Looking Back: the Suffragists and the Suffragettes: who’s who?

In the run up to International Women’s Day, THSH is diving into the archives for our #THSHLookingBack series:  exploring Birmingham Town Hall’s rich history as a hub of speechmaking, protesting, and campaigning in the suffragette movement, which won the vote for most women 100 years ago last year.


As the pre-1918 part of the project draws to a close, this post brings together all the characters in Town Hall Symphony Hall's research who have been campaigning for votes for women.

Here’s a brief introduction to 9 of the suffragists and suffragettes who brought their campaigning for the female vote to Birmingham, and the ground-breaking organisations which they founded and ran:


The Suffragists: the NUWSS and the BWSS

The Suffragists were an earlier generation of campaigners for votes for women, beginning in the 1800s. They used mostly peaceful methods, such as signing petitions, letter-writing campaigns, and mass meetings to try to demonstrate the wide-spread public will for women’s suffrage.

The first suffragist society was the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS), founded in 1867 by Lydia Becker. However, the chief national organisation was the NUWSS – the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. The Birmingham branch of the NUWSS was the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society, or BWSS.

Millicent Fawcett 

was born in 1847 into a Liberal family, in a background which brought her into contact with suffragists. Aged 19, she heard a speech by radical MP John Stuart Mill which for her confirmed her commitment to the suffragist movement. As a suffragist, she was part of an earlier generation of women’s suffrage campaigners who believed in peaceful protest rather than the violent campaigning of the WSPU and the Pankhursts. She was president of the suffragist NUWSS from 1897-1919, in total campaigning for gender equality for over half a century.

Her statue is now the first statue of a woman to be put up in Parliament Square, London, alongside (male) greats of history like Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Nelson Mandela. The statue also bears pictures of other women and men who also fought for women's right to vote.

In 1872 she gave speeches at a Town Hall meeting with Eliza Sturge, and both of their speeches were printed as pamphlets to reach wider audiences – you can read about the event here.

Lse Millicent Fawcett 1913 Wl

          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library.

Eliza Sturge

was born in Birmingham in 1842. She was part of a liberal reforming family, including her Uncle, Henry Sturge, who has a statue in Five Ways. According to the University of Birmingham’s #UoBwomen 2015 project, she is ‘recognised as one of Birmingham’s most active speakers for the suffrage movement and gave speeches on suffrage across the UK’. She was Secretary of the Birmingham Society for Women’s Suffrage (BSWS) at the time of her Town Hall meeting with Millicent Fawcett. Later she also became strongly involved in education in Birmingham.

Catherine Osler

was born in 1854 into a politically reforming family. Her parents were both members of the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society. In the BWSS, Catherine went from treasurer to secretary in 1885 to president in 1903. She would be referred to as a suffragist, coming from an earlier generation like Millicent Fawcett who were in favour of peaceful protest, rather than a suffragette, who believed in violent direct action. In 1911 she joined the executive committee of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which Millicent Fawcett was president of. However, she remained concerned with local developments in Birmingham all through her life. She died in Edgbaston in 1924. In 1883 she addressed a crowded audience at Town Hall after a suffrage meeting in 1881, which you can read about here.

Lse Catherine Osler 1910

          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library.


The Suffragettes: the WSPU

Suffragettes were a later generation of women’s suffrage campaigners. They thought that the Suffragists peaceful, “constitutional” protesting was ineffective, having not won the vote after 30 years of campaigning. In response, the suffragettes employed what they called “militant”, sometimes violent methods of protest to put pressure on the government to give women the vote. Their main organisation was the Women’s Social and Political Union, or WSPU.

Emmeline Pankhurst

was born in Manchester in 1858, where as an adult she would found the WSPU – the Women’s Social and Political Union – in 1903. This was a suffragette organisation, meaning it believed in the use of violent protest to win women the vote, unlike a suffragist group like the NUWSS, which believed in peaceful or “constitutional” protest. As such, the WSPU’s motto was ‘deeds, not words’. The group’s tactics included property damage and later even arson, putting pressure on the government and causing controversy within the campaign for women’s votes.

At the outbreak of the First World War, the WSPU stopped militant activity and the Pankhursts acted as fierce patriots. After the war the 1918 Representation of the People Act give women over 30 the vote, and two years after her death in 1928 Emmeline was commemorated with a statue in Victoria Tower Gardens.

In November 1907 Emmeline was part of a Town Hall meeting which also included Christabel Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, organised by Nell Kenney, which you can read about here.

Lse Emmeline Pankhurst Meeting

          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library.

Christabel Pankhurst

was Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter, born in Manchester in 1880, making her only 23 she founded the WSPU with her mother in October 1903. She was personally active in the militant campaigning of the WSPU and was arrested and imprisoned for it on a number of occasions, even living as a fugitive in Paris for a time before the First World War to avoid arrest.

After the start of the First World War the WSPU halted its militant activity and Christabel returned to England to support the British war effort. At the 1918 election she was one of the first female parliamentary candidates, but she lost the vote in Smethwick, West Midlands, by 4.4%. In 1909, she was the star orator of a huge Town Hall meeting which you can read about here.

Lse Christabel Pankhurst Procession

          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library.

Nell Kenney

was born in Lees, Lancashire in 1876. She was the younger sister of the more well-known Annie Kenney, born 1879, a working class suffragette who was a member of the WSPU and close with Christabel Pankhurst. According to Suffragette Stories, Nell worked in the cotton mills from an early age. She got in trouble with the law for protesting parliament. She would later become a West Midlands organiser for the WSPU before emigrating to Canada with her husband in 1908-9.

Gladice Keevil

was born in 1884 in London. In 1908 she was made head of the WSPU’s Midlands office in Birmingham, following Nell Kenney’s emigration to Canada. The same year she wrote in Votes for Women, the WSPU newspaper, about a protest against Asquith, the Prime Minister, which you can read about here. Asquith was a Liberal, but was heavily criticised by the suffragists and suffragettes for not supporting votes for women.

Mary Leigh

was a WSPU member who had been imprisoned for her suffragette campaigning. She had previously “escaped” jail by going on hunger strike and threatening suicide. After climbing the roof of Bingley Hall (where the ICC stands today) to protest Asquith in 1909, she was arrested and imprisoned in Winson Green Jail, Birmingham. After starting another hunger strike, she was tragically the first suffragette prisoner to be forcibly fed, a practice which would become notorious.

Emmeline Pethick Lawrence

was born in 1867 in Bristol and was involved in women’s suffrage campaigning when she became the WSPU’s treasurer in 1906. She also founded the WSPU’s magazine Votes for Women with her husband Frederick, a socialist politician who went on to join the Labour Party. Votes for Women published speeches and articles by prominent suffragettes like the Pankhursts and advertised upcoming WSPU events around the country.

Lse Lawrence And Christabel

          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library.