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The Women’s Suffrage Movement

The movements for female suffrage in Britain and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had many common links, but there were some significant differences between them. For one thing, British women seeking the vote called themselves “suffragettes,” while Americans preferred the more gender-neutral “suffragists.”

A far more important difference was the degree of militancy of the two movements. Under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), thousands of suffragettes demonstrated in the streets, chained themselves to buildings, heckled politicians, broke store windows, planted explosive devices and engaged in other destructive activities in order to pressure Britain’s Liberal government to give women the vote. In a particularly gruesome (and public) display, Emily Wilding Davison was fatally trampled by a racehorse owned by King George V when she tried to pin a sash advertising the suffragette cause to the horse’s bridle during the Epsom Derby in 1913.

More than 1,000 suffragettes were imprisoned between 1908 and 1914; when they engaged in hunger strikes to draw public attention to their cause, prison officials responded by forcefeeding them. Such militant tactics ceased when World War I broke out, as Pankhurst and the WSPU threw all their support behind the patriotic cause. In 1918, the British government granted suffrage to all women over the age of 30, ostensibly in recognition of women’s contributions to the war effort.

Some American suffragists, inspired by their British sisters-in the-cause, adopted militant tactics themselves. In 1907, an American Quaker named Alice Paul was studying in England when she joined British women in their campaign for suffrage. Over the next three years, while doing graduate work at the Universities of Birmingham and London, Paul was arrested and jailed three times for suffragist agitation.

After returning to the United States, she joined the National American Suffrage Association, founded by Carrie Chapman Catt, but soon grew impatient with that organization’s mild mannered tactics. In 1913, Paul and fellow militants formed the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, later the National Woman’s Party. Their demonstrations outside Woodrow Wilson’s White House in 1917 culminated in the socalled “Night of Terror” that November, during which guards at Virginia’s Occoquan Workhouse brutally beat some 30 female picketers. At the time, Paul herself was serving a sevenmonth stint in prison, where she was force-fed and confined to a psychopathic ward. In January 1918, a district court overturned all the women’s sentences without ceremony; that same month, President Wilson declared his support for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment (later the 19th Amendment) granting female suffrage.


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