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A British suffragette (c.

Suffragette is a term originally coined by the Daily Mail newspaper as a derogatory label for the more radical and militant members of the late-19th and early-20th century movement for women's suffrage in the United Kingdom, in particular members of the Women's Social and Political Union . However, after former and then active members of the movement began to reclaim the word, the term became a label without negative connotations. It derives from the word "suffrage", meaning the right to vote.

Suffragist is a more general term for members of suffrage movements, whether radical or conservative, male or female. Americanmarker campaigners preferred this more inclusive title, while those Americans hostile to women's suffrage used "suffragette" as a pejorative, emphasizing its feminine "-ette" ending. In Britain, "suffragist" is generally used solely to identify members of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies .

Origins of women's suffrage movements

The suffrage movement was mainly women from middle class backgrounds. These women were frustrated by their social and economic situation and sought for an outlet through which to initiate change. Their struggles for change within society, along with the work of such advocates for women’s rights as John Stuart Mill, were enough to spearhead a movement that would encompass mass groups of women fighting for suffrage. Mill had first brought the idea of women’s suffrage up in the platform he presented to British electors in 1865. He would later be joined by numerous men and women fighting for the same cause.

A few historians feel that some of the suffragettes' actions actually damaged their cause. The argument was that the suffragettes should not get the vote because they were too emotional and could not think as logically as men; their violent and aggressive actions were used as evidence in support of this argument .

New Zealandmarker was the first self-governing country in the world to grant women the vote. In 1893, all women over the age of 21 were permitted to vote in parliamentary elections.

Early 20th-century suffrage movements

Suffragettes carried out direct action such as chaining themselves to railings, setting fire to mailbox contents, smashing windows and on occasions setting off bombs. One suffragette, Emily Davison, died after she stepped out in front of the King's horse, Anmer, at the Epsom Derby of 1913. Many of her fellow suffragettes were imprisoned and went on hunger strikes, during which they were restrained and forcibly fed and had reached the height of their campaign by 1912.

The so-called Cat and Mouse Act of 1913 was passed by the British government to prevent suffragettes from obtaining public sympathy; it provided the release of those whose hunger strikes had brought them sickness, as well as their re-imprisonment once they had recovered.

Nevertheless, protests continued on both sides of the Atlantic. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns led a series of protests against the Wilson Administration in Washington that referred to "Kaiser Wilson" and compared the plight of the German people with that of American women.

During World War I, a serious shortage of able-bodied men ("manpower") occurred, and women were required to take on many of the traditional male roles. This led to a new view of what a woman was capable of doing. The war also caused a split in the British suffragette movement, with the mainstream, represented by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst's Women's Social and Political Union, calling a 'ceasefire' in their campaign for the duration of the war, while more radical suffragettes, represented by Sylvia Pankhurst's Women's Suffrage Federation continued the struggle.

Political movement towards women's suffrage began during the war and in 1918, the Parliament of the United Kingdommarker passed an act (the Representation of the People Act 1918) granting the vote to: women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities. The right to vote of American women was codified in the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920. Finally, women in the United Kingdom achieved suffrage on the same terms as men in 1928.


From 1908 the WSPU adopted the colour scheme of purple, white and green. Purple symbolised dignity; White for purity; and Green for hope.These three colours were used for banners, flags, rosettes and badges; as well as appearing in newspaper cartoons and postcards.

Mappin & Webb, the London jewellers, issued a catalogue of suffragette jewellery for Christmas 1908.In 1909, the WSPU presented specially commissioned pieces of jewellery to leading suffragettes Emmeline Pankhurst and Louise Eates. Some Arts and Crafts jewellery of the period incorporated the colours purple, white and green using enamel and semi-precious stones such as amethysts, pearls, and peridots; however it is rather a moot point whether all such jewellery is connected with the suffragettes, as these stones were already quite common in women's jewellery during the late 19th century, before the WSPU adopted the colours.

It is a popular myth that the colours were green, white and violet, in order to spell GWV as an acronym for 'Give Women Votes'.

Notable suffragettes

United Kingdom



New Zealand


Image:Portrait Badge of Emmeline Pankhurst - c1909 - Museum of London.jpg|Portrait badge of Emmeline Pankhurst - c1909 - Sold in large numbers by the WSPU to raise funds for its cause - Museum of LondonImage:Suffragette Banner - Musuem of London.jpg|Suffragette Banner - c1910 - Museum of LondonImage:Votes For Women.jpg|Votes for Women poster - 1909Image:Cat and Mouse Act Poster - 1914.jpg|WSPU poster - 1914 - Museum of LondonImage:Louise Eates Pendant - 1909 - Museum of London.jpg|Silver, enamel and amethyst pendant, presented to suffragette Louise Eates - 1909 - Museum of London

See also


  1. Rover, C. Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain, University of Toronto Press, 1967, page 5.
  2. New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage. New Zealand women and the vote. New Zealand History online. Retrieved on: January 6, 2008.


  • Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (New York: Merriam Webster, 1983) ISBN 0-87779-511-8
  • Suffragettes versus Suffragists - website comparing aims and methods of Women’s Social and Political Union (Suffragettes) to National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (Suffragists)
  • Suffragists vs. Suffragettes - brief article outlining origins of term "suffragette", usage of term and links to other sources.
  • Melanie Phillips. The Ascent of Woman: A History of the Suffragette Movement.
  • Diane Atkinson. The Purple, White and Green: Suffragettes in London, Museum of London, 1992

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