Differences and Similarities between the Suffragette Movement in England and Germany

Pre-University Paper, 2019

39 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Table of Contents

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Initial Conditions for the Suffragette Movement
2.1 General Living Conditions under Political and Economic Circumstances
2.2 Image of Women in Society
2.3 Women by Law

3 Chronological Development of Women’s Suffrage in Connection with the Suffragette Movement
3.1 England
3.2 Germany
3.3 Comparison

4 Fragmentation of the Suffragette Movement
4.1 Socialist Suffragette Movement
4.1.1 Beliefs and Motivations
4.1.2 Goals and Aspirations
4.1.3 Methods and Strategies
4.2 Bourgeois Moderate Suffragette Movement
4.2.1 Beliefs and Motivations
4.2.2 Goals and Aspirations
4.2.3 Methods and Strategies
4.3 Bourgeois Radical Suffragette Movement
4.3.1 Beliefs and Motivations
4.3.2 Goals and Aspirations
4.3.3 Methods and Strategies

5 Opponents to Women’s Suffrage
5.1 Government and Politicians
5.2 Working Class
5.3 Church?

6 Accomplishments of the Suffragette Movement
6.1 Law on Women’s Suffrage
6.2 First General Elections with Female Participation

7 Conclusion


8 Index of Abbreviations

9 Bibliography

10 Supplementary Material

1 Introduction

The year is 2019, and it is a time of celebration – in Germany, it is the 100 year anniversary of women’s suffrage. For months now, praise has been flooding the media focussing on this crucial achievement for gender equality. But despite the prosperous result, it would be superficial to completely pass over any negatives: the journey to this attainment caused a lot of suffering for its advocates, many of whom often don’t get the recognition they deserve. This is because mainstream media – such as the film “Suffragette” from 2015 – tend to focus exclusively on the radical English suffragette movement, which is widely embraced as the trailblazer for women’s suffrage (cf. Walsh). This raised questions for me about such a distribution of appreciation, particularly as its German counterpart succeeded a decade earlier in their fight for equal voting rights.

Hence, I will examine these perceptions by comparing exemplary selected aspects of the suffragette movement in England and Germany in order to determine the extent of disparity between both countries. Simultaneously, I will investigate why England is generally perceived as the leader in women’s suffrage in comparison to Germany and evaluate if this difference of acknowledgement is justified. Based on my current knowledge, I expect to find differences between both nations that would speak for certainly less known but nonetheless well-developed structures of activism in Germany, confirming my assumption that England unrightfully wins more recognition.

To guarantee accuracy in my research, the term “suffragette movement” will be used as an equivalent for all movements of women’s suffrage, regardless of country or political grouping. Although the word “suffragette” originated in England and was exclusively used for a specific group of radical women’s rights activists (cf. Bader-Zaar 1), today, in a historical context, it is equally used to describe the entirety of women’s movements, including a multitude of groups across all borders (cf. Harper).

2 Initial Conditions for the Suffragette Movement

2.1 General Living Conditions under Political and Economic Circumstances

What these groupings share altogether is that their female members had been disadvantaged in politics compared to men for centuries. In both England and Germany, the organised women’s movement still began only with the transition to the second half of the 19th century (cf. Walsh & Müller), which is why I will examine the underlying environmental conditions during this time.

In Britain, this age was so deeply connected to monarchy that it was named after the reigning Queen Victoria, who had led her kingdom to a period of wealth after initial struggles with an economic crisis right after she was crowned in 1837 (cf. Karl 19). This improvement is often referred to as the Great Victorian Boom. It initialized a historical period characterized by stability, building on prosperity through industrialisation as well as imperialism and a gradually increasing involvement in governmental decisions of men from all classes. An example for this is the Reform Act from 1867, which granted rich male members of the bourgeoisie voting rights, thus ending the aristocracy’s previous monopoly on political participation. This policy can be acknowledged as a way of prohibiting revolts and further enabling the British monarch to establish social and cultural norms. After the French Revolution 1789 and various riots in other European countries, Britain realized that this was the key to a content people (cf. 49).

In Germany however, the government could not prevent a social upheaval. The German population was not only dissatisfied with the lack of unity due to its country’s fragmentation and the oppression through royal rule, but also, just like the English, with the developing pauperism amongst workers. Labourers suffered the consequences of an increasing demand in different industries. Working conditions in factories were dangerous and workers were not equipped with adequate protection. Instead, many had to take up overwhelming amounts of physically and mentally draining work for very low wages with no coverage in case of dismissal or injury. These circumstances were eminently problematic for the many women who were forced to take up factory work since their husbands’ wages alone could not provide for a family. They were faced with another workload of domestic duties and childcare, while earning significantly less money than their male counterparts. But unlike in Great Britain, where despite mass poverty the people were mostly sidelined with small concessions and wealth in bourgeois circles, the general dissatisfaction led to the German Revolution that lasted from March 1848 to July 1849.

Even though it eventually failed, this movement encouraged the German people to bond and form groups, which fought for different goals on the basis of wishing for general societal change. In this context, political instability constituted an advantage for German women’s rights activists (cf. Sigel). In contrast, England did not have a comparable occasion that could mobilize masses as effectively. Given this fact, Germany does seem to have had an easier start on its path for women’s suffrage, which partially explains why Great Britain forming its movements for equality can be perceived as more independent and thus more admirable.

2.2 Image of Women in Society

However, in Germany the 1850s not only constituted an important turning point in politics but also a very characterising period in the way females were perceived according to cultural standards and therefore how they were expected to act. Women were seen as non-autonomous beings that were not gifted with the ability to reason. As a result, males were exclusively entitled to make decisions, be it in politics, economics or in private life. This behaviour was justified by the assumption that characteristics society ascribed to people due to their gender were a natural order. Women were neither seen as intellectual nor strong and therefore limited to traditionally feminine duties as housewives and mothers without another profession, which usually resulted in financial dependency on their husbands. This role model was universally accepted as the ideal females should strive for, even if it was solely put into practice by women of higher classes who were capable of forgoing a second source of income due to their wealth (cf. Vahsen 1). Still, the image of women in lower and working classes remained just as negative since women’s work was not valued as much as men’s, who were traditionally viewed as their family’s providers, even if their wives contributed and were additionally expected to fulfil domestic responsibilities.

Under Queen Victoria’s reign, England adopted very similar values and social structures that additionally highlighted the importance of comfort and emotional safety at home, which women were to provide. Furthermore, piety and austerity were demanded, leading to a very strict view on sexuality, resembling Germany’s beliefs. Specifically women’s worth was measured by their chastity before marriage, while men’s violations of moral law – such as seizing the increasing offers of prostitution – were mostly ignored, proving that society was characterised by double standards.

During my research I came to the conclusion that both English and German women faced deeply similar challenges regarding social standards and perceptions in the 1850s, making their initial conditions strongly comparable; however, moral law in Britain seems to have been a bit more rigid; after all, it was the government that required strict sexual morals, with no similar demands from monarchy existing in Germany. Not for nothing, the British marital law of the 19th century is considered “one of the most brutal in Europe” (Karl 128). This indicates that England had a longer way to go before reaching equality in politics as these social standards compromised women’s capability of everything but domestic duties even more. Such a development of course, must seem more prominent.

2.3 Women by Law

The perception of women as naturally inferior was reflected by their constitutional rights and legal position across state borders. Especially in marriage, women were granted very few opportunities to act autonomously, as their husbands were given permission to make every decision for them. Unwed women had to rely on their father or brother as a legal guardian. This did not only include choices that affected the whole family, but also women’s private matters such as inheritance or possessions. As women in England were officially prohibited to own any property by the Common Law, be it material or financial, men were granted the power of disposition and responsibility for it. What would be classified as human rights abuse today was everyday life in the 19th century. In fact, many other personal rights such as freedom of movement, free choice of profession and, of course, political participation such as voting and being members of political parties were controlled by women’s husbands if not forbidden by law, as the latter was in Germany by the Vereinsgesetz since 1850. Unwed women were not free either, though. Not only did the social stigma of “old maids” discriminate against these females, but also their lack of rights on raising illegitimate children. Their new-borns that were despised of as “bastard children” were often taken away from them against their will. Meanwhile, mothers ended up in workhouses under poor conditions and often had to prostitute themselves eventually to survive, since the child’s father was not obliged to aliment. Admittedly, divorced wives did not have it as bad, but the law was clearly in favour of men when it came to this. Not only did men barely need to provide evidence against their wives while women were obligated to do so since the Divorce Act 1857 in Britain, but also did they seldom win custody of their children (cf. 88) and the fathers remained the legal guardians in any case. If the child was a girl, it usually grew up with very limited education. Women had hardly any access to teaching, especially in comparison to men. Daughters from wealthy families could go to schools that prepared them for being wives (cf. “Die Hälfte der Welt” Vol. 1, 34:16) or teachers for women’s matters, but any other kind of lesson that any man could attend, including elementary school, were virtually unavailable for women. Female university education was even forbidden until the 1870s in England and 1900 in Germany.

I conclude it is possible to speak about a unitary position of women in law in England and Germany. There were some small differences regarding the timing of several laws and concessions of rights – or lack thereof. While a 30-year gap in higher education suggests a vital disadvantage for German resistance groups, I reckon that it only accounts for a small difference between both countries. Even with knowledge being a key for critical thinking and building an opinion about politics, society and cultural norms, thus constituting a necessity for forming resistance groups, it was mostly basic education, which women in both nations lacked at the beginning of their struggles. Attending university was a helpful completion, but not exactly indispensable for the cause.

3 Chronological Development of Women’s Suffrage in Connection with the Suffragette Movement

3.1 England

To get a clearer picture of the process behind such events, I will go back to the very beginning: the first ever initiative for women’s suffrage in England took place in 1832, when widow Mary Smith started a petition to grant unwed women voting rights; however, because this was an isolated case, which also got rejected, the beginning of a suffragette movement is to be defined more than 30 years later (cf. Karl 110). On 7 June 1866, philosopher and Member of Parliament (MP) John Stuart Mill introduced another petition for restricted women’s suffrage to the House of Commons. He was the first to publicly advocate for a radically new image of women in his ideologies. This time, more than 1500 women had signed it, although this still could not convince politicians to make it law. Again, the bill was rejected, but Mill kept fighting for women’s rights with essays and another unsuccessful attempt to pass a bill in May 1867. This also was the year a multitude of different British women’s associations united in the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS). Due to internal conflicts the organisation was not yet ready to fight for women’s rights (cf. 111), but this did not stop the first public conflict from taking place. A mistake during the by-elections that year caused Lily Maxwell from Manchester to be put on the electoral list. Authorities thus allowed her to cast her ballot, which coincidently made her the first female elector in British history and encouraged thousands of other women to stand for elections. Soon they tried to claim their right for voting in court but when this plea was rejected, they realized that legal methods would not suffice (cf. 11). Still, this didn’t stop lawful and peaceful movements from forming, such as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897 that was later led by Millicent Fawcett. Many other organisations established alongside, often focussing on different issues of women’s rights and not only women’s suffrage (cf. 170-71). In spite of all differences and dissensions, they stayed connected in most cases with only the radical wing being an exception (cf. 172-73). Therefore, even if until then no progress towards equality in political participation had been made, they could celebrate success in general legal advances, when in 1870 the Married Women’s Property Act gave women control over their property. For some, this development towards equality was happening too slowly and gently (cf. 176); for the next 30 years, women’s movements remained quite unremarkable. Only in 1902, another failed mass petition managed to catch attention again.

That was the impulse for Emmeline Pankhurst to found the radical Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in October 1903. She had spent previous years trying to convince powerful MPs to introduce women’s suffrage in a legal way (cf. “Die Hälfte der Welt” Vol.1, 13:48 & 25:46). After having no success with these methods, her daughters and many other women were dissatisfied with the strategies of the moderate NUWSS and joined her to make women’s suffrage an interest of the state. During an attempt to do so in 1905, the organisation became established in public: Pankhurst arranged the first discussion in Parliament after eight years about a new bill for her cause. It became famous not because it was successful, but because a filibuster of MPs provoked a spontaneous protest that led to arrests: Parliament managed to stretch out the first agendum of discussion for long enough to make the second one, the bill for women’s suffrage, forfeit. In the frustration-fuelled following demonstration by the WSPU, their motto “Deeds, not Words” (British Library Learning) and their slogan “Votes for Women” (“Die Hälfte der Welt” Vol. 1, 41:40-43:00) was born and later used by women all over Europe.

This was the beginning of a completely new era in the fight for women’s suffrage. From now on the radical methods the WSPU adopted overshadowed most peaceful initiatives (cf. British Library Learning) other groups executed, such as a procession led by the NUWSS in February 1907, known as the Mud March. Thus the originally derogatory term “suffragette” was introduced specifically for militant women who also started to protest and march on the streets. They became more and more violent – one example for this was when they attempted to storm Parliament on 8 March 1907, but failed. This could have been a contributory factor to losing 20 % of their members when the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) was founded in autumn and gave a rise to new hopes on different, less violent procedures. However, the loss did not lead to a decline in their actions. Trying to get their new anti-suffragette Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith’s attention, the WSPU organised the largest ever political rally in London, the Woman’s Sunday demonstration, and began smashing windows when their demands kept being ignored. In July 1909 they resorted to the most extreme measure when the first imprisoned suffragettes went on hunger strikes. Asquith later reacted by passing the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Health Act, thus making force feeding redundant whilst granting them breaks from prison to restore their health. This way he minimised martyrs amongst militant suffragettes (cf. “Die Hälfte der Welt” Vol. 2, 31:00). Still, he could not avoid them all. After the proposal of the first of three unsuccessful Conciliation Bills – that would have given roughly ten million wealthy women the right to vote – by a group of several MPs who supported women’s suffrage, its dismissal led 300 WSPU members to start a demonstration march on Parliament on 18 November 1910. Police reacted with violence and sexual assaults; many women were heavily injured, which is why the day came to be known as Black Friday. Suffragettes still stayed determined and soon Labour Party included women’s suffrage in their manifesto. Although this was an important advance, after a decade of fighting, there had been no major accomplishments yet, which might have urged WSPU member Emily Wilding Davison to sacrifice her life: in June 1913, she jumped in front of King George V’s horse during a derby as an act of protest and succumbed to her injuries four days later. As she had put it: “The good cause we’re fighting for cries out for a tragedy“(cited in Karl 289). The NUWSS took this as a chance to present their lawful methods in contrast (cf. British Library Learning) by organising a peaceful demonstration, the Pilgrimage for Women’s Suffrage. Still, even though it now had ten times less supporters, the WSPU kept upstaging the NUWSS. But, despite their differences, when World War I (WWI) broke out in July 1914, both organisations were affected the same way. Their focus largely shifted to supporting their country on the home front and therefore many suffragette movements came to a halt (cf. British Library Learning). Christabel Pankhurst reasoned for the WSPU’s stance towards war: “As Suffragettes we could not be pacifists at any price” (“Unshackled” 288 cited in Karl 298). Although this may seem like a disadvantage at first, I see it as the most important step towards their goals. During the war they had to carry out duties that previously had been reserved for men and now proved themselves as equally capable beings (cf. “Die Hälfte der Welt” Vol. 2, 37:31-48:33): under the new liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1916-1922) the state gave in to the pressure of women’s protest and passed the Representation of the People Bill after the end of the war in February 1918. This law allowed all men over 21 and all women over 30 to vote and constituted the end of an organised suffragette movement, although scattered protests against the unequable law persevered until 1928, when all citizens over 21 were finally granted the right to vote and be elected.

3.2 Germany

Simultaneously, similar events were happening in Germany. Here, the start signal for women to rise up against gender inequality was the German revolution 1848/49 (cf. Müller). Associations explicitly for women were founded and made it possible for them to unite and find likeminded people for mental exchange and discussing ideas. One of the leaders of these organisations was Louise Otto-Peters, author and publisher of the “Frauen-Zeitung”, a newspaper that dealt with social and gender inequality since 1849. Her impulses were discussions about a new German constitution that she criticized as it neglected women and their interests – despite their significant participation in the revolution (cf. Müller). Still, no general protest could be heard, as many women feared punishment after the Vereinsgesetz was passed in 1850 and prohibited women from forming or joining political associations and assemblies. Soon, based on Otto-Peters’ complaints, another law banned newspapers written or published by females. Under these suppressive circumstances, many women’s voices were silenced until in 1865 the Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverband (ADF) was founded with Louise Otto-Peters as one of its leaders. This organisation did not focus on women’s suffrage, but rather on education and occupational outlooks for girls and women, as they acknowledged this to be a way of achieving self-determination. Women’s suffrage was not only left out on their agenda, if anything it was seen as counterproductive for their goals of female autonomy as women would have to prove their worth for equal civil rights first (cf. Müller). It becomes evident here that the idea of women as equal individuals was a very radical and innovative notion. In 1873 Hedwig Dohm was one of the pioneers who introduced this ideology to Germany in an essay that claimed civil rights as a human rights. Her theories were heavily influenced by the English feminists Taylor and John Stuart Mill who had developed these progressive ideas. For her part, Dohm influenced political parties: in 1875, August Bebel, member of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD), introduced her ideas to his party. Many discussions later, in 1891 the SPD became the only German party to ever officially support women’s suffrage (cf. Müller). But already before this, individual supporters in politics had been encouraging more women to join feminist movements, with the bourgeois groups focussing on better education for females that all of society could benefit from. Working class associations were meanwhile striving for liberation of the proletariat and equal treatment of men and women in labour (cf. Müller). This movement was represented by Clara Zetkin and united in a strong aversion towards middle and higher class women’s rights activists, resulting in a refusal to work together. Instead, in 1888 another autonomous women’s association was founded that assigned itself to the radical wing: the Verein Frauenwohl. Its agenda mostly included goals concerning education and improvement of women’s work. Then, in 1894 all women’s associations except for Socialists were joined together to form the Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine (BDF). However, internal differences incapacitated it and resulted in the separation of radical groups that united in a new organisation (cf. Müller), the Verband Fortschrittlicher Frauenvereine (VFF) under the leadership of Minna Cauer and Anita Augspurg in 1899. Unfortunately this inconsistency in associations was mirrored by their achievements. Even though many women and the SPD had protested and petitioned against the new Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch (BGB) when German emperor Wilhelm had it discussed in 1898, they could not stop the bill from being passed and becoming effective on 1 January, 1900. Even though the new law granted unmarried females more autonomy, it also missed a chance to change the situation of married women, as it still gave husbands control over their wives. Anita Augspurg as a representative for the VFF answered this event by raising awareness in unconventional ways of protest, and founding the first women’s association that specifically claimed their right to vote in 1902 – the Deutscher Verein für Frauenstimmrecht. Still, in Germany the public did not pay as much attention to their activism as it was forced to do in England since the majority of activists here never became as violent. But the persistence of so many women claiming a right to political participation did not remain completely unheard, considering the passing of the Reichsvereinsgesetz in 1908. From now on, women were allowed to join political associations and parties, making it easier for them to unite in their struggles.

But just like England, the German population was struck by war in 1914, bringing national issues to the fore (cf. Müller). Only a minority of women’s movements kept fighting for their cause, as the International Women’s Congress in Berlin 1915 proved. Many women’s suffrage activists turned to supporting their nation by working in men’s professions that were left blank now that they had to fight at the front as soldiers, quite similar to Britain. Female labour became indispensable; it was agreed that the war was “not only fought with cannonballs and guns, but also with cooking spoons” (Priebe cited in Kundrus “Kriegerfrauen” 124 cited in Linnemann 112). All the stronger was the outrage when Emperor Wilhelm announced a constitutional reform without including women’s suffrage in 1917. From now on, women from all political backgrounds began fighting and protesting together (cf. “Die Hälfte der Welt” Vol. 2, 42:48) in the streets. In November 1918, during the German Revolution 1918/1919, monarchy was overthrown, and the country became a democracy, in specific a Räte-Republik. As a new political system it feared every form of instability and declared their most important goal to be law and order (cf. Vol. 2, 46:08). Women’s demonstrations became a national threat and thus had to be eliminated. In this context, on 7 November 1918 Kurt Eisner, first governor of Bavaria, proclaimed equal voting rights for men and women that became legally valid on 30 November of the same year. From this day, every German citizen over the age of 20 was allowed to vote. The German suffragette movement had reached its goal, a decade before English women could enjoy the same equal rights.

3.3 Comparison

Given the extent of information on this subtopic, I decided to compose a comparison individually. Summed up, although my research on chapter two made it clear that women in England and Germany of the 1850s were living under closely similar conditions, with an exception of the revolutionary structures that women could connect with in Germany, the process of fighting for political equality developed in vastly different ways.

Most notably here is the huge temporal gap between successes in both countries. Counting from the 1850s, it took England ten years longer, namely 80 years, to grant their women equality in elections. Nevertheless it has to be noted that the first women’s voting rights were introduced in 1918 in Britain, ten months before Germany did so, even if the latter then held more value for women.

This progressiveness in Germany seems especially surprising to me as another crucial difference was the presence of women’s rights activism in public perception. While the suffragette movement in England was constantly presenting itself and continuously staging new scandals to make their voices heard, its German counterpart seems to have remained a background movement with few exceptions for its entire existence. Additionally, Germany was faced with an unbridgeable gap between Socialist and bourgeois movements, whilst Britain had an overall more homogenous structure (cf. Karl 172-73). Furthermore, there had never been as much legal restriction as in England as there had been in Germany by the Vereinsgesetz. This means a strong will was needed to withstand these oppressive circumstances. In conclusion, the Germans appear to have been at least persistent since the movement had formed. This suggests an explanation of why the German state gave in to the pressure despite of its overall less radical alignment.

As English suffragettes were just as persistent, the historical background in this situation is not to be disregarded, as it explains Germany’s success. The inexperienced government was facing unfamiliar challenges and simply could not risk uproar in the streets that impended if women were not satisfied with the political circumstances, making it easier for them to prevail.

4 Fragmentation of the Suffragette Movement

4.1 Socialist Suffragette Movement

4.1.1 Beliefs and Motivations

It is difficult to talk about one suffragette movement in any country, as different currents existed and strongly differed in their traits. Thus I will examine the usually least known for the beginning: Socialist women’s movements. In England the East London Federation of (the) Suffragettes (ELFS) for example combined characteristics of both the labour movement and the suffragette movement since many working women did not feel properly represented in either (cf. Jackson, “Women Quite Unknown” & ”The Suffragettes”). Members therefore came from a specific but also large group of females who were disadvantaged due to both their gender and their social class. One of them who did not fit this bill was Sylvia Pankhurst, a higher class representative and daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst who joined after she had left the WSPU when it became more and more violent. Meanwhile in Germany, the Socialist suffragette movement was represented by Clara Zetkin as its most important spokesman, uniting various small groupings by advocating for their demands as a whole. Despite their geographical distance, women in both countries were facing the same obstacles: while worker’s movements fuelled by negative effects of industrialisation were dominated by men, feminist associations were usually made up of bourgeois females who did not have the same struggles and more opportunities in activism as proletarian women due to their wealth. Taken together, this resulted in forming their own group to fit their needs, with both countries’ organisations being basically identical.


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Differences and Similarities between the Suffragette Movement in England and Germany
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suffragettes, suffragette, suffragette movement, voting rights, women's rights, women's suffrage, England, Germany, comparison, Suffragetten, Suffragettenbewegung, Wahlrecht, Frauenwahlrecht, Deutschland, Vergleich, Frauenrechte
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Anonymous, 2019, Differences and Similarities between the Suffragette Movement in England and Germany, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/974502


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