2018 marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act extended the vote to some women in the UK. The Act was passed in February 1918 but many centenary events and exhibitions are kicking off in June so now is a great time to pay your respects to and find out more about the suffragettes and suffragists who made it possible for women in the UK to have a say.
The 1918 Act granted the vote to women over 30 years old – provided they met a minimum property qualification – and men over 21. Although there was a long way to go before women had equal say to men in elections, the Act was a huge step on the journey to universal suffrage in the UK, and we still benefit every single day from the actions, sacrifices and iron wills of our fore-mothers.
“Next time you vote, spare a moment or two to think about the women whose actions made it possible for you to mark X on your ballot paper.”
Until then, pay homage at these places forever linked to the battle for female suffrage.
Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition (27 June – 6 October) recreates historical spaces tied to the votes for women campaign and the representation of women in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It’s staged in Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament – the scene of the 1908 rush on the House of Commons in which 37 people were arrested, 10 were hospitalised and 7 police officers were signed off sick because of their injuries.
Part of the Museum of London’s extensive Votes for Women programme (until 6 January 2019), Women’s Movement (24 June – 26 August) is a walk through places in Westminster and Soho linked to the campaign for women’s rights, from the Suffragette Fellowship Memorial to individual stories from ordinary women who did their bit.
The National Portrait Gallery’s year-long Rebel Women is a programme of displays, talks and a trail, which includes paintings by Millicent Fawcett (leader of the peaceful suffragists) and Christabel Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the militant suffragettes), and a banner-making workshop. While you’re there, stand in front of Velázquez’ painting Rokeby Venus and imagine Mary Richardson taking a meat cleaver to it in 1914 because she wanted “to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history”.
Finally, take a pilgrimage to Emmeline Pankhurst’s grave in Brompton Cemetery.
This northern city is considered the birthplace of the suffragette movement. 62 Nelson Street was Emmeline Pankhurst’s home; she founded the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in her living room here in 1903. Now it’s The Pankhurst Centre, which houses a small museum and heritage centre and a women’s community centre. Opening times are limited, so check before you visit.
In Manchester’s People’s History Museum, the crowdsourced Represent! Voices 100 Years On exhibition (2 June – 3 February 2019) ponders how far we’ve actually come since 1918. Sashes, brooches, photographs and the iconic Manchester suffragette banner are on display, alongside more recent items such as placards from the 2017 Women’s Marches.
Whilst in Manchester, spend a few minutes at St Peter’s Square remembering the 11 people – including a child – massacred here in August 1819, when 80,000 people gathered to demand the vote. It’s a poignant reminder that the battle for suffrage has been long and bloody.
Then walk past the nearby Free Trade Hall (now a Radisson Hotel), where Christabel Pankhurst was arrested for holding a Votes for Women flag during a political meeting in 1905. Winston Churchill paid the fine for her release.
Elsewhere in the UK…
Glasgow’s Suffragette’s Oak in Kelvingrove Park planted 100 years ago by women suffrage pioneers to commemorate the Act. It’s marked by a plaque and features on the Women’s Library’s West End Women’s Heritage Walk.
In Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London, PROCESSIONS (10 June) is a mass participation artwork celebrating 100 years of women voting. A living portrait of women in the 21st century, women and girls of all ages and from all walks of life will march together wearing the colours of the suffragette movement.
The year-long National Trust’s Women and Power programme explores the lives of those who fought for suffrage and influenced social change. More than 100 National Trust places are taking part, telling the stories of historic figures on both sides of the battle for female suffrage, from the pro-suffrage theatre director Edith Craig of Smallhythe in Kent to the surprisingly anti-suffrage Octavia Hill, social reformer and co-founder of the National Trust. Cliveden’s A Room of One’s Own garden audio experience (13 June – 10 November) tells the proud history of four of the estate’s powerful females, in the words of four world-renowned writers.
One of the most famous women of the suffrage movement was Emily Wilding Davison, who ran in front of the King’s horse on 4 June 1914 at Epsom Downs Racecourse, Surrey. She died of her injuries 4 days later. You could spend a jolly day at the races there, but more in keeping with the gravity of the cause would be a pilgrimage to Emily Wilding Davison’s grave in Morpeth, Northumberland. Her grave reads “Deeds not Words” – the motto of Pankhurst’s Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Before she gave her life so we could vote, Davison spent several nights hidden in Parliament (including on Census night in April 1911 so that her census return could state her address as ‘House of Commons’), was jailed 8 times and force-fed 49 times.