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British Suffrage Movement

In Great Britain the woman’s suffrage movement roughly paralleled that of the United States, but in the movement's later stages more vigorous and violent tactics were often employed.

The great pioneer figure of British feminism was the writer Mary Wollstonecraft. Her chief work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), is one of the major feminist documents of the 18th century. During the 1830s and 1840s British suffragism received notable aid and encouragement from the Chartists, who fought unsuccessfully for a sweeping programme of human rights.

In subsequent years the woman-suffrage issue was kept before the British public by a succession of liberal legislators, among them the statesmen and social philosophers John Stuart Mill, John Bright, and Richard Cobden. Mill helped to found in 1865 the first British woman-suffrage association. All efforts to secure the franchise for women were effectively opposed. Prominent among the anti-feminists of the period were the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria and the British prime ministers William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli.

The British woman-suffrage movement acquired additional impetus when in 1897 various feminist groups merged to form the National Union of Woman Suffrage Societies. A section of the membership soon decided that its policies were timid and indecisive, and in 1903 the dissident and more militant faction, led by the colourful feminist Emmeline Pankhurst, established the Women's Social and Political Union. Pankhurst's suffragettes soon won a reputation for boldness and militancy.

Tactics employed by the organization included boycotting, bombing, window breaking, picketing, and harassment of anti-suffragist legislators. In 1913 one dedicated suffragette publicised her cause by deliberately hurling herself to death under the hooves of horses racing in the Derby at Epsom Downs. Because of their forceful and provocative behaviour, the suffragettes were often handled roughly by the police and repeatedly jailed and fined.

During World War I the British suffragettes ceased agitation and made notable contributions to many aspects of the war effort, favourably influencing public opinion. In 1918 Parliament enfranchised all women householders, householders' wives, and women university graduates over 30 years of age. Parliament lowered the voting age of women to 21 in 1928, giving them complete political equality with men.

In 1979 British trade union leader Margaret G. Bondfield became the first woman cabinet member in British history. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became the first woman prime minister of Great Britain.


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