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The Right to Decide

Published: 21.03.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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Sylvia Pankhurst

Young women today have many life choices to make: what profession to work in, whether or not to marry and so forth. They take part in politics and have careers like men. Today we take these equal rights for granted. But many women fought a long, hard battle to gain the franchise and thereby the possibility to influence the course of their own lives.


Vocabulary

intrinsically, feature, franchise, vow, intervention, beneficial, enforce, attitude, extend, disrupt, duration, gratitude, enfranchise, implement, regardless

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Victorian Women

Victorian Lithograph of The Happy MotherVictorian Lithograph of The Happy Mother
Fotograf: Bettmann
In Victorian England, women were considered the property of men. Women were expected to marry and have children, and those who did not were pitied by society. Once a woman married, she was at the mercy of her husband, who not only took ownership over all her material belongings, but also over her body. In the marriage ceremony, the woman vowed to obey her husband. While most men treated their wives with respect, those who did not were able to abuse their power without intervention.

Not having the franchise meant not having any political rights. Nor did women have legal rights. Through the 19th century, some laws were passed that were beneficial for women; for instance, in 1839, a law was passed giving women custody of children under the age of seven in case of a separation. In 1857, women were given the right to divorce husbands who were cruel or had abandoned them. In 1870, women were allowed to keep money they, themselves, had earned. Although these were important laws for women, they were seldom enforced. The Victorian attitude towards women was that their place was at home, looking after their husband and children. Queen Victoria, herself, said, “Let women be what God intended, a helpmate for man, but with totally different duties and vocations.”

For upper and middle-class women, it was unthinkable to have a career. Servants did all the physical work for them. Their days were supposed to be spent embroidering, visiting friends and family, perhaps writing letters. These girls were educated by governesses, who taught them reading, writing and arithmetic, and sometimes some French. Being a governess was one of the only positions a middle-class woman was allowed to have. They were poorly paid and often poorly treated.

Print Depicting Workers at a Textile FactoryPrint Depicting Workers at a Textile Factor
Fotograf: Bettmann
Domestic service was the only career option open to working-class women, besides working in a factory or as a farm labourer. Working-class women led lives of strife, often giving birth to at least eight children and having to work 14-hour days – in addition to having sole responsibility for all the cooking and house work.

What women of all social classes had in common was their lack of opportunity to carve out their own paths in life. Without the franchise, women had no chance of changing their position in society – or that of their daughters. Women’s suffrage therefore became the most important goal for women of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The English Campaign for Women’s Suffrage

The organized campaign for women’s suffrage in England began in 1867, when the philosopher John Stuart Mill presented a petition in Parliament calling for inclusion of  female enfranchisement in the Reform Act of the same year. The Reform Act was passed without this inclusion; but the idea had been voiced by a highly respected man in Parliament. That same year, Lydia Becker founded the first women’s suffrage committee in Manchester. In the course of the next few years, several such committees were formed, and in 1897, they came together in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), with Millicent Fawcett as its leader. 

 The poster shows artificial feeding of suffragettes in prison, ca. 1905.The poster shows artificial feeding of suffragettes in prison, ca. 1905
Fotograf: Bettmann
Real change was, however, slow in coming. Every attempt to pass a bill to extend the franchise to women was defeated. Frustrated by the situation, some women adopted more militant methods of protest, and in 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).  Along with their followers, called Suffragettes, they disrupted political meetings, staged protest marches, smashed windows in shops and in government buildings; they even set fire to buildings. Suffragettes who were arrested drew more attention to their cause by going on hunger strikes; the authorities did what they could to avoid creating martyrs by force-feeding them. In 1913, a young woman named Emily Davison threw herself in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby and was killed, thereby providing the Suffragettes with the martyr they believed they needed.

By this time, members of both the peaceful NUWSS and the militant WSPU believed that the 1914 election would result in government backing of their common cause. However, the First World War broke out that same year, and both organizations ceased all political activity. For the duration of the war the women of Britain concentrated on the war effort – many of them doing the jobs that men had done before they went off to war.

On February 6, 1918, Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act, giving women of property over the age of 30 the right to vote. It has been assumed that this act was passed in gratitude for the role women had played during the war. It is, however, probable that the suffrage movement constituted a significant reason for passing the act: Britain was exhausted from the war, and the authorities wanted to avoid a return to the violence instigated by the pre-war suffrage movement.

In 1928, the government extended the franchise to include all women over the age of 21, regardless of property.

The International Movement

Women's Suffrage MarchWomen's Suffrage March
Fotograf: Bettmann
The fight for women’s suffrage was not just a British phenomenon. It is inextricably linked to the American movement, which began as early as in 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and three other women organized the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the American Constitution granted American women the right to vote. Throughout these years, American and British suffragists had close relations, visiting each other and encouraging and helping each other. Some European countries were early to enfranchise their female population: Finland in 1906, Norway in 1913 and Denmark and Iceland in 1915. Switzerland, however, did not give women the vote until 1971, and Lichtenstein was the last country in Europe to follow suit in 1984. Throughout the twentieth century, countries all over the world implemented universal suffrage. Only two countries, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have yet to do so. The 7th UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, once commented that “…gender equality is critical to the development and peace of every nation.” The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee from Liberia and Tawakkol Karman from Yemen, “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Having achieved the right to vote, increasingly more women all over the world are participating in both national and international politics. Who knows: perhaps peace on Earth isn’t such a far-fetched idea after all?

Tasks and Activities

 

What do you know about Women's Rights? Try this quiz from BBC Women's Rights Quiz

 

The Right to Decide – Tasks 

 

Further Reading

The Glass Ceiling 

 

 

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