From Suffering to Suffrage

Background to the 'Votes for Women' Campaign

For a long time historians who worked on the women's suffrage campaign did not pay much attention to the lives of ordinary, working class women involved in the movement. However, their stories tell us most about the difference gaining the vote made to women's lives.


How were women perceived before 1918?

Throughout the 19th Century, the issue of women’s rights was discussed at length. The debate for and against was full of conflict and strong emotion.  Those against women voting often argued that women were not intelligent enough to vote. They said that it was dangerous to educate women because they had smaller brains than men and were controlled by their emotions. 


This was completely untrue. However, such views were reinforced by medical experts. As late as 1886, an article published in medical journal, The Lancet stated:  ‘Unsexed it might be wrong to call the educated woman, but she will be more or less sexless. And the human race will have lost those who should have been her sons.’  


Education for women:

During the 19th Century, young women were steadily gaining better access to schooling through the Education Acts. These laws allowed more and more working class children to receive an education.  


At the same time, there were differences between the education boys and girls received. Even into the mid-20th Century elementary schools reinforced the idea that women should become wives and mothers rather than have a career. 


Girls were taught needlework, cookery and even laundry work, yet boys were not. In 1905 'housewifery' was a compulsory subject for girls in school.  Without a decent education, most working-class girls had limited choices about their futures.


Where did women's suffrage fit in?

Edwardian England was a society in which women were generally regarded  as inferior to men. Many women's suffrage campaigners hoped that gaining the vote would help to bring about much wider changes for ordinary women and their families. 

Glossary:

Compulsory - Something that you have to do or are forced to do
Inferior - Worth less than
Journal - A magazine for professional or a specialist group
Reinforce - Strengthen
Suffrage - The right to vote in public elections
 

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