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Womxn’s Rights & Suffrage in Britain: a Journey of Hardships

Article by Phoebe Chen ’24

Edited by Lauren Li ’23

What allowed Western womxn to obtain their rights in society today? Looking back on the history of Western womxn's rights & suffrage, there is no chapter that is not difficult. Two hundred years ago, voting was an untouchable dream, not to mention womxn in politics. Britain, among all of the European countries, has had a long history regarding gender equality.

The British Parliament, the supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom, developed as a strategy to restrict feudal monarchy in 1215, only allowed the property-owning male citizens above the age of 21 to vote. Fortunately, during the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, this unfair system experienced a turning point: the status of the landlord and aristocracy was gradually replaced by the rising status of the industrial bourgeoisie, the power of the working class, and womxn were able to emerge among the working class. Womxn not only participated in trade union affairs, but also took an active part in various strike movements. For example, at the Quarry Bank textile mill in Cheshire County, England, during the Industrial Revolution, its main labor force was made up of female apprentices. Only female apprentices over the age of 21 were expected to be paid, while the rest of the female workers, ranging in age from 9 to 21, received no pay at all. They worked twelve hours a day, six days a week in a cotton spinning workshop, where the safety factor was far lower than today’s standard. In addition, they were continuously sexually harassed by male supervisors. Under such pressure and injustice, the workers decided to fight against inequality and oppression. In 1833, in order to reduce the working hours to 10 hours, thousands of womxn across the UK joined the male-led "I want ten hours" strike. The story also appeared in the popular British TV series "The Mill" (2013), adapted from more than 20,000 documents left by the Quarry Bank textile mill. Despite the high cost, the strike finally won. The Industrial Revolution had brought womxn changes from body to mind. Frederick Engels, writing in the late nineteenth century, thought that the Industrial Revolution increased womxn’s participation in labor outside the home, and claimed that this change was emancipating. In 1851, working womxn accounted for 38.9% in the UK; among them, 20.5% were in the printing industry, 16.7% in the ceramic and glass manufacturing industry, 13.2% in the catering and hotel industry, and 4.5% in the public project management industry.

Picture of womxn working at the Quarry Bank textile factory

The transformation of traditional housewives becoming professional womxn has brought a new era of feminism and womxn’s suffrage. As a result, the feminist movement has gradually transformed from scattered individual struggles to organized social movements. All of this, including monogamy, which has consolidated the status of womxn in the family to some extent, reducing womxn’s internal friction, has laid the foundation for womxn’s struggle for rights in the public sphere. Although the Industrial Revolution allowed womxn to become productive forces, it did not liberate womxn from "male appendages." Before 1882, once British womxn got married, their property had to go to their husbands. After 1882, although they could own their own property, they had to pay heavy taxes, and they were not allowed to interfere with control over these taxes.

With the purpose of gaining a voice in the field of public affairs, British womxn have been fighting for the rights to vote since 1872. This struggle has lasted for nearly half a century. In its early days, there were 17 womxn's organizations in total. In 1897, these organizations gathered to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. In order to fight for suffrage, some womxn adopted methods that seem radical today, such as tying themselves to a railing on the street, or rushing into the Parliament to suspend the meeting by smashing objects to attract public attention. It was an unbridled time, and thousands of womxn were taken to prison. However, they have successfully brought unprecedented media effects to womxn who fight for suffrage. By 1913, nearly 500 officially registered male electoral groups in the UK had joined the Federation, and they were clamoring to support womxn. By 1918, female landlords who were over 30 years old, or whose husbands were landlords, or had a college diploma, finally got the vote. However, men do not need these additional conditions, as they only have to be 21 years old or older. In order to eliminate these additional conditions and strive for equal voting rights, British feminists continued to struggle for another 10 years. Finally, in 1928, they obtained all womxn's voting rights. These past events, which happened a century ago, remind us time and time again of what those feminists strived for: simply the right that every human being should have obtained as a citizen: the equality, and we must not forget their efforts that gave us our rights today.

Graphic by Savannah Frederiksen '23