The suffrage movement began their agitations for women’s rights in the first half of the 1800s, but it was after 1900 that the fight became more fierce. From this movement soon arose a broader understanding of women’s equality: Feminism.
The fight for women’s rights, particularly for the right to vote, occurred throughout the Western World between the mid-19th and very early 20th centuries. Yet it was always particularly fierce and visible in the Unites States – where these women were called suffragists – and the United Kingdom – where they were called suffragettes.
These movements were born in the first half of the 1800s, but only during the New Woman’s historical arc did they find their maturity.
Initially, these movements didn’t just focus on the vote but demanded general women’s rights and equality, such as larger and equal access to education and employment. Equality was sought inside the marriage too, where married women should have been able to control their property and wages without their husband’s interference and have control over their own body. They also sought custody of their children whether or not incomprehension with their husbands arose.
But as time passed, the fight increasingly moved towards specifically demanding the vote.
The women’s rights movement in the United States and the United Kingdom had many commonalities but also some quite important differences.Suffrage Movement (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022) The suffrage movement and feminism (a new word coined in the 1910s), though very similar, were definitely not the same thing #WomenHistory Click To Tweet
The suffrage movement in the United States
In the United States, the movement arose from the 1800s Abolitionist movement and, indeed, in the beginning, mostly demanded women/men equality. But after the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution gave African American men the right to vote, the movement’s efforts refocused on giving women the same right. Women’s suffrage became then the chief goal of most women’s organisations.
The American suffrage movement was always quite diverse because it included women from all walks of life and different origins. Every single group had their attitude and interests.
Some white middle-class activists, for example, hoped to use suffrage as a tool for maintaining white supremacy and class privilege.
On the other hand, African American suffragists used the movement as a way to challenge racism. They demanded the vote not only for African American women but also for African American men whose access to the vote was shrinking. Contrary to American society, the African American community was generally in favour of their women gaining the right to vote. Suffragists mainly focused on challenging general racial stereotypes and presenting themselves as worthy human beings rather than vote-deserving women.
Working-class women, particularly in the Jewish community, saw the fight for the vote as just a part of a greater effort in labour unions, where they asked for equality for women in the workplace.
American women gained the vote in 1920, the same year Prohibition – another cause supported by women – was passed.
The Suffrage movement in the United Kingdom
The British suffrage movement was more cohesive and definitively more militant. Particularly in the very first years of the 20th century, British suffragettes, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), regularly demonstrated in the streets and used theatrical actions to draw attention to the cause. Suffragettes became known for their extreme actions, all designed to get their demands in the paper and start larger debates. They tried everything to make themselves heard: they chained themselves to buildings, heckled politicians, broke store windows, planted explosive devices and engaged in other destructive activities that often had them arrested. But they used even this as a weapon. In jail, many suffragettes engaged in hunger strikes which often forced prison officials to forced-feed them. This would prevent them from dying for the cause but still raised a lot of agitation in the press. Between 1908 and 1914, more than 1000 women were imprisoned and force-fed.
The movement’s agitation completely stopped when WWI broke out because their every action turned to support the patriotic effort. Before the war was over, in 1918, British women over 30 finally gained the right to vote.
Feminist was a new word that entered the American vernacular around 1911-12 and designated a woman that demanded equality for women in all aspects of life, not just regarding the right to vote.
While most feminists were suffragists, not all suffragists were feminists. Even while fighting for the right to vote, many women still thought that some places were not supposed to be for women, both in social and working life. The feminist’s position, especially concerning equality, was often far more radical than a suffragist’s view.
Marie Jenny Howe, a self-identified feminist, argued in a 1914 New Review article: “Feminism is not limited to any one cause or reform. It strives for equal rights, equal laws, equal opportunity, equal wages, equal standards, and a whole new world of human equality.” Feminists didn’t just want women to have the right to vote. They strived to change society completely, the very minds of men and women, to create a more equal, therefore happier, world. They often assumed far more radical positions than suffragists in all matters, including fashion.
Feminists were often bohemians who advocated the importance of personality and the uniqueness of every person. Contrary to suffragists, who used fashion to conform themselves to a mainstream view of women, feminists thought that fashion should reflect the individuality of every woman as well as be comfortable and rational.
Feminism always placed the individual, and the freedom and respect for the individual, at the centre. Everything else would come as a consequence.
Bohemians of the Greenwich Village
History – 7 Things You Might Not Know About the Women’s Suffrage Movement
A Century of Women – 1910-1920
National Women’s History Museum – Feminism: The First Wave
United States HOuse of Representatives – History, Arts and Archives – The Women’s Rights Movement, 1848–1917
American History – New Women in Early 20th-Century America
The Dream Book Blog – More Than Just a Gibson Girl: The New Woman