It is hugely significant as a moment in history, a moment that absolutely sums up the desperation of women in this country who wanted the vote. –Television presenter and researcher, Clare Balding

Arson, riots, bombs and hunger strikes to get female suffrage

By Roger Childs

Where was this? How about that cradle of civilisation, the United Kingdom?  Here in New Zealand women gained the vote in 1893, but British ladies had to wait another 25 years.

In our country the process of women gaining the suffrage was peaceful — mainly based around letter writing, petitions, speeches and marches. In the States it was the same, but in Britain after trying peaceful tactics to no avail, the women resorted to violence and the climax was the death of Emily Wilding Davison on the Epsom Downs race track in 1913. 

Many suffrage bills went before the British 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.

Giving peaceful tactics a chance

In the years leading up to 1914 suffragettes, most being in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), used the tactics Kate Sheppard and her supporters applied in New Zealand – letters to politicians, petitions, speeches, advertising, banners and marches. But the male dominated establishment wasn’t interested. A woman’s place was in the home and politics should be left to the men.

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

Resorting to militant strategies

The women were understandably fed up and so they resorted to direct action to make their case:

  • civil disobedience like chaining themselves to railings
  • disrupting public meetings and harassing politicians
  • burning down empty buildings
  • 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 featured in the press. So what was known as The Cat and Mouse Bill was passed so that hunger strikers could let out of prison then later rearrested.

The death of Emily Davison

Then in 1913 there was a death. At the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913 Emily Davison died under the hooves King George V’s horse Anmer during the main race. It was long thought that she had committed suicide for the cause, but recent research, slowing down the film footage of the tragic event, revealed that the 40 year old activist was trying to attach a suffragette scarf to the horse’s bridle.

Her London funeral was huge and public opinion became more supportive to the suffragettes cause. However, there was still no legislative action from the male politicians. 

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