Who were the suffragettes?

From smashing windows and chaining themselves to Buckingham Palace, the suffragettes were a wild bunch. But we owe them so much.

Who decides that kids have to go to school? Why do we have to wear seat belts in cars? And whose big idea was it to make us stay at home and not see our grandparents for months on end?

These rules, and many more like them, are all decided on by our government, which is a group of people who decide how to run the country. Every five years, every person over 18 in this country gets to vote on who does this job. It’s a pretty important job, so it’s only right everyone should have a say. One person, one vote.

It hasn’t always been like this though. If we go back a little over 100 years, not every adult was allowed to vote on who the government was going to be. And some know alls decided that no women should be allowed to vote. Not a single one of them. Not your mum, your aunty, your grandma, simply because they were women.

Some said this was because women were not clever enough to vote. That is silly, because some of the smartest people in history have been women. It was a woman who invented computer programming; three women were so good at maths they helped put a man on the moon; and it was a woman who noticed how much old fashioned cloth nappies leaked, and worked out a way to stop it. Let’s face it, the world is a a lot less stinky and soggy because of her.

So of course women were always perfectly capable of voting. And 100 years ago they knew that too. They were pretty fed up with not being able to have a say on who the government would be, so they very nicely and politely asked for the vote. And they asked again. And again. And again …This approach did not get them very far, so another group of women stepped in. They were known as suffragettes; and the suffragettes were done with being polite.

In their battle for the vote the suffragettes did some wild stuff. They threw paint in letterboxes, smashed windows and even chained themselves to the railings of Buckingham Palace. The queen was not amused. They got in quite a bit of trouble for all this, and some were even put in prison. They didn’t give up though, and vowed to not stop causing trouble until they got the vote.

One woman who went to prison was Sylvia Pankhurst. She was the second daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, who some of you may have heard about in school. Sylvia was very close to her dad, who was a good and kind man. He instilled in Sylvia a set a beliefs, including no person going hungry and being paid a fair wage for a fair day’s work.

Sylvia was also a talented artist, and painted many protest banners for the suffragette movement. She also travelled around the country painting pictures of women working in factories. She painted them in a very life-like way, bringing attention to the long hours they worked, in dirty and dangerous conditions, often for very low pay. She hoped her paintings would force changes and make the women’s lives better.

She eventually moved out of her comfortable family home, and to East London. Life in this area was very tough at the time, being one of the poorest parts of the country. People worked in filthy and dangerous conditions, often working 12–14 hours a days. They got paid very little; sometimes not even enough to feed their children. Their tummies rumbled all day with hunger, and having clean clothes and shoes were a luxury many could not afford. Families were very big in those days — it wouldn’t be uncommon to have 10–12 brothers and sisters. They were often all squashed in to one room. And the room could be dirty and cold. As a result, children got sick and many died before their fifth birthday.

Determined to make people’s lives better, Sylvia formed the East London Federation of Suffragettes. She continued to fight for the vote, but she did lots of other things too, including setting up a community centre in Bow in East London. The centre was used as a library, for meetings and classes. People could also bring their children there and get free milk. Back then, if you wanted to see a doctor you had to pay for it, and many in East London could not afford that. So Sylvia arrange for a doctor to come each week and see local families for free. They also set up a canteen, which sold food cheaply. The food was not always very nice, but many were grateful to have their bellies warm and full.

One of the reasons people were so poor was that there was little work around. Many local factories had closed down, and any work women could find was often paid badly. So Sylvia set up her own factory, where they made toys. Everyone earned enough so that they could afford everything they needed for their families.

Sylvia was not the only suffragette helping people in East London. Many women who had been born and grown up in the area were also fighting for change. Women like Minnie Lansbury, who was the daughter of a Jewish coal merchant. She did very well at school, and trained to be a teacher, but ended up taking on a full time role with the East London Federation of Suffragettes. She went on to set up a vaccination clinic, a dentist, and gave free milk and hot meals to the poorest children. In doing so, Minnie and the others she worked with, helped to hugely reduce the numbers of children who died.

In 1918, the suffragettes were finally successful in winning the vote for some women. Ten years later all would be granted this right. Many of the East London suffragettes would go on to form part of governments themselves.

Now you’ve heard the stories, have a look in your activity pack for some tasks you can do to learn more about the suffragettes. If you don’t have a pack you can download one online at www.eastlondonwomen.org.uk/learning/primary

East London women-led digital non-profit, using tech to share stories from the past, and sharing skills to prepare young people for the future.