UNISON is making 2018 a year of celebration.

100 years ago many women won the right to vote for the first time and we’re marking the occasion up and down the country.

2018 marks one hundred years since women won the right to vote for the first time.

Events are taking place to mark the centenary across the country. Find out more about what’s happening over the summer below. 

The campaign for the parliamentary vote for women was a long and bitter struggle that began in earnest in the 1860’s. Although the movement is often marked as beginning around 1860, women’s consciousness about full political citizenship had its roots much earlier (for example, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman which was published in 1792).

The campaign for the vote for women that begun in the 1860’s, and stretched over a period of more than 40 years, had been one of peaceful demonstrations, petitions to parliament, public meetings, lobbying of MPs from all political parties – including the new Independent Labour Party. In 1897, various women’s suffrage societies came together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett.

Under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett the NUWSS continued campaigning by peaceful means. Disheartened by the slow progress being made, in 1903 Emmeline Pankhust founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Assisted by her daughters (Christabel, Sylvia and Adela), the WSPU initially engaged in creative peaceful protests, but grew frustrated by the stubbornness of the Liberal government of the day, who had over a long period of time debated women’s suffrage bills but had clearly no intention of passing them. With the slogan ‘Deeds not Words’ the suffragettes were encouraged by the leadership of the WSPU to abandon ‘ladylike tactics’ and to not ask for, but to demand, their democratic right to vote.

The government prohibited women from protesting in public spaces and from 1912 the activities of the suffragettes became more militant and included direct action such as, smashing windows and vandalising letter boxes, but never did their tactics endanger human life. As a consequence, hundreds of suffragettes were arrested and imprisoned during these years of direct action. Many of them adopted the hunger strike as a political tool, and endured force feeding in prison. Women being force-fed created such a public outcry that government introduced the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ which allowed the authorities to release women from prison when their health became a serious concern. However, as soon as the woman had recovered they would be arrested again and brought back to prison, were most of the women would immediately go on hunger strike again. The suffragettes were daring and brave and they often put their own lives at risk for the cause.

The activities of the WSPU were brought to a halt during the First World War but the activities of the NUWSS continued during this time. Eventually, in 1918 eight and a half a million women were given the right to vote. However, the legislation was restricted to women aged 30 and over, who owned property or were married to someone who owned property. Millions of working class women and younger women would have to wait a further ten years before all women would have the right to vote on equal terms with that of men.

So what of women’s rights today? Millicent Fawcett is acknowledged as the founder of The Fawcett Society. The Fawcett Society is still a campaigning force to be reckoned with, challenging the barriers and obstacles that women still face – equal pay, representation in parliament and in the boardroom and campaign against violence against women, sexual harassment and pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The Fawcett Society acts as a major influencer of public policy for women and families today and has recently published a comprehensive Sex Discrimination Review (January 2018) which demonstrates clearly that, whilst much progress has been made since 1918, there is a lot of work still to be done.

Dr Helen Pankhurst, granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst was warmly welcomed to UNISON national women’s conference in February and spoke about her recently published book ‘Deeds not Words’ in which she discusses the questions on so many women’s mind about how far the struggle for women’s equality has come and what equality looks like for women in the 21st Century. Helen believes that whilst much progress has been made in the one hundred years since her great grandmother voted for the first time that there still remains a lot of work to do. The book is on sale now in hardback – the paperback version is due out later this year.

If you are interested in learning more about the women who took part in the campaigns for the vote, there are links to some useful websites below. UNISON also runs a women’s history course in the South East as well as being able to provide shorter workshops for branches. You might be interested in doing something special to commemorate the 100 years of the vote for women and we have listed some ideas below and links to resources that you might find useful. Organisers in the South East are able to assist branches with this too.


External Women’s History Events

There are a number of events and exhibitions being run by external organisations to celebrate Women’s History Month in 2018. Here’s a selection which you may be interested in with links to find out more. Information about the various talks and guided tours around Westminster throughout the year to celebrate 100 Years of the Vote […]

Guest blog from Women’s Committee chair Serena Powis

Thoughts on ‘The Winged Wheel Grave of Llandudno’ by Roger N. Bloor

Celebrating 100 years of votes for women

The Reigate and Banstead branch organised a free screening of the film Suffragette to celebrate the centenary

Celebration Ideas

Here’s a few ideas that you could run in your workplace:

Hold a 100 Years of Votes stall (see the Resources section on this page to download items).

Organise a delegation of women members from your Branch to visit Parliament and join a guest speaker talk. There are so many events taking place in Westminster this year and the website has some very interesting information and events. All are listed on their website at www.parliament.uk

Run a lunch ‘n’ learn event for women members on Women’s History or the Suffragettes. Contact your local organisers or the regional women’s officer for more information.

Organise a ‘cake break’ or ‘take a break’ hour, and discuss issues that affect women today, you could use the EqualiTeas resources at www.equaliteas.org.uk

Hold a women’s health and wellbeing event, you could include head massage and relaxation.

Invite one of our UNISON providers for a pensions advice session, for example Lighthouse Financial Advice.

Visit the Vote 100 website to access a free online course exploring the history of women’s rights and suffrage. It also has an events listing section where you can search for exhibitions and talks.

The National Archives have plenty of research material contained on their dedicated Suffrage 100 page.

The BBC has some very good information and resources plus videos and short talks.

Don’t forget that organising staff can assist with branch recruitment and organising initiatives.

Summer 2018 Events

Stepping Up – Women in Leadership Course.  This is a blended specialist training course for women trade union representatives that has been developed to celebrate 150 years of the TUC.  The course will explore leadership, activism, campaigning, organising, motivation, media skills and much more.  The course is free to union reps and will take place over 5 days starting in July and ending in December.

Centenary of Women’s Suffrage: How the Vote was won.  Takes place on June 5 from 6pm-8pm at the Museum of London who are hosting many events throughout the year.  Visit their website for more information about the Votes for Women exhibition running from 29th May to 6 January 2019.

PROCESSIONS – is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take part in a mass participation artwork event to celebrate 100 years of the women voting.  Events are taking place in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London. 

1918 – 2018: 100 years of the women’s vote in Britain: How far have we come?  This conference explores how winning the parliamentary franchise enhanced women’s lives in the UK and identifies what more needs to be done to achieve gender equality in the UK today. The conference is taking place on Saturday 16 June at the London South Bank University from 9.30am to 8pm.  The cost of £11.25 includes lunch and an evening reception and a free crèche is provided.  Find out more.

A Great Get Together with Millicant FawcettJoin the Fawcett Society on 24 June to celebrate the life of Millicent Fawcett. The day begins at the foot of the new statue of Millicent in Parliament Square followed by a picnic in St. James Park in honour of the Jo Cox Great Get Together Foundation. This free event has some fantastic speakers and looks to be an informative and fun day.

Matchwomen’s Festival. This event has been organised by Louise Raw, Labour historian and author of ‘Striking a Light’ which tells of the matchwomen’s strike of 1888. The Festival will take place in Bow Arts, 183 Bow Road and will mark 130 years since the strike. The event is taking place on Saturday 30 June from 2pm to 11pm and is a ticketed event.

Sylvia is a modern musical celebrating the life of Sylvia Pankhurst and her pivotal role in the campaign for women’s rights and the vote for women. The show is running fro 3 to 22 September at The Old Vic.  Find out more information and book tickets. 

EqualiTea – What does it mean to you to have the same democratic rights as everyone else? Join together with people from all over the country to celebrate 90 years since the Representation of the People Act 1928, which gave all men and women over 21 the equal right to vote. Invite your community to share, debate, and celebrate what equality means to you and order your Equalitea pack.