Suffragette is a term originally coined by the Daily Mail newspaper as a derogatory label for the more radical and militant members of the late-19th and early-20th century movement for women's suffrage in the United Kingdom, in particular members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). However, after former and then active members of the movement began to adopt it, the term became a label without negative connotations. It derives from the word "suffrage", meaning the right to vote.
Suffragist is a more general term for members of suffrage movements, whether radical or conservative, male or female. American campaigners preferred this more inclusive title, while those Americans hostile to women's suffrage used "suffragette" as a pejorative, emphasizing its feminine "-ette" ending. In Britain, "suffragist" is generally used solely to identify members of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).
The woman's suffrage movement was one primarily run by working-class women. These women were frustrated by their social and economic situation and sought for an outlet through which to initiate change. Their struggles for change within society, along with the work of such advocates for women’s rights as John Stuart Mill, were enough to spearhead a movement that would encompass mass groups of women fighting for suffrage. Mill had first brought the idea of women’s suffrage up in the platform he presented to British electors in 1865. He would later be joined by numerous men and women fighting for the same cause.
New Zealand was the first self-governing country in the world to grant women the vote. In 1893, all women over the age of 21 were permitted to vote in parliamentary elections.
Suffragettes carried out direct action such as chaining themselves to railings, setting fire to mailbox contents, smashing windows and on occasions setting off bombs. One suffragette, Emily Davison, died after she stepped out in front of the King's horse, Anmer, at the Epsom Derby of 1913. Many of her fellow suffragettes were imprisoned and went on hunger strikes, during which they were restrained and forcibly fed and had reached the height of their campaign by 1912.
The so-called Cat and Mouse Act was passed by the British government to prevent suffragettes from obtaining public sympathy; it provided the release of those whose hunger strikes had brought them sickness, as well as their re-imprisonment once they had recovered.
Nevertheless, protests continued on both sides of the Atlantic. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns led a series of protests against the Wilson Administration in Washington that referred to "Kaiser Wilson" and compared the plight of the German people with that of American women (see picture).
During World War I, a serious shortage of able-bodied men ("manpower") occurred, and women were required to take on many of the traditional male roles. This led to a new view of what a woman was capable of doing. The war also caused a split in the British suffragette movement, with the mainstream, represented by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst's Women's Social and Political Union, calling a 'ceasefire' in their campaign for the duration of the war, while more radical suffragettes, represented by Sylvia Pankhurst's Women's Suffrage Federation continued the struggle.
Political movement towards women's suffrage began during the war and in 1918, the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed an act (the Representation of the People Act 1918) granting the vote to: women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities. The right to vote of American women was codified in the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920. Finally, women in the United Kingdom achieved suffrage on the same terms as men in 1928.