The British Suffragist Movement and its publications

Suffrage And The Printed Word

The popularisation through film and television programmes of modern history obviously has immense scope for engaging new generations with the past, but it also can have the effect of narrowing and simplifying complex historical processes and movements.

The women’s suffrage movement that existed between the 1860s and the First World War is a case in point. The popular perception of the movement is that of the suffragettes, angrily smashing windows in Whitehall and chaining themselves to railings.

Whilst the militant tactics of the WSPU and the response of the Asquith government are an important part of the history of the struggle for women’s suffrage, it must be emphasised that they were a relatively small aspect of the movement.

The numbers of those engaged in militant protest and the timescale of those protests is dwarfed by the far larger and less actively confrontational elements of the movement. The adoption of militant tactics by some suffrage campaigners was in part inspired by frustration that ‘passive’ measures did not appear to be working.

In this article we will explore a vitally important aspect of the struggle for female suffrage, the development of suffragist newspapers, pamphlets and journalism. The growth of a written culture pre-dates other forms of political radicalism, and the development of a mass movement would not have been possible without it.

The birth of a movement

Between the 1850s and the 1930s a women’s political press developed in Britain, and by the eve of the First World War there were over 120 different magazines, newspapers and journals that campaigned for female suffrage.

In the first half of the 19th Century magazines for women were almost always written by men, they were written for a literate and wealthy middle class audience and gave advice on domestic issues such as finding good servants and keeping the Victorian husband happy and content.

When press laws were relaxed in the 1830s, with restrictive stamp and paper duties abolished by 1855, there was a dramatic profusion of new periodicals and journals, writing for women began to change. For the first time female editors and journalists were able to write for female audience, and there were several wealthy women able to finance new publications, which guaranteed their editorial independence.

The first major publication that addressed the issue of women’s legal rights was the English Women’s Journal, published by Barbara Bodichon, established in 1858. Bodichon, a founding figure in the suffrage movement had campaigned against the repressive divorce laws that deprived women of their children and property if they divorced.

She came to believe that only by extending the vote to women of property could their rights be protected by the law. In 1854 she published a critique of the existing laws entitled ‘A Brief Summary of the Laws of England concerning Women’, and the findings led, in part, to the passing three decades later of the Married Women’s Property Act 1882.

The English Women’s Journal initially did not directly address the issue of suffrage, instead it focused on legal rights at home and at work for women and the desire of many women to have greater access to careers. It reflected its audience, middle class, well educated and well to do. Its successor publication in 1866 was called the Englishwoman’s Review. It was edited by Jessie Boucherett, and addressed more directly the question of suffrage and it now existed in a wider culture of growing political activism.

The eve of the 1867 Reform Act

The years 1865 and 1866 saw a flowering of small female suffrage movements which mirrored the far larger and often more violent campaigns for male working class suffrage in the prelude to the 1867 Reform Act. In 1865 the Kensington Society (of which Bodichon was a founding member) was formed by nine unmarried middle class women, and was just one of several new suffrage groups demanding the vote.

One of the most influential of the new suffrage journalists and publishers was Lydia Becker, the daughter of a wealthy chemical manufacturer in Manchester, who had taken a keen interest in science before joining the small suffrage movement in 1866. Becker was able to have complete editorial control over her periodical, the Women’s Suffrage Journal, that she founded in 1870 with Jessie Boucherett.

This did not mean that the journal and publications like it were free from financial pressures, even though there were a number of female run low cost printing presses, there were still significant overheads that meant that suffrage newspapers had to be sold effectively.

The appearance in Victorian and Edwardian London of female newspaper street sellers was at first a novelty, but soon the vendors (all volunteers) were the subject of harangues from anti suffragists. For many volunteers, selling suffrage newspapers and dealing with hecklers and encountering supporters was an invaluable political training and it resulted in them becoming far more committed to the suffrage movement.


The diverse range of papers, periodicals, journals and pamphlets discussed suffrage, property and employment rights, domestic violence and also explored social issues such as prostitution and poverty. This meant that for many women readers, the experience of being female in a male dominated society was addressed as a political issue for the first time.

The written culture that developed between 1850 and 1930 helped to transform attitudes among mainly educated, middle class women on a range of issues beyond simply that of suffrage. Most journals before 1903 supported the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which was dedicated to peaceful, non violent protest. In 1903 the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage, that had been founded in 1867 and affiliated to the NUWSS since 1897, developed into the Women’s Social and Political Union.

It was established by Emmeline Pankhurst and her three daughters, Sylvia, Christabel and Adela, who shared an immense frustration at the lack of any meaningful change for women politically, despite decades of campaigning.

The election of a reforming Liberal Government in 1906 only added to their growing militancy, as it was headed by Herbert Asquith, who had made his antipathy towards electoral reform for women clear. Between 1905 and 1914 a campaign of window smashing, arson and civil disobedience gradually developed, resulting in over 1,000 arrests and jail sentences for women by the eve of the First World War.

Votes for Women

The WSPU’s newspaper ‘Votes for Women’ was established in 1907, and it was a markedly different type of periodical from its more moderate precessors. It was edited and funded by the Emmeline and Frederick Pethwick-Lawrence, but for the first two years of its life had a modest (just over 5,000 readers a month) circulation.

The WSPU used promotional activities such as the advertisement of the newspaper on the side of their own London bus, and by 1910 the circulation had leapt to 120,000 a month. It directly attacked government measures against the suffragettes ( a title that was the invention of another newspaper, The Daily Mail), and promoted acts of civil disobedience.

When the Lawrences’ opposed to Christabel Pankhurst’s proposed arson campaign in 1912 she had them expelled from the WSPU and the organisation lost control over the newspaper. A new publication, The Suffragette was set up, which overtly supported militant actions like window smashing and was suppressed by the

Home Office, with editorial staff facing arrest. Its circulation on the eve of the war was 10,000 a week, but it was the outbreak of the conflict that profoundly transformed it. Gradually the editorial stance of the Suffragette changed to embrace voting rights for working class women as well as middle class ‘ladies’, and images of working class women began to appear on the front page for the first time during 1913.

The WSPU negotiated with the government for the release of its imprisoned members in return for a cessation of protests, and The Suffragette was transformed into the patriotic newspaper Britannia, which sought to bring the struggle for suffrage and the war effort together in the minds of protesters. 

The evolution of the women’s suffrage movement can be traced through the development of the newspapers that informed, educated and politicised several generations of women from the 1850s onwards. Later radicalisation was only possible by the steady development of a broad based political movement that was closely linked to and developed by an emerging and politicised written culture for women, produced mainly by women.

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