How 19th Century Women Carved a Path Toward Female Suffrage | History Hit

How 19th Century Women Carved a Path Toward Female Suffrage

Glynis Cooper

04 Dec 2020
The 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C., was initiated and organized by suffrage leader Alice Paul
Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mention the early 1800s and most people think of Jane Austen, the Battle of Waterloo, the Regency and glories of the British Empire. Riches and plenty for all abounded …for the privileged few. The flip side was an industrial hell in which millions of people lived and worked in appalling conditions where the sun never shone, and which today would disgrace the world’s worst slums. 

The female experience

Single women or widows had very limited rights, but married women had no rights at all.  In law they had no legal existence and no legal possessions; they could not claim their own earnings or write a will; they could not leave their husband’s house without permission or defend themselves in a divorce case; they could not sign a lease, transact business or prosecute for libel.

Conjugal relations were expected to be available on demand and it was still legal for a man to beat his wife.

Working class life

Children worked from the age of five upwards. They were small and nimble, so they could crawl beneath the fast continuously moving machinery to clean it. Many were scalped or had limbs torn off.

Wages were so low they sometimes didn’t cover the cost of a loaf of bread. In 1815 punitive Corn Laws had been introduced, placing tariffs on grain imports to keep the price of corn high for the benefit of the aristocracy. Workers went hungry and mortality was high. 

Documentary, using the academic expertise of Professor Christer Petley at the University of Southampton, exploring the rise of the Abolition movement in Britain in the late 18th century and its ultimate success in passing a bill (1807 Abolition Act) that outlawed the trade in Africans across the Atlantic to the brutal plantation systems established in the Americas.
Watch Now

Groups and societies began to form to fight these injustices. Women were not allowed to join official associations so they formed their own groups, seeing the main objective as achieving positive results for their menfolk, but also fighting for their own rights – moving one male activist to remark that “the women were the better men…”  


The Peterloo meeting took place on St Peter’s Field in Manchester on 16 August 1819. Around 60,000 people attended. It was peaceful until local magistrates, panicked by the numbers, ordered the cavalry to charge the crowds.

The historian Michael Wood described Peterloo as:

“that key moment in the history of British democracy, when the English state unleashed deadly violence on its own citizens”.

It was a day of shocking brutality and utter carnage, of armed cavalry cutting down unarmed citizens. Women made up 12.5% of the crowd and 25% of the deaths. Not included in official death tolls were four babies born prematurely and several unrecorded miscarriages due to their mother’s injuries.

Females had been especially singled out, hunted down and attacked to ‘teach them a lesson.’ It did teach them a lesson, but not the one their attackers had intended. 

Print depicting the Peterloo massacre, 1819 (Image Credit: Public Domain)

Reform groups

Women became steadily more involved in reform groups, Chartism, trade unions, politics, education, career opportunities and the suffragette cause. Perseverance paid off, as more women began to fulfil roles in various spheres.

Emmeline Pankhurst did not start the suffragette movement. That honour fell to Lydia Becker, a scientist who worked with Charles Darwin. In 1868, when Emmeline was still a child, Lydia Becker organised the first suffragette meeting at the Free Trade Hall (now the Radisson Blu Hotel) in Manchester. 

Lydia Becker by Susan Isabel Dacre, c.1890 (Image Credit: Public Domain)

The first female-led strike over pay was by weavers at Dewsbury and Batley in 1875. To male astonishment the women won handsome victories.  In 1884 Further protest marches were held about the limitations of the Third Reform Act, and eleven Peterloo veterans were invited to attend the Failsworth march.

Failsworth Peterloo veterans

Michael Wood, who is researching his own family history, is keenly interested in the Failsworth March as several of his family came from that area. A single photograph survives of the Failsworth Peterloo Veterans.

Most of these veterans were local and traceable, but the eleventh one, Mary Collins, remains a mystery. She was born in Ireland in 1802 and by 1819 she was living in the Failsworth area. Her life story is unknown. 

Robert Poole argues why the events at Peterloo Square on 16 August 1819 were a key turning point in the reform movement, and why its legacy was integral in forcing concessions ten years later.
Watch Now

Continued opposition

The idea of female suffrage continued to encounter fierce hostility from both men and women who believed that females should not have any democratic rights nor any equality, believing the purpose of females was simply for breeding and domestic duties.

Queen Victoria considered it would “unsex women” to allow them the vote, while many men believed female psychology could not cope with the multi-tasking required for political acumen, voting, child-care and running a home. 

Emmeline Pankhurst

The slow progress towards female suffrage annoyed Emmeline Pankhurst. In 1913, after hearing an application by a woman to become a solicitor, citing regulations for legal careers referred to “persons” and did not exempt females, the judge ruled that “women are not persons.”

Emmeline became more insistent, more militant, setting fire to letter boxes and attacking MPs’ houses.  She also involved her daughters. Christabel and Sylvia are well known, but the youngest, Adela, is the forgotten Pankhurst daughter.

Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913 (Image Credit: Public Domain)

Adela was an active suffragette, but she was also a pacifist and could not sanction her mother’s militancy. Emmeline Pankhurst, enraged by this filial insubordination, bought Adela a ticket to Australia, forcing her to emigrate early in 1914.

Mother and daughter never saw each other again; but despite continuing vocal protests and subsequent militancy the suffragettes won neither equality nor the vote for women. 

The Great War

Female suffrage was finally won due to the Great War 1914-18. Women’s patriotic efforts; doing men’s jobs as more men were called to the Fronts; keeping the country running and the home fires burning throughout the war, were rewarded in 1918 by women over thirty being granted voting rights and being allowed to stand for Parliament.

They had finally proved themselves the equals of men. It was a momentous achievement and led to the ultimate prize of universal suffrage ten years later with the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928.

A Century of Female Revolution by Glynis Cooper is published by Pen & Sword books and is available now.

Glynis Cooper