The Women's Rights Movement in the UK

The beginning of the women’s suffrage movement

Until 1832, women in the UK were not explicitly denied the right to vote. Before then, a few women had the right to vote through land ownership, although this was a rare occurrence. Then, the Reform Act of 1832 enfranchised only “male persons”, thus banning women from voting and creating the circumstances in which the suffrage movement began in the UK.

In August of the same year, the first petition for women’s suffrage was presented to Parliament by Mary Smith from Yorkshire. Henry Hunt, a Member of Parliament (MP), agreed with the petition and argued publicly that single, taxpaying women who had sufficient property should be allowed to vote.

However, other social issues took the spotlight away from women’s suffrage. For example, members of the Chartist movement (a working-class movement for political reform), focused more on gaining universal male suffrage, even though they also supported women’s suffrage. Even some campaigners for women’s rights also tended to focus on other issues, such as the right for married women to own property and the right to sue an ex-husband after divorce.

The issue of women’s suffrage did not gain momentum until 1865, when the philosopher John Stuart Mill stood for office with a platform that included direct support for women’s voting rights.

After John Stuart Mill’s election as MP for the City of Westminster, Leigh Smith Bodichon, an English educationalist and artist, formed the first Women’s Suffrage Committee and collected over 1500 signatures in support of women’s suffrage. She presented the petition to John Stuart Mill and Henry Fawcett, another MP who supported universal suffrage.

The petition convinced Mill to draft an amendment which gave women the same political rights as men, and present it to Parliament . However, the amendment was rejected, and the defeat led to the formation of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, with John Stuart Mill as president.

National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies

Similar organisations to the London Society for Women’s Suffrage were founded all over Britain in the following years and 17 of these organisations joined together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897. The NUWSS was led by Millicent Fawcett, a British activist, writer, and political leader who went on to become a prominent campaigner for women’s suffrage.

The NUWSS was a peaceful organisation, which aimed to achieve women’s suffrage through legal, non-confrontational means such as proposing Parliamentary Bills, organising informative meetings, distributing informative materials, and gathering signatures for petitions.

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