Women’s long journey to win the right to vote

Jon Danzig |


It was 90 years ago, on 2 July 1928, that women in Britain finally achieved equal voting rights with men. But it took almost 100 years of losing vote after vote before women won the right to vote.

Every day Brexiters tell Remainers, ‘You lost the referendum. That’s the end of the matter. Give up! Get over it!’

But in a democracy, losing a vote is never the end of the matter.

If women had given up the first time they lost a vote to get a vote, women would never have got a vote.

In Switzerland, women only got the vote in 1971.

In the UK, all women over 21 got the vote on 2 July 1928 – but only after many decades of campaigning.

If you lose a vote, you don’t just give up. You pick yourself up, and campaign to win the next vote, or the next vote, or the next vote, until hopefully you win.

Losing a vote is never a reason to stop campaigning for what you believe in.

In a democracy, losing a vote doesn’t mean losing the battle. You carry on. That’s how democracy works, because democracy is a journey, and not a one-off destination.

Or as the American civil rights advocate, William H. Hastie said:

‘Democracy is a process, not a static condition.’

Just look at the long journey through the ‘democratic process’ that was endured to achieve women’s suffrage in Britain:

1832 – Mary Smith presents the first petition for women’s suffrage to Parliament. But in the same year, the Great Reform Act confirms the exclusion of women from the vote.

1866 – The MP John Stuart Mill presents a petition for women’s suffrage to the Commons. It fails. Consequently, suffrage societies are started in Edinburgh, London and Manchester.

1867 – A Second Reform Bill petition from women is presented to Parliament by John Stuart Mill but it fails. The National Society for Women’s Suffrage is formed.

1881 – The Isle of Man grants votes to women.

 1884 – An amendment to the Third Reform Bill, to include women in the vote, is rejected.

1897 – The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) is established, with over 20 societies across the country.

1903 – Emmeline Pankhurst, frustrated by the slow tactics of the NUWSS, forms the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her daughters Sylvia and Christabel.

 1905 – Militant campaigning begins. Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney are arrested and imprisoned. “Deeds, not words” and “Votes for women” are the new campaign slogans.

 1906 – The Liberal Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and 400 of 670 MPs are in favour women’s suffrage. WSPU members are arrested and imprisoned. A daily newspaper coins the term “suffragette”.

1907 – The NUWSS organises a London march and more than 3,000 women take part. The WFL starts a paper called The Vote.

1908 – Around half a million suffragette activists attend a mass rally in Hyde Park. But the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith does not respond. So the protestors smash windows in Downing Street, using stones with written messages tied to them. Some protesters chain themselves to the railings.

1909 – The start of hunger strikes and forced-feeding. Scottish WSPU member Marion Wallace Dunlop becomes the first hunger striker. More and more militant WSPU members are imprisoned.

 1910 – The Conciliation Bill, which would give women the vote, succeeds in the Commons but Prime Minster, Herbert Asquith, doesn’t carry it through.

The WSPU starts protests, including those called “Black Friday” in which many women are hurt, some permanently and later fatally. There are allegations against the police of sexual abuse whilst women are in custody.

1911 – A new Conciliation Bill that would give women the vote passes, but is stalled by the general election.

1912 – The Parliamentary Franchise (Women) Bill is introduced and defeated by 222 votes to 208. In protest, there is a mass window-smashing campaign.

1913 – A ruling by the Commons Speaker destroys hopes of an amendment to include women in the Reform Bill. There are bomb and arson campaigns.

More arrests lead to the passing of the “Cat and Mouse” Act, under which hunger strikers are temporarily released but then rearrested to prevent them from dying in police custody.

Also in this year, Emily Wilding Davison, was arrested nine times and force-fed 49 times. She decides to draw attention to the suffrage cause and disrupt the Derby by stepping in front of the King’s horse Anmer.

Emily dies four days later of a skull fracture and other injuries. Her funeral is attended by thousands of women. Tens of thousands lined the streets of London as her coffin passed by.

1914 – Violent protests escalate. Suffragettes try to force their way into Buckingham Palace to petition the King.

1917 – The Electoral Reform Bill passes in the Commons. It gives votes to certain women only: those aged over 30, and those over 21 who own their own house or those married to householders.

 1918 – The Representation of the People Act is passed, allowing men over 21 and women over 30 to vote.

1919 – The first female MP, Nancy Astor, enters the Commons.

 1928 – Amendment of the Representation of the People Act entitles everyone over the age of 21 – men and women – to vote.

Women lost vote after vote to get a vote. But they didn’t give up.

Remain lost the 2016 referendum. We won’t give up.

Just before the EU referendum, Nigel Farage said that if the result was 52%-48%, it would mean ‘unfinished business’. He meant if the result was 52% for Remain.

As it turned out, it was just under 52% for Leave. But on this occasion, Farage was right.

This is unfinished business. It isn’t the end of the matter.



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