The first organised campaigns for votes for women began in the nineteenth century with the first Woman’s Suffrage bill presented to Parliament as early as 1832, part of the general political upsurge and struggle for reform and extension of the franchise to non-property-holding and working men.
The failure of a second bill in 1867 led to the formation of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in Manchester, gradually joined by numerous other branches around the country, which were united in 1897 in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. The suffragists of the NUWSS were many more in number than the militants who in 1903 set up the WSPU and adopted direct militant action as tactics. By 1914 the NUWSS had 50,000 members, the WSPU 5,000. The NUWSS retained their focus on peaceful campaigning: petitioning, demonstrating, writing, speaking and teaching, organising and lobbying in favour of the vote. Many of them saw the violent tactics of the suffragettes as bringing the movement and the credibility of women as aspiring responsible members of political society into disrepute and compromising the female values which they argued were needed in government and society and which necessitated that women should have a vote.
In Elizabeth Robins’s Votes for Women Act1, women divide over appropriate tactics to win the vote:
MRS FREDDY You’re judging from the outside. Those of us who have
been working for years – we all realise it was a perfectly lunatic
proceeding. Why, think! The only chance of our getting what we
want is by winning over the men. … What’s the matter?
MISS LEVERING ‘Winning over the men’ has been the woman’s
way for centuries. Do you think the result should make us proud of
our policy? Yes? Then go and walk in Piccadilly at midnight.