Women’s suffrage was the pursuit of the right for women to vote in political elections. Pursued by both women and men, it was a long and arduous campaign that lasted 86 years before the Representation of the People Act came into force on 6 February 1918 and gave, some, women the right to vote.
Some of the best-known ‘personalities’ of this campaign were the suffragettes, who conducted increasingly dangerous militant acts in order to protest the lack of representation in government. However, militant suffragism was relatively short-lived. The first militant action occurred in Manchester in October 1905, involving Christabel Pankhurst. Militancy continued for nine years until a truce was called in 1914 to focus on the war effort. These few years dominate the discourse on women’s suffrage because of the press attention they received. However, the pursuit of women’s suffrage began long before 1905.
Suffragists, who sought to gain the vote through constitutional means, had been campaigning since 1832, when the first petition on women’s suffrage was presented to parliament. This early movement sought to improve women’s lot in areas such as education, entry into professions and married women’s legal rights. Despite successes such as the Married Women’s Property Act 1870 and the Local Government Act (Scotland) 1894, suffragists continued to pursue the parliamentary vote. This is because they believed equal representation in parliament was the only effective way to reform legislation relating to women and children. As the movement grew, between 1870 and 1884 a debate on women’s suffrage took place almost every year in parliament.
National Records of Scotland (NRS) holds many records relating to suffrage activities. The apprehension and prosecution of suffragettes are detailed in records of the Scottish Office, Crown Office, the courts and the prisons. The files provide a fascinating insight into the evidence gathered, and the actions of officials, including detailed notes from prison attendants and doctors, the circumstances surrounding arrests, newspaper reports and, where applicable, details of force-feeding.
These files paint a lively picture of the suffragettes and the authorities. One of the largest is for Ethel Moorhead, considered the Scottish leader of the suffragettes, despite the fact that no such position existed which highlights the impact Moorhead’s antics had on the public conscience! One notable record reports the arrest of Moorhead and Dorothea Lynas or Smith (NRS, HH16/40) for house-breaking and attempted fire-raising. Discovered by a passing constable, they were found in a house with incendiary materials.
Among the NRS records relating to this incident, we hold some of the evidence submitted as part of their trial, including this rather threatening message.
In our gift and deposit collections, we hold the papers of the Balfour Family and their extensive correspondence. These contain the letters and diaries of leading suffragist Lady Frances Balfour (1858-1931). Balfour worked for the Women’s Liberal Unionist Association in the late 1880s and served on the executive committee of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) from its formation in 1897 alongside Millicent Fawcett. Balfour’s aristocratic background makes her participation in suffragism unusual, but with a politically-active Liberal family, she was prepared to be ostracised for the cause. Balfour wrote, marched and spoke on women’s suffrage throughout Scotland and England.
Balfour’s letters in NRS reveal her participation in the peaceful NUWSS United Procession of Women of 1907 – commonly known as the ‘Mud March’ – in which 40 suffragist societies and over 3,000 women marched from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall. They also reveal her perception of both peaceful and militant protests, and the actions of the Government in response. Although many suffragists were outspoken in their disapproval of militancy, suffragists and suffragettes often collaborated. She expressed her mixed feelings: “I don’t know whether I like the policy, but I do admire the courage & resource of the women” (NRS, GD433/2/337).
A short timeline of some of the significant events relating to women’s suffrage in the UK, and incidents that are represented in NRS archives, is available here. To find out more about NRS, the records we hold and how to access them, visit our website www.nrscotland.gov.uk.
- A Guid Cause: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland, Leah Leneman
- Lives of Scottish Women: women and Scottish society, 1800-1980, William W. J. Knox
- National Records of Scotland, Criminal Case Files
- Parliament.uk, Women and the vote: Founding of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) 1897
- Women’s History Scotland, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland, 1867-1928: A Learning Resource
- The Women’s Library @LSE, National Union of Women’s Suffrage Socieities, 1897-1919