Which was more important in women achieving the vote; the First World War or the suffrage movement? Essay

By 1900, the position of women had improved vastly but still not far enough. Between 1800 and 1900. We found women beginning to be educated and go to schools; it even became compulsory for girls under ten to go to school. It wasn’t just education that was improving, the jobs that women could do were changing too. They could now do teaching, nursing and also work in a shop. The only problem is that they were paid low wages for long hours. The legal status of women had also changed. They could now get custody of their children if they got divorced and own land of their own.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS) was formed in 1897 when smaller organisations such as the Female Political Union and the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee decided to merge together to create a much larger organisation. They named this the NUWSS. The founder was Millicent Fawcett, wife of Henry Fawcett, a Liberal MP. The early NUWSS was mostly middle class women. They were not campaigning for votes for all women, only on equal level to men. For example, if a man owned property he was allowed to vote, so the NUWSS believed women who owned property should be allowed to vote too. The NUWSS were also named the suffragists.

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Millicent Fawcett believed in peaceful protests, such as petitions and leaflets but these ways never seemed to have much success and some members were getting frustrated. As a result a new campaigning organisation was set up by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 and was named the Women’s Social and Political Union or the WSPU. The Daily Mail nicknamed these more Militant campaigners the Suffragettes to distinguish them from the peaceful protesters.

The relationship between the suffragettes and the suffragists was fragile. Ms Pankhurst’s daughter Christabel was keen to see both groups join but Mrs. Fawcett did not want to be any part of the violence.

The suffragist movement was always peaceful and did have a slight effect on people’s views of women. However the suffragette’s militant action often set back all the hard work the NUWSS had done, as many people saw the WSPU as a group of radicals causing a nuisance and didn’t believe people like that should be able to vote.

Though the aim of both parties was to get the vote on the same level as men their methods could not have been more different. The NUWSS collected petitions and held meetings. The WSPU were not initially extremely militant. Their protest was relatively peaceful and they did not really go much further than propaganda in factory towns. Then, on 13th October 1905 Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kelley attended a meeting in London to hear Sir Edward Grey, a minister in the British government. When Grey was talking, the two women constantly shouted out, “Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?” When the women refused to stop shouting the police were called to remove them from the meeting. Pankhurst and Kenney refused to leave and during the struggle a policeman claimed the two women kicked and spat at him. Pankhurst and Kenney were arrested and charged with assault. Millicent Fawcett quickly made sure everybody knew she has nothing to do with the WSPU.

While the NUWSS continued their struggle for the vote the WSPU stepped up its militancy, not only on the streets but in prison too. All WSPU members in prison wanted to be treated as political prisoners instead of common criminals. When they were refused the right they decided to go on hunger strike. The prisons did not want starving women on their hands and soon the process of force feeding was brought into the prisons. There was a public outcry about the treatment of women in prisons. So, in April 1913, the government brought out the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act, this meant hunger strikers who became too ill were released until they were well again then re-arrested to serve the remainder of their sentence. This was nicknamed the ‘cat and mouse’ act because it resembled the way a cat plays cruelly with a mouse, releasing it then catching it again.

After all this the NUWSS were struggling to keep people on their side but the WSPU ignored and carried on. The most remembered was the death of Emily Davison in June 1913 when she ran out in front of the kings horse Anmer at the derby. The suffragettes hailed her a martyr whereas the Daily Mail decided her actions were stupid and risky.

When the Fist World War broke out in 1914, 5.9 million women were working in Britain out of the total female population of 23.7 million. The most common jobs that women worked in were domestic services and textiles although they did work in other jobs such as teaching and nurse those were the most common. Women worked in these jobs as inferiors and were paid two-thirds or less of a man’s wage.

In 1914, women’s education was not advanced. The compulsory free school stopped at the age of twelve and so most girls would go to school until the age of twelve and then stop. So if a girl wanted higher education it either meant paying school fees or winning a scholarship. But still the vote seemed a long way away.

In August 1914, when war broke out a large percent of the women’s suffrage campaigns came to a halt. On 4th August Mrs Fawcett told her followers ‘Women, your country needs you, let us show ourselves worthy of citizenship, whether our claim is to be recognised or not’ the NUWSS quickly threw itself into war relief work and started up the Women’s Service Bureau to help recruit women into work so that men would be free to go to war.

Numbers of women in all lines of work rose dramatically, for example, before 1914 there were 2,000 women in government as Clarks, by 1918, however, this number had risen to 250,000. The work was not just taking over men’s jobs, there were new jobs opening that had not been needed before the war. Ray Strachey, Mrs. Fawcetts biographer wrote ‘the forms of work varied from place to place, maternity centres, workrooms fro unemployed women, hospitality for Belgians, local relief committees or red cross centres were arranged’ the problem of unemployment for men and women also changed Ray Strachey also wrote ‘as time went on the needs changed somewhat. The unemployment problem very soon ceased and instead there came the great shortage of workers due to enlistment of so many men. Then it fell to the societies to supply women recruits for all kinds of work hitherto done by men’.

In my opinion, women gained the vote in 1918 as a result of both the war and the women’s suffrage campaign.

War work was certainly important in many ways. Women took over jobs that had always been done by men; by doing this they showed a high level of maturity, skill and intellect, also, they showed the government they were not weak and stupid. Many people believed without the war women would not have gained the vote. Lord Birkenhead said, in 1928 ‘had it not been for the war, in my judgement we should have continued successfully to resist this measure for an indefinite period of time’ though the women laid the ground work the war was the trigger factor that gained women the vote faster.

The campaigning before the war was also important. The 50 years of campaigning before the war were not put to waste. Many people believe that the suffragist movement set the ground work for women to realize they could do the ‘men’s work’ during the war. If it had not there is a possibility women would not have gone so readily into war work. The guardian newspaper wrote in 1929 ‘had there been no militancy and no war; the emancipation of women would have come, although more slowly. But without faithful preparation of the ground over many years by Dame Millicent Fawcett and her colleagues, neither militancy nor the war could have produced the crop’ this very much shows peoples beliefs that the campaigning helped just as much if not more than the war in gaining women the vote.

With all this evidence taken into consideration, I feel that both the suffrage movement and the war contributed evenly to women gaining the vote in 1918.

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