Conference Review: The Campaign for Women’s Suffrage

Ciara Stewart reviews the 2018 UK Women’s History Network conference held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of partial suffrage for British women.

British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (c. 1913). Image via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

From 31 August to 1 September 2018, I had the privilege of attending and speaking at the UK Women’s History Network conference at the University of Portsmouth. This seminal event was organised byJune Purvis, Debbie Parker-Kinch, and Laurel Forster. The theme this year was ‘The Campaign for Women’s Suffrage: National and International Perspectives,’ chosen to commemorate an important suffrage centenary in Britain. This year marked the 100th anniversary of 6 February 1918, when certain categories of British women aged 30 and over were granted the parliamentary vote. This was my first time attending and presenting at this annual conference and it was a thought-provoking experience.

The conference was held right around the corner from Portsmouth’s gorgeous Gunwharf quays, which I was lucky to have an opportunity to explore alongside my fellow speakers. The Portland building was a wonderful choice of venue, as it featured a spacious and bright welcoming hall. This invited speakers and attendees to browse book stalls which were set up by various publishers to feature new titles about suffrage and women’s history.

The first day began with a brief welcome from June Purvis, before jumping right into the proceedings. There were 30 panels to choose from, covering many aspects of suffrage history. Some of the topics and themes included electoral law, life-writing, music and the arts, regional networks, war, legacy, and the legal profession. This left me with the difficult task of choosing which panels to attend.

As my own research is concerned with Irish women’s use of petitioning in the nineteenth century, I relished the chance to engage with some leading historians of Ireland. Louise Ryan provided a comparative perspective between the two islands by examining the ‘Competing Priorities and Tactics’ and the complex relationship between the British and Irish suffrage movements. Mary Clancy offered a new insight into women’s activism in a rural context by examining ‘Narratives of Suffrage Protest in the West of Ireland.’ Caitríona Beaumont then considered the ‘Aftermath of Suffrage,’ tracing how women continued the campaign to extend their rights following the attainment of the right to vote in 1918 until 1937.

No Petticoats Here. Photograph by RichardBuddPhotography © 2018.

During my own panel, I had the opportunity to listen to two fascinating perspectives on how women defied norms both within the home and politics. Agnes Burt examined how women used tax resistance as a form of protest towards unfair laws surrounding married women’s property in ‘Women Will Resent Such an Infringement.’ Utilising the archives of Elizabeth Wolstenholme, Maureen Wright presented on ‘Marital Rape and Votes for Women.’ Wolstenholme did not conform to the norms of suffragism, she argued, illustrating how she responded to ‘enforced maternity.’

Many presentations examined the early years of suffrage in the nineteenth century. I felt that this was a fantastic topic to explore, as these years can often become lost in the grander twentieth-century suffrage narrative. Judy Cox addressed the work of ‘first wave feminists’ to consider how the rhetoric of the natural role of women was becoming more socially contested towards the end of the nineteenth century. Janet Smith looked at Helen Taylor as ‘The First Prospective Parliamentary Candidate’ in 1885. Despite failing in her candidacy, Taylor believed her campaign would forward suffrage and inspire the belief that women could become involved in politics.

At the end of the first day, after a lovely reception where book prizes were awarded, we had the pleasure of witnessing a performance by the wonderful No Petticoats Here. Louise Jordan, a talented singer and story-teller, delighted us with tales of suffrage which she performed through song. Giving us succinct guidance so that we could all sing along, she created a pensive yet cheerful atmosphere. For the remainder of the evening, her performance was the main topic of conversation.

Three fascinating keynote addresses were given over the two days of the conference. The first two drew parallels between key British suffragettes – Millicent Garret Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst – who, despite sharing a common goal, pursued very different methods of protest. These addresses illuminated the well-known differences between these figures through a focus on the two women’s formative experiences and their paths to contradictory conclusions about the most effective methods for gaining women’s enfranchisement.

British suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (c. 1918). Image via Internet Archive.

Elizabeth Crawford spoke about Fawcett in ‘The Making of a Politician,’ beginning with a detailed account of Fawcett’s background as an educated middle-class woman. As is well known, Fawcett focused on a civil campaign; she chose to speak at public meetings and promote publications about suffrage. In contrast, June Purvis presented on Pankhurst in ‘The Making of a Militant.’ As Purvis reminded us, Pankhurst pursued peaceful protest in her early years as a member of the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union. Only later did Pankhurst become more militant in her approach, as this attracted the attention of the press in a way that suffrage had never done before. Pankhurst was arrested 12 times before militancy ceased with the outbreak of world war. Through these papers, we were given a new perspective on the powerful yet dissimilar personalities that lead the suffrage campaign of the twentieth century.

The last keynote was by Sumita Mukherjee,who provided a crucial perspective on international suffrage through ‘Indian suffrage campaignersand International Suffrage Networks in the Interwar Period.’ By focusing on Indian women and their experiences of attending international women’s conferences during the 1920s and 1930s, Mukherjee offered insight into the Indian suffrage movement. These women were highly aware of the value of attending these events, even though they were not always given the right to speak. Mukherjee provided a captivating account of how these women interacted with their British counterparts and how the experiences of these groups of women differed.

My first experience of a Women’s History Network conference was a wonderful one. It was an honour to present my paper alongside so many talented scholars. I was met by countless friendly offers of advice, all of which have helped me develop my research significantly. The organisers should be commended for bringing together the central theme of national and international perspectives toward women’s suffrage, all while maintaining a supportive environment for junior and senior scholars alike.


To find out more about No Petticoats Here, ‘a project that tells the stories of remarkable women of the First World War through song,’ check out Louise Jordan‘s song ‘Sooner or Later’:


Ciara Stewart is a PhD candidate at Durham university. Her thesis focuses on nineteenth-century Irish women’s political movements and their use of petitioning as part of their campaign. She is also working alongside Dr Richard Huzzey and Dr Henry Miller on the Petitions, Parliament and People project.

Follow Ciara on Twitter @Stewart_Ciara_.


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