There’s been much media coverage in recent days commemorating Emily Wilding Davison’s death following her collision with the King’s horse at Epsom in 1913. The centenary of that event has prompted comment about the suffragettes, their role in gaining votes for women and what contemporary campaigners might learn from them.

Like most feminists, I am in awe of the suffragettes and what they were prepared to do for my sake, and the sake of all women in the UK who are now able to exercise their democratic right to vote.  However, I am perturbed and concerned that the enormous contribution of moderate suffrage campaigners, such as Millicent Fawcett, has largely been left out of current discourse. It seems to me that this might be an example of how some of us have a tendency to romanticise protest and direct action, and to marginalise or ignore the role of moderate campaigners who prefer to use constitutional methods in pursuit of social change. Alongside paying homage to the suffragettes, I also want to celebrate the considerable achievements of Millicent Fawcett, the woman who led the parliamentary campaign for women’s suffrage and was instrumental in gaining votes for women.

Millicent Fawcett led the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) which lobbied parliament, held public meetings and started petitions as well as using other peaceful methods to argue for votes for women. Fawcett, from whom the campaigning charity the Fawcett Society takes its name, was a prolific writer and speaker on women’s suffrage. She and her followers were known as suffragists. They had contacts who championed their cause in Parliament and were very much engaged in the realm of practical politics. For example, Fawcett supported the compromise contained in the Representation of the People Act 1918 whereby women over 30 were given the vote. This stopped short of what was required – votes for all women on equal terms with men – but could be seen as a stepping stone to full enfranchisement, which was eventually granted when the Equal Franchise Act 1928 finally gave the vote to all women aged over 21.

The suffragettes were aligned with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) founded by Emmeline Pankhurst. The WSPU had a far smaller membership than the NUWSS: in 1913 there were 50,000 members of the NUWSS compared to 2000 members of the WSPU [1]. Yet it is WSPU activists that are most often cited as the people who won votes for women. The WSPU adopted militant tactics designed to raise public awareness of the call for women’s suffrage. Everyone knows about the public protests (Davison’s being the most famous), hunger strikes and the horrific forced feeding many suffragettes were subjected to in prison. There is no doubt these methods caught public attention but opinion was divided as to whether they helped or hindered the suffrage movement’s chances of success. Suffragette tactics made the clamour for votes for women impossible to ignore. However, some campaigners may have worried that parliamentarians (who ultimately had the power to change the law) would turn away from what they might have perceived to be an extreme, lawbreaking faction they could not condone.

Arguments, then, amongst campaigners about which tactics to employ to get a good result are nothing new and will continue. It seems to me that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ tactics. It entirely depends on circumstances. What matters most is having a well thought through influencing strategy built on a sound understanding of how social change is most likely to occur (a ‘theory of change’, to use the current jargon).

There’s no doubt protest and direct action can garner attention and in some circumstances they may be the only tactics worth pursuing (charities, of course, must be careful to stay within the law). But it’s also the case that any social movement or campaign needs people who know how to do practical politics and can engage in dialogue with those who hold power. It emerged last week that Davison may not have intended her action to be so dramatic that it resulted in her death. What does it say about the value we ascribe to different forms of campaigning when we celebrate a woman’s unintended and untimely death but pay scant attention to her more moderate sisters?

Davison’s gravestone is inscribed ‘Deeds not words’. It seems to me that effective campaigns and social movements require both of these things. Moderate and radical wings, whether feminist, green, socialist or anything else, can draw strength from each other if they value each contribution and develop an understanding of how both approaches can work in tandem to achieve change.

When we remember the suffragettes we need also to honour the suffragists, the quiet campaigners who did just as much to win votes for women.


[1] Healthcheck! This ‘fact’ was taken from Wikipedia and may therefore require cross-checking with another source.