Looking Back: Women's Suffrage at Town Hall – a timeline

For International Women’s Day 2019, THSH is diving into the archives to explore 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.


1830s – in the beginning

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          Image sourced from British Library

1832 is a good start date for talking about the suffragettes, because it’s the year when the first Representation of the People Act brings suffrage – the right to vote – to an increased number of property-owning men.

But no women.

However, Birmingham finally became its own constituency, able to elect two MPs. Before 1832, despite its growing size, it hadn’t elected MPs, only being represented by two MPs who also represented the whole of Warwickshire.

In the same year Henry Hunt MP presented an important petition to parliament. It was written by Mary Smith, from Stanmore, Yorkshire, who argued that since women paid taxes they should be able to vote on how their taxes are spent.

However, it was laughed out of parliament.

In 1834 Birmingham Town Hall, the building which still stands in the same place today, was built in Ladywood. It was to become an important site for political debate in the city.

Within 4 years, in 1838, The Birmingham Journal’s front page reported a meeting of the Birmingham Political Union at Town Hall. A letter from an eyewitness (quoted in the suffragette magazine Votes for Women almost a century later) claims that 12,000 women were present.


1860-80 – the Suffragists

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          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library

1866 saw another petition presented to parliament by the Radical MP for Westminster, John Stuart Mill. This time it had the signatures of 1499 women asking for the vote on equal terms as men – 4 of the names came from the Birmingham area.

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          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library

The next year in April the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS, precursor to the NUWSS) was founded in London. The NSWS was a Suffragist organisation, distinct from Suffragette organisations.

The Suffragists were a movement for women’s suffrage who believed in peaceful protest and “constitutional” methods of making political change like letters, protests, and petitions. They can be compared with the Suffragettes, like the Pankhursts and the WSPU, who believed that more violent “militant” tactics would work, though they won’t be around for another 30-odd years.

The Representation of the People Act of 1867 gave Birmingham a third MP (though keeping it as one single constituency), and expanded the franchise for men.

Still, it gave no votes to women.

The Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society was established in 1868 as a local committee of the NSWS. Eliza Sturge, related to the family of famous Birmingham social reformers and slavery-abolitionists, became secretary of the BWSS in 1869.

On Friday 6 December 1872 Eliza Sturge addressed a crowd at Town Hall and gave a speech on women’s suffrage. This meeting was also addressed by Millicent Fawcett who would go on to be president of the NUWSS and is now honoured by a statue in Parliament Square – the first and so far only statue of a woman there.

You can read actual quotes from both those 1872 Town Hall speeches in this blog post about the whole event.

On 10 December that year at a Liberal meeting in Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain, Birmingham MP and father of future prime minister Neville Chamberlain, made a pledge to finish the work of the 1867 Representation of the People Act and win votes for women.

In 1877 there were two women’s suffrage meetings at Town Hall: one addressed by Eliza Sturge and the other lead by Henry Hawkes, who was president of the BWSS and ex-mayor of Birmingham.


1880s – the great demonstration

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          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library

1881 is an important year for women’s suffrage campaigning in Birmingham, as 22 February is the date of a ‘great demonstration’ in support of women’s suffrage. As Elizabeth Crawford, a women’s suffrage historian, says in her ‘Women's Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland: A Regional Survey’, this Birmingham meeting was part of a series of regional demonstrations intended “by suffrage workers to impress on Parliament the seriousness and popularity of their campaign”.

There was a follow-up demonstration in 1883 led by Catherine Osler, who would take over the role of Secretary of the BWSS from Eliza Sturge in 1885. You can read about the two events in this blog post.

Though the two demonstrations were popular they didn’t achieve their aim, as the Representation of the People Act of 1884 again increased the franchise of male voters but still didn’t extend votes to any women.

The 1884 Act is also associated with the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885. This had the effect of turning Birmingham from a single constituency electing 3 MPs, to 7 Constituencies each electing 1 MP: Birmingham Bordesley, Central, East, Edgbaston, North, South and West.

This essentially established the system we still use today.

At the turn of the century, in 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society forms out of the combination of several suffrage societies, with Millicent Fawcett as its first president.

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          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library


1900s – the Suffragettes

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          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library

October 1903 marks the founding of the WSPU, the Suffragette organisation founded by Emmeline Pankhurst.

The WSPU were quick to establish a presence in Birmingham, with a Town Hall meeting hosted by Pankhurst on Tuesday 15 November 1904.

In 1907, more impressively, Votes for Women claimed “Birmingham, we believe, is about to become one of the strongholds of our movements". This comes after a meeting at Town Hall lead by WSPU West Midlands organiser Nell Kenney, who also hosted Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst, and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. You can read all about that event, including the press clipping of how Votes for Women reported it in this blog post.

The Birmingham branch of the NUWSS reopened their Birmingham branch on Easy Row in 1908, but that year would be infamous in women’s suffrage history for the local Suffragettes rather than the Suffragists. On Thursday 15 October 1908, the Prime Minister Asquith addressed a Classical Association audience at Town Hall, but the meeting was dramatically invaded by WSPU activists Gladice Keevil and Helena Jones.

You can read about the dramatic event in this blog post – including how Gladice Keevil wrote about her own raid in the Suffragette newspaper!

The WSPU kept the pressure on in Birmingham the following year as in February 1909 Christabel Pankhurst addressed a Town Hall audience and, according to Votes for Women, "received an ovation the like of which no woman has ever experienced in Birmingham". The meeting was apparently so successful that the WSPU gained 50 new members in the first week of March following Christabel’s speech.

In this blog post, #THSHLookingBack explores the events of that year, including how Christabel’s address was covered by a local Birmingham satirical magazine, the Birmingham Pictorial and Dart.

1909 is also memorable for a darker reason, as it is the year of the first forcible feeding of suffragette prisoners in Winson Green Jail, Birmingham. Mary Leigh had been protesting PM Asquith, like Gladice Keevil two years before, and her horrendous treatment was a turning point in the Suffragette movement. These events are also explored in the above blog post about Christabel Pankhurst in Birmingham.


1910s – the final stretch to the vote

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          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library

November 1910 is a good illustration of some of the contradictions of the women’s suffrage movement – the joy and sisterhood, and the hardship.

The edition of Votes for Women from 18 November 1910 excitedly tells of how members of the Birmingham MPU used high-tech electric lanterns to advertise an upcoming WSPU meeting with a Mrs Pankhurst for 15 November.

However the date of publication is itself significant, as Friday 18 November 1910 is known as ‘Black Friday’ in Suffragette history – the day Suffragette’s protesting against the lack of action on votes for women in Parliament were subjected to hours of police brutality.

#THSHLookingBack explores both of these hugely opposed events in this blog post.

Women went on strike in St Petersberg, Russia, against the Tsarist government on 8 March 1917. This women’s strike was so successful that two weeks later the Tsar abdicated and the provisional Russian government gave women the right to vote. When the Soviet Union came to power later that year, Vladimir Lenin and Alexandra Kollontai instituted a Women’s Day to celebrate women’s contribution to the revolution, to take place every year on 8 March, the day on which we still celebrate IWD today. For more of a history of IWD, check out this blog post.

The First World War (1914-18) had a huge impact the campaign for women’s suffrage, for a number of reasons. For one thing, the emptying of villages and towns of young men going off to fight in the war made it necessary for women to take on “men’s” jobs, which dispelled a certain amount of the illusion surrounding the supposed unequal ability of women. Also, some Suffragettes were fierce patriots and threw their energy behind the war effort. For example, Emmeline Pankhurst went on a tour of Britain in 1916 encouraging enlistment, with one stop being a "great patriotic meeting" at Town Hall. The Birmingham branch of the NUWSS continued its non-militant, constitutional campaign despite the war.

These and more factors, including decades and decades of campaigning, resulted in…


1918 – the vote

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          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library

1918 is an important year for the women’s suffrage movement, as the Representation of the People Act expands the franchise to all men and, finally, some women.

This blog post explores the election of 1918, the first general election in which women were able to vote and to stand as candidates, and who those first female candidates were.

However, it is important to remember that while the Representation of the People Act of 1918 expanded the vote to all men over the age of 21, it was only property-owning women over the age of 30 who were able to vote.

The vote was not equalised until the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928, when all women and men over the age of 21 were able to vote.


1946 – Women’s Victory

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          Image sourced from Sandwell CHAS

In 1946 Town Hall hosted two women’s day celebrations – one on 15 March and one a ‘Women’s Victory Rally’ on 24 June.

They serve to illustrate the changing times compared to before women had the vote, as several female MPs were billed to give speeches, something which not have been possible just under 30 years before.

You can read about those two celebrations in this blog post.


2017 – looking forwards

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As of the 2017 UK general election, 208 out of the 650 MPs in parliament are women – or roughly a third, making this parliament the most gender-balanced in history.

According to the British Election Study’s survey of the 2017 election, ‘women are just as likely to turn out to vote as men’, something which holds true for the 2015 election as well.

Furthermore, it is the fifth parliament in a row in which the proportion of female MPs has increased.

As it happens, Town Hall itself, with its history as a hub of political activism, is now represented by a female MP: Shabana Mahmood, MP for Birmingham Ladywood.

In fact, 3 of the 9 Birmingham MPs are female, with Preet Gill, the first female Sikh MP, in Birmingham Edbaston, and Jess Philips in Birmingham Yardley. This gives the Birmingham area roughly the same proportion of female MPs as Parliament in general.

However, 32% is not 50%, and so in this Parliament, as in every Parliament since the 1215 Magna Carta, women remain underrepresented in politics. Though progress has been made, there is still a long way to go.