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Reading List: The Battle for the Ballot Box

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In February 1918, after a bitter and complex struggle, certain women in Britain and Ireland gained the right to vote. They had to be over 30, property owners, or graduates voting in a university constituency. Still, it was a beginning. 

In 1923, in the Irish Free State the vote was extended to all women over 21.

It took ten more years before the Representation of the People Act in 1928 granted all women in Great Britain and Northern Ireland over the age of 21 the right to vote on the same terms as men. 

Prior to World War I, women in certain countries had already gained the right to vote, such as in Finland, Norway, Denmark and in the Australian states. Towards the end of the First World War women in Poland, Germany, Russia and Canada could also vote. French women (besides women in certain Swiss cantons) were the last in Western countries to be granted suffrage in 1944. In the United States a portion of the female population won the right to vote in 1919 however African American and Native American women had to wait until 1965 to vote.

While celebrating the 100th anniversary of the beginning of women's right to vote in Britain and Ireland, it's important to recall the struggles women went through in order to gain this fundamental right. The following list of books (including a text by Mary Wollstonecraft vindicating women's rights in the 18th century) focus on this battle for the ballot box that included women being tracked by special police units, imprisonment, hunger strikes, force feeding, harassment campaigns and news media bias, among other strategies they were up against.

Additionally it's interesting to read here about Thorley Smith, the first male Parliamentary candidate to stand on a women's suffrage ticket. 

Banner image of suffragettes holding a sign containing a William Rooney quote 

No Surrender

This is Persephone Books' first suffragette novel, although William an Englishman, was conceived by Cicely Hamilton as a suffrage novel but then became a book about the First World War. Author Constance Maud knew Cicely Hamilton because both were members of the 400-strong Women Writers Suffrage League; she published No Surrender in November 1911 when the struggle for the vote was at its height. The narrative is faithful to real facts and incidents, with some of the main characters drawing on leading suffrage figures. One is based on Lady Constance Lytton and another, the heroine Jenny Clegg, is a Lancashire mill girl – thus putting paid to the myth that the suffrage movement was mainly middle-class: the main focus of the novel is on the strong support for women’s suffrage by women workers in the textile mills and on the prejudice against votes for women on the part of many of the men in the labour movement. When Emily Wilding Davison, who was to die in 1913 under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, reviewed No Surrender, she wrote: ‘There is scarcely a notable incident of the militant campaign which is left untouched. As we devour its pages, we once more review such unforgettable events as the Pantechnicon incident, the protest of the Grille, the Suffragette Fire-Engine, the sending of women by Express Post to the Prime Minister, and the final word-picture of the procession of 1910. But for vivid realism, the pictures of prison life, of the Hunger Strike and Forcible Feeding, are difficult to beat. It is a book which breathes the very spirit of the Women’s Movement.


Suffragette: My Own Story is Emmeline Pankhurst's autobiography that chronicles the beginnings of her interest in feminism through to her militant and controversial fight for women's right to vote. While Emmeline received a good education, she rebelled against conventional women's roles. At the age of fourteen a meeting of women's rights activists sparked a lifelong passion to fight for women's freedom and she would later claim that it was on that day she became a suffragist. As one after another of the proposed feminist bills were defeated in parliament, Pankhurst was inspired to turn to extreme actions. While she was the figurehead of the suffragette movement, it advocated some controversial tactics such as arson, violent protest and hunger strikes. Even today there is still debate about the effectiveness of her extreme strategies, but her work is recognised as a crucial element in achieving women's suffrage in Britain.Her mantle was taken up by her daughters and granddaughter with her legacy still very much alive today.

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Votes For Women

Drawing on extracts from diaries, newspapers, letters, journals and books, Joyce Marlow pieces together this inspiring, poignant and exciting history using the voices of the women themselves. Some of the people and events are well-known, but Marlow has gone beyond the obvious, particularly beyond London, to show us the ordinary women - middle and working-class, who had the breathtaking courage to stand up and be counted - or just as likely hectored, or pelted with eggs. These women were clever and determined, knew the power of humour and surprise and exhibited 'unladylike' passion and bravery.

The Suffragettes In Pictures

This book draws extensively on the little-known but important Suffragette Fellowship Collection of archive photographs, newspapers, personal correspondence, artefacts and memoirs, to present a vivid picture of Suffragette life. It contains rare images of the Suffragette campaign leading to the outbreak of the First World War. The book also documents leading personalities in the Suffragette movement, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Annie Kenney and Emily Wilding Davison, the behind-the-scenes activities at the Women's Social and Political Union, their public propaganda work, the brilliant set-piece demonstrations and the escalation of militancy from `pestering the politicians' to burning down buildings and attacking works of art. The book also explores what happened to these incredible women after their war was won and the vote was granted to them.

Rise Up Women!

Between the death of Queen Victoria and the outbreak of the First World War, while the patriarchs of the Liberal and Tory parties vied for supremacy in parliament, the campaign for women's suffrage was fought with great flair and imagination in the public arena. Led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, the suffragettes and their actions would come to define protest movements for generations to come. From their marches on Parliament and 10 Downing Street, to the selling of their paper, Votes for Women, through to the more militant activities of the Women's Social and Political Union, whose slogan `Deeds Not Words!' resided over bombed pillar-boxes, acts of arson and the slashing of great works of art, the women who participated in the movement endured police brutality, assault, imprisonment and force-feeding, all in the relentless pursuit of one goal: the right to vote. A hundred years on, Diane Atkinson celebrates the lives of the women who answered the call to `Rise Up'; a richly diverse group that spanned the divides of class and country, women of all ages who were determined to fight for what had been so long denied. Actresses to mill-workers, teachers to doctors, seamstresses to scientists, clerks, boot-makers and sweated workers, Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English; a wealth of women's lives are brought together for the first time, in this meticulously researched, vividly rendered and truly defining biography of a movement.

Falling Angels

For "lighter" reading, this novel follows two childhood friends and their attitudes and involvement in the fight for women’s suffrage. Falling Angels chronicles the lives of two girls whose families own adjacent plots in a London cemetery—one decorated with a sentimental angel, the other with an elaborate urn. During a ceremonial stroll through the graveyard grounds, an act of mourning for the recently deceased Queen Victoria, Maude Coleman and Lavinia Waterhouse meet, forging a fast friendship. Despite their distinct personality differences, Maude being more precocious and contemplative and Lavinia leaning to the impulsive and dramatic, the girls are instantly drawn to each other to the dismay of their mothers. Despite being neighbors, Kitty Coleman and Gertrude Waterhouse occupy different positions in the British class system—the Waterhouses are lower-middle class, while the Colemans are upper-middle class, with a larger house and garden, and live-in servants. The women have little in common, and their views on the changing political climate fall on opposite ends of the spectrum. Kitty looks forward to a more modern society, while the Gertrude reveres the late Queen Victoria and clings to Victorian traditions. The death of Queen Victoria marked the end of an era. Britain emerged from the shadows of oppressive Victorian values to a more liberal Edwardian lifestyle. With these relaxed social standards came other advances—one of which was the growing interest in the women’s suffragist movement, a topic that divides Kitty and Gertrude, as it did many women of the era. As with most periods of political turmoil, the fight for the right of women to vote had its own victim of change, as felt by both families. Falling Angels takes in the changing of a nation, the fight for women’s suffrage and the questioning of steadfast beliefs.


Jacqueline is a journalist primarily, but not only, interested in fiction and non-fiction with equal passion.

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