There had been a campaign for the parliamentary vote for women since the 1860s. In 1867 (1868 in Scotland) the Representation of the People Act gave some working-class men the right to vote for the first time, but no women. In response, a number of women’s suffrage societies were set up all over the country, including Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.
These societies amalgamated under the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). They are known as the ‘constitutional suffragists’ because they believed in winning the vote for women through constitutional means, such as petitions and letters to MPs.
There was general excitement amongst women suffragists when a new Liberal government was elected with a landslide victory in 1906. The majority of Liberal MPs had pledged their support to the cause of women’s suffrage, and the Liberal party was also associated with the slogan ‘No taxation without representation’. However, hopes were quickly dashed. Although the new Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, was sympathetic, he did not feel that there was an appetite in the country to change the status quo.
Growing frustration with the situation prompted Emmeline Pankhurst, the widow of a socialist politician from Manchester, to establish a new kind of suffrage organisation. Working with her daughters Christabel, Adela and Sylvia, and others from her socialist circles in Manchester, Mrs Pankhurst established the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. The WSPU aimed to raise the profile of the question of women’s suffrage and to make women campaigners more visible. Rather than giving tea parties for other women, WSPU members attended male political meetings to demand the vote. Such conduct outraged Edwardian sensibilities and WSPU members found themselves shouted down and forcibly removed.
In October 1905 things came to a head when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, a mill-worker, disrupted a political meeting in Manchester, were arrested and opted to go to prison rather than pay a fine. Their imprisonment made newspaper headlines throughout the country. The WSPU quickly realised that such ‘militant’ acts raised their profile and made ‘votes for women’ a hot topic. The Union adopted the motto ‘Deeds not Words’ and adopted these new tactics of disrupting meetings and accepting imprisonment in order to gain maximum publicity for their cause. It was at this point that the Daily Mail coined the name ‘Suffragettes’ for these new radical suffrage campaigners, to distinguish them from the constitutional suffragists of the NUWSS.