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Suffragists vs Suffragettes: What's the difference?

Nellie McClung and her peers were all suffragists. Suffragists believed in peaceful, constitutional campaign methods.


However, in the early 20th century, after the suffragists failed to make significant progress, a new generation of activists emerged. These women became known as the suffragettes, and they were willing to take direct, militant action for the cause. They adopted the slogan 'Deeds not words'.


Where Nellie and her suffragists used humour and speech; suffragettes chained themselves to railings, disrupted public meetings and damaged public property.


Article written by: British Library Learning


Who were the suffragists and suffragettes, and what are the key differences between them?

In 1928 all British women over the age of 21 were granted the right to vote in political elections. Women’s suffrage societies – groups who campaigned for the right to vote – began to emerge in Britain in the mid-19th century. Those involved in the first wave of the campaign are known as suffragists. Suffragists believed in peaceful, constitutional campaign methods. In the early 20th century, after the suffragists failed to make significant progress, a new generation of activists emerged. These women became known as the suffragettes, and they were willing to take direct, militant action for the cause.

The Suffragists In 1866, a group of women organised a petition that demanded that women should have the same political rights as men and gathered over 1500 signatures in support of the cause. The women took their petition to Henry Fawcett and John Stuart Mill, two MPs who supported universal suffrage. Mill drafted an amendment to the Second Reform Bill that would give women the same political rights as men and presented it to parliament in 1867. The amendment was defeated, however, by 196 votes to 73. In the wake of this defeat the London Society for Women's Suffrage was formed and similar women's suffrage groups were founded all over Britain. In 1897, 17 of these individual groups joined together to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Fawcett.


The Suffragettes From the perspective of some campaigners, the suffragists failed to achieve votes for women by peaceful, ‘respectable’ methods. Many disillusioned women began to advocate a more militant approach. These groups became known as the suffragettes, and they adopted the motto 'Deeds not Words'.

In Manchester in 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. The organisation grew to include branches all over Britain and involved more working-class women. The WSPU adopted militant, direct action tactics. They chained themselves to railings, disrupted public meetings and damaged public property. In 1913, Emily Davison stepped out in front of the King's horse at the Epsom Derby. Her purpose remains unclear, but she was hit and later died from her injuries.

Suffragettes were arrested and imprisoned, but continued their protest in prison by hunger strike. Although initially they were fed by force, in 1913 the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act was passed in parliament. Commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act, this allowed prison authorities to release hunger-striking women prisoners when they became too weak, and re-arrest them when they had recovered. Emmeline Pankhurst was jailed and released on 11 occasions.

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