During the 19th century, several major breakthroughs regarding women’s rights within society were made, such as the introduction of the Married Women’s Property Act, the Guardianship of Infants Act as well as the law that declared equal state education for both boys and girls. Although this meant that women had more position within society than ever before, there was still an unresolved issue that kept the imbalance between the two genders more apparent than ever; the right to vote in Parliamentary elections.
One of the main reasons for women’s failure to gain this right was society’s expectation of them, as well as the roles they were expected to enact. Throughout the 19th century, and indeed before, all women were expected to fit into a certain mould and live their life in a certain way; if they didn’t, they were regarded as a failure. This role entailed getting married to a respectable man as quickly as possible, producing healthy children to look after and raise, as well as look after the home; a typified statement of that time to summarise this view was, ‘A woman’s place is in the home’.
Society’s expectation of women was solely domestic, especially of middle or upper class women; earning a living by working in a job was completely unacceptable, although working class women could work, but only as either domestic servants, secretaries or in the ‘sweated industries’. Women were not expected to show interest in political matters, as that was not part of their own role, but a man’s.
Women found their voice especially between the years 1900 and 1914, when two main women’s rights activist groups emerged to campaign for women’s right to the suffrage; the Suffragists, or Nation Union of Women’s Suffrage societies (N. U. W. S. S. ) and the Suffragettes, or Women’s Social and Political Union (W. S. P. U. ). The Suffragists were founded in 1897 by a woman named Millicent Garrett Fawcett. The main aim of the group, predominantly middle or upper class women as working class women of that era had no time to spare for campaigning, was to win the right for women to vote in Parliamentary elections.
They went about their campaign in a peaceful non-violent manner, preferring a passive approach to demonstrating, and so won the respect of many others women, as well as men. This was because the methods of protest they used completely undermined and disproved many of the reasons men had used to argue against women’s suffrage, claiming that women were irrational, immature and irresponsible and thus were not worthy of the privilege of the suffrage.
Although by 1903, their following had risen up to 200,000 members, showing the enormous success their campaigning had brought about, they still had not succeeded in their aim; their greatest strength, their method of campaigning, was also their weakness; because they were non – violent, it was easy for the Liberal government to ignore them, which in turn led to many of their own members becoming disillusioned. So a former Suffragist, Emmeline Pankhurst, founded the Suffragettes in 1903. They had the same aim as the Suffragists, but was determined, if necessary, to endorse their message using a more direct approach; violence.
Initially they had some success with their campaigning; they were much more direct than the Suffragists and gained much publicity for their cause as well as showing a high standard of organisation by publishing their own newspaper and continually organising marches, proving their resourcefulness; this gained a lot of respect for their determination. However their feelings of frustration were eventually vented through violence in 1912 when once again the government rejected their right to the suffrage, and they ran through London, smashing windows and performing arson.
More instances of such behaviour occurred, and in 1913 Emily Davison became their first martyr by running in front of the King’s horse during the Epsom Derby. This behaviour made the government adamant not to give in; if they stepped back upon this issue, more similar groups would start using Suffragettes’ tactics to achieve their desires, which would cause chaos. They were also proving the men who had stereotyped them as irresponsible true, and so failed through their weaknesses to achieve their aim as the Suffragists had.
The government itself was a presiding factor in women’s failure to gain the right to vote, as well as male attitudes in general. Most men were against women’s equality for a number of reasons, a large one being that they believed if women were to gain the suffrage, it would undermine their authority and importance as they were, or so they believed, the superior gender both mentally and physically, and especially since the government were all male; women would become a threat.
They did not think women capable of dealing with such important matters, accusing them of being too emotional and irresponsible to have objective opinions on politics. These beliefs were reflected in a speech made by the current Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, who remarked, ‘They are for the most part hopelessly ignorant of politics, credulous to the last degree, and flickering with gusts of sentiment like candles in the wind. ‘ Women failed to gain the vote between 1900 and 1914 because they were not given a real chance to prove their equality to men.
This chance came in the form of the First World War where they managed to prove themselves as equal to men by performing the same duties men did and working under the same pressures. However, women also in part had themselves to blame for their lack of success; in particular, the Suffragettes’ use of violence, which could have resulted in drastic repercussions, although their reasons for violence were understandable. Male attitudes were possibly the largest contributor to women’s failure to gain the suffrage, as had they supported women’s rights, there would have been no debate to begin with.