Suffragettes: Support or Slander?

Figure 1- A poster presenting suffragettes as ugly and without morals, suggesting that women who support the campaigns were synonymous with prostitutes.

Figure 1- A poster presenting suffragettes as ugly and without morals, suggesting that women who support the campaigns were synonymous with prostitutes.

On July 2nd 1928 all women in Britain gained the right to vote. However, the struggle that led to this success began in the previous century. The Women’s Movement was an extremely controversial subject, with many supporters, but there were equally as many who were vehemently opposed.
There were two main groups of women who fought for suffrage, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The WSPU were more militant in their methods, leading to a certain amount of controversy towards the movement. Because of this, the NUWSS gained more support from the general public and parliament.
The women’s movement was widely publicised with both support and opposition appearing in the media. There is evidence for support of the cause, such as the suffragist Hyde Park rally in 1910 which demonstrates widespread popularity for the cause through the amount of people there. The video also begins with text reading “Law Abiding Suffragists”, which again shows support for the passive campaigning for suffrage, rather than violent methods. The opposition to violent methods of protest is demonstrated by the numerous newspaper articles from the 19th and 20th centuries which present the WSPU as dangerous and as promoters of crime. An article from The Times in 1913 released a warning to the public on the actions of the group, writing that they were promoting lawlessness. The article states that the activities of the WSPU involved damages to property and risk of life and limb. This, along with the seizure of the property of the group, shows a considerable degree of opposition to the campaign. On the other hand, it can be seen that the violent actions of the WSPU were not opposed by everyone as the MP George Lansbury was imprisoned in 1913 after making a speech at a WSPU rally in support of their campaign of arson attacks.
Not only do newspaper articles demonstrate a lack of support for women’s suffrage, there were many posters circulating that gave the impression of women who supported the cause as poor mothers and wives. Posters were aimed at men to deter them from supporting the cause and also from allowing their wives or daughters to become involved in the movement. This opposition was also carried into parliament and many MPs, such as William Cremer, spoke out against it. On the other hand, men such as John Stuart Mill and even MPs such as Keir Hardie supported the campaigns of the women’s movement. This suggests that not all males were opposed to women’s suffrage. Although groups opposed to the movement used posters to gain support for their beliefs, the women’s movement also used propaganda effectively. Posters calling for “votes for women” were widely circulated and increased knowledge and contributed to the advancement of the cause.
Posters were also used throughout World War One to encourage women across Britain to contribute to the effort by working in factories and on the land. This undoubtedly had a large impact on both the war and the movement, evident in the limited suffrage granted to women over thirty in 1918. As it is the centenary of WW1 this year, the acknowledgement of the contribution of women to the war effort is significant, and how this may have brought them the vote. The work of women in factories clearly showed that they could participate in the public sphere in areas such as work, while remaining respectable unlike the previous portrayal of them as unruly creatures. In addition, the WSPU’s move to stop further militant action from taking place and contributing to recruitment campaigns after the declaration of war in August, arguably gained them more support from parliament evident in the release of all suffragettes from prison.
Despite the success of the limited franchise given to women in 1918, this did not completely achieve the aims of the women’s organizations as only women over 30 could vote. Therefore it could be said that this shows continuing opposition to women’s suffrage at this time, calling into question the impact of women’s war work on the movement as it was not until a decade after the war all women over 21 received the vote. It can be said that the efforts of the anti-suffragette movement hindered the cause, but with the ultimate aim of gaining votes for women succeeding, these posters and stories become merely a chapter in women’s history.

 

Figure 2- A poster depicting the slovenly home of a suffragette.

Figure 2- A poster depicting the slovenly home of a suffragette.

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