 30! because of their outstanding and far-reaching contribution to the war effort.

In the years leading up to 1914 suffragettes, most being in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), first tried the sort of tactics Kate Sheppard and her supporters used in New Zealand – letters to politicians, petitions, speeches, advertising, banners and marches. But the male dominated establishment wasn’t interested.

So the tactics changed and determined women from all walks of life got involved in actions that they would never have dreamed of adopting in earlier times.

  • civil disobedience like chaining themselves to railings
  • disrupting public meetings
  • burning down empty houses
  • riots, especially in London where some were sexually molested
  • setting off bombs – well over 150
  • refusing to eat when imprisoned.

The authorities were terrified that a suffragette might die in jail and, despite censorship, the horrific forced-feeding of women prisoners had featured in the press. So what was known as The Cat and Mouse Bill was passed so that hunger strikers could be released then later rearrested.

Then in 1913 there was a death. Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse during an Epsom Derby race. Her London funeral was huge and public opinion became more supportive to the suffragettes cause. However, there was still no legislative action from the politicians.

When conflict in Europe broke out in August 1914, the WSPU and other organisation ceased their militant tactics, and threw their energy and skills into supporting the war effort. That won them the vote.

If you have the History channel and spot a repeat of Suffragettes, don’t miss it.