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The Women’s Suffrage Movement in England in 19th Century Essay

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Updated: Jul 15th, 2021

The organized women’s movement in Britain formed and developed during the Victorian era, which was marked by women’s struggle for the right to vote. This fact has a decisive impact on the nature of the women’s movement, its ideology, rhetorics, and political practices. It can also be claimed that the attempts of women to enter the sphere of politics have become the most important determinant in the construction of ideas about British democracy and culture.

Emerged in response to capitalism, the women’s suffrage movement in England began peacefully and transformed into militant actions to obtain the right to vote and establish egalitarianism, which changed their position in cultural and political contexts.

Before the suffrage movement, the British culture was represented by a patriarchal society where women were perceived as belonging to men (Heffer, 1996). Interestingly, among the opponents of the women’s movement for equality with men, there were not only men but also women who regarded enfranchisement as the collapse of their lifestyle. It was believed that females are less clever than males and that politics, for instance, cannot be a worthy female affair as it may destroy their personalities (Heffer, 1996).

In addition, male politicians feared that gender equality establishment could cause the fact that the birth rate would decrease and England would not receive the soldiers for the army. Children were also the property of their father, and girls were educated with the focus on home affairs and obedience to men.

In 1903, Emeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Emancipation Union, the members of which received the nickname of suffragists, but they began their activities in England quite peacefully. Kowal (2000) states that the women’s suffrage movement “emerged as an effect of the onset of capitalism and industrialization” (p. 243). The traditional functions of women who were responsible only for house affairs moved to factories and the state. The characteristic feature of the British culture before the identified movement is their increased participation in public life and occupations outside the home (Kowal, 2000). In turn, the latter made women’s subjugation more evident and caused the conflict between domesticity and outside affairs. Among the vivid examples, there are relatively low wages and poorer working conditions for female workers compared to males.

The transition to equality between men and women in Britain was associated with radical initiatives that were also called militant. In addition to the right to vote, suffragettes demanded that they should not be discriminated against men in society as well as in political and economic spheres. In this period, the performance of London suffragettes for their rights was accompanied by smashing of glasses in shops and private apartments of public institutions and various meetings (Rollyson, 2003).

Women were armed with stones, sticks, and bottles wrapped in paper. As reported by Kowal (2000), they wanted to attract the attention of the male-dominated society by their actions, which were completely opposite to the traditional, discreet culture of England. The mentioned example shows that suffragettes were well-aware of their problems and intentions while they selected radical ways to make a revolution.

However, the nature of the given movement is much more complicated than it may seem initially. Along with the union led by Pankhurst, there was one more group organized by Millicent Fawcett, who targeted moral rationalism and adjustive principles in struggling for women’s rights (Kowal, 2000).

Some women were confused with their views and moved between these two groups, while others working-class females were more interested in labor issues rather than voting. Defining her attitudes as democratic, Pankhurst acted like an autocrat, and her daughters and other members accused her of excessive fighting (Rollyson, 2003). In other words, suffragettes had some internal conflicts that affected their actions.

During the suffrage movement, the argumentation of feminists became stronger. In particular, Nym Mayhall (2001) examines the work of Mill called “The Subjection of Women” and argues that the key root of tyranny is in the family since the sexual subordination of women determines the relations between them and men. Accordingly, the same situation occurs on the state level, causing the resistance of men towards civil changes. In this period, more and more women become aware of their position and the need for equality. For example, Florence Nightingale, a founder of nursing principles, as well as her cousin, were known as activists in improving care for patients (Heffer, 1996). Ladies’ colleges also opened in such areas as medicine, economics, and politics.

The suffragettes, including the most radical thinkers, demonstrated their commitment to egalitarianism, which implies the establishment of equality in civil, economic, and political arenas (Wright, 2010). In particular, they argued the need to recognize women’s rights in the organization of community life, not only the importance of translating the principles of social justice. They regarded women’s enfranchisement as the personification of the national interest of England, the criterion of its civilization, and the correctness of its historical path.

The members of the Women’s Emancipation Union movements in no way opposed themselves to the dominant imperial culture (Wright, 2010). Instead, they stubbornly emphasized their genetic kinship with it and their dependence on this heritage accumulated by generations of Britons. This showed their determination to take full responsibility for performing all the functions that society imposes on them and pride in their involvement in Britain’s worldwide civilizing mission.

Once English women were given a right to vote, the period after the transition began. It should be stressed that not only voting potential but also wider opportunities opened for women. London was selected by the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) as headquarters, being the so-called global press center (Walker, 2006).

This means that the success of the suffrage movement in England positively affects similar groups in other countries. As a result of the struggle, several women played an essential role in the Parliamentary decisions. For example, Nancy Astor may be noted as the first woman to take the seat in the House of Commons, and her Viscountess Astor’s election leaflet clarified that she considers the state as the main value (“The 19th century and suffragists”, n.d.). In general, the culture shifted from treating women as property to viewing them as independent persons having the right to vote and participate in civil affairs.

In conclusion, the suffrage movement of women in England was characterized by militant actions and adjustive measures simultaneously. This historical period largely affected the British culture by reinventing the image of women and making it more independent. In particular, women achieved the transition from pure domesticity to the participation in social, economic, and political issues equally with them, thus proving their abilities and becoming closer to egalitarianism.

References

The 19th century and suffragists. (n.d.). Web.

Heffer, S. (1996). Founding mothers: Victorian society was full of intelligent women going mad with frustration. Then the fightback began. New Statesman, 142(5179), 1-30.

Kowal, D. M. (2000). One cause, two paths: Militant vs. adjustive strategies in the British and American women’s suffrage movements. Communication Quarterly, 48(3), 240-255.

Nym Mayhall, L. E. (2001). The rhetorics of slavery and citizenship: Suffragist discourse and canonical texts in Britain, 1880–1914. Gender & History, 13(3), 481-497.

Rollyson, C. (2003). A conservative revolutionary: Emmeline Pankhurst (1857-1928). The Virginia Quarterly Review, 79(2), 325-334.

Walker, L. (2006). Locating the global/rethinking the local: Suffrage politics, architecture, and space. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 34(1/2), 174-196.

Wright, M. (2010). The Women’s Emancipation Union and radical‐feminist politics in Britain, 1891–99. Gender & History, 22(2), 382-406.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "The Women's Suffrage Movement in England in 19th Century." July 15, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-womens-suffrage-movement-in-england-in-19th-century/.

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