The struggle for suffrage

Gitika Bhardwaj on Millicent Fawcett and the international battle to get women the vote.

The World Today
4 minute READ

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

In April 1927, Dame Millicent Fawcett attended a gathering at Chatham House. Sitting in the audience, Fawcett, almost 80 years old, listened as Rachel Crowdy, the first woman to govern a department at the League of Nations, which had been forged in the aftermath of the First World War, spoke about a growing international issue. The issue? The trafficking of women and girls.

‘Social unrest in one country is a […] source of discord in all,’ Crowdy said. ‘You may disarm the world […] but, unless you introduce better social conditions into the world, you will not be able to maintain peace, even if you obtain it.’

Tackling the trafficking of women and girls was one of a number of issues Fawcett had campaigned for throughout her career championing women’s rights. But it was the struggle for women’s suffrage that gained her national and international recognition believing, as she did, that the right to vote was at the heart of transforming women’s lives. Indeed, as she sat in the audience at Chatham House, suffrage was yet to be realized for all women in Britain.

Millicent Fawcett believed the right to vote was at the heart of transforming women’s lives.

Born in 1847 in Suffolk, a young Millicent Fawcett became involved with the emerging movement for women’s rights in 1866 when the Kensington Society spearheaded one of the first petitions for women’s suffrage in Britain. The petition would become one of more than 16,000 presented to the Houses of Parliament calling for suffrage for women between 1866 and 1918 as women’s groups began emerging in several cities and towns across the country.

By 1907, Fawcett had become president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), uniting women’s suffrage groups across Britain, and with 50,000 members, it would become the largest organization campaigning for women’s suffrage at the time.

‘There were more than 440 societies at that point,’ explains Sam Smethers, CEO of the Fawcett Society. ‘The NUWSS was therefore crucial in coordinating campaigns for women to get the vote.’

Under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett, the NUWSS engaged in numerous campaigns, including the Mud March, where over 3,000 men and women marched in London in the middle of the winter to call for women’s suffrage. But the onset of war changed everything.

The First World War

In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, plunging Europe into war. But, as millions of men were sent abroad to fight, the First World War proved to be a pivotal time for the women’s suffrage movement. The NUWSS suspended its campaigns after Millicent Fawcett decided to support the war effort but not all agreed.

‘There were a number who saw votes for women as a step towards pacifism,’ says Gill Sutherland, Emeritus Fellow at Newnham College at the University of Cambridge. ‘But Millicent Fawcett thought it was crucial for women to support the war believing it would be important in the campaign for suffrage.’

Indeed, the war did help to shift public opinion towards giving women the right to vote, after five million women joined the domestic front. ‘It soon became clear to Prime Minister David Lloyd George that more reform was needed,’ explains Sutherland. ‘That’s when there was a proposal’.

The First World War proved to be a pivotal time for the women’s suffrage movement.

This proposal was a clause to the 1918 Representation of the People Act, granting women over the age of 30 with property rights, the right to vote. Shortly afterwards, women were able to stand as Members of Parliament, leading to Constance Markievicz and Nancy Astor becoming the first women elected to the Houses of Parliament.

However, disappointment remained as women were unable to vote on the same footing as men. ‘Some were critical that the women’s suffrage movement hadn’t gotten the vote for every woman,’ Sam Smethers explains. ‘But Millicent Fawcett was a politician who understood that victory in the short-term was needed in order to get victory in the long-term.’

The Paris Peace Conference

Though the national war effort in Britain succeeded in shifting domestic public opinion, Mona Siegel, author of Peace on Our Terms: The Global Battle for Women’s Rights After the First World War, argues that the international women’s movement played the most important role for women to ultimately get the vote in Britain and around the world.

‘Global women’s rights campaigners were crucial to pushing US President Woodrow Wilson and other world leaders to cross the threshold at the end of the war,’ she says. ‘There were campaigns waged by Millicent Fawcett in Britain, Marguerite de Witt-Schlumberger in France and Carrie Chapman Catt in the United States, all pressing world leaders to endorse global women’s suffrage as a core component of a new world order.’

The struggle for women’s suffrage, and indeed women’s rights, was not yet over, leading women around the world to mobilize in 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference, setting the stage for women for years to come. 

Prevented from taking part in the proceedings at first, the women in Paris pushed for a commission to the negotiations to guide issues touching on women’s interests but, though President Wilson agreed to take this proposal to the delegates at the conference, it was shot down.

Nevertheless, the women in Paris ultimately triumphed with the establishment of the League of Nations. ‘There is an article in the Covenant of the League of Nations that states positions are open to both men and women on an equal basis,’ explains Siegel. ‘This was one of the successes of the lobbying waged by these women in Paris in 1919.’

The women in Paris ultimately triumphed with the establishment of the League of Nations.

25 years later, after the end of the Second World War, eight of the delegates at the conference in San Francisco that founded the League of Nations’ successor, the United Nations, were women, including suffragist Kathleen Courtney, who spoke at Chatham House in 1949 on the future of the UN.

Of these eight women, four signed the UN charter, including Brazilian Bertha Lutz, Minerva Bernardino from the Dominican Republic, Virginia Gildersleeve from the US and Wu Yi-fang from China, all of who played a critical role in ensuring that women’s rights were included as a cornerstone of the post-war world in 1945.

But the League of Nations was not the only organization founded with the purpose of promoting international cooperation after the First World War. Organizations, such as Chatham House, were created in 1920, and leading suffragists soon joined, including Margaret Bondfield, Catherine Marshall and Millicent Fawcett. Bondfield would become the first woman to serve in a British cabinet in 1924 while Marshall would play a significant role in assisting refugees fleeing from Central Europe during the Second World War. 

However, not all of the women who joined were suffragists. Gertrude Bell, named the ‘Shaper of Nations’ for her role in the formation of modern Iraq, was not. ‘It’s important to remember that not all women were feminists at the time,’ says Katharina Rietzler from the University of Sussex. Bell had been a member of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage which boasted up to 42,000 members and, before it came to an end, collected more than half a million signatures for petitions against the right to vote for women.


In the spring of 1927, as Millicent Fawcett sat in the hall at Chatham House, equal franchise for women in Britain remained unfulfilled. But, just a year later, success came at last. Following the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which had granted 8.5 million women the right to vote in Britain, women continued to campaign to gain suffrage on the same terms as men.

More than a century on, more women are serving in politics, yet women still do not have equal political representation.

‘They made it clear to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that the campaigning would become more difficult if equal franchise didn’t happen,’ Sutherland says. ‘In the end Baldwin thought it was easier to say yes than no.’

Triumph came in 1928, when the Equal Franchise Act was passed, increasing the number of women able to vote to 15 million. However, a year later – and months before women over 21 were able to vote for the first time – Millicent Fawcett died. ‘It’s fitting she was able to secure equal franchise just before she died,’ says Sam Smethers. Indeed, in a letter to Fawcett in 1928, Baldwin expressed his gratitude, saying he believed equal franchise ‘will be for the good of our beloved country’.

More than a century on, increasing numbers of women are serving in politics, yet women still do not have equal political representation, despite comprising half of the world’s population. ‘Suffrage was held up as a panacea,’ says Mona Siegel. ‘But even as the doors to women’s political participation have been opened, we’re still fighting the same battles 100 years on.’ 

Today, a statue of Millicent Fawcett, along with the names of almost 60 men and women who supported the women’s suffrage movement in Britain, stands outside the Houses of Parliament. While women and girls continue to campaign for political, social and economic rights, and protests take place around the world against all forms of social inequality, some are remembering Millicent Fawcett’s words over 100 years ago: ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere and its voice cannot be denied.’