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The NUWSS

 In 1866 a group of women from the Kensington Society organised a petition that demanded equal rights for men and women. The women took their petition to Henry Fawcett (the blind MP who was in love with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson but married her sister Millie instead) and John Stuart Mill (the man who was a philosopher at twelve, and the man who married Harriet Taylor), two MPs who supported the idea of universal suffrage – i.e. votes for everyone, regardless of sex. Mill added an amendment to the Reform Act that would give women the same political rights as men, but it was defeated by 196 votes to 73.

Disappointed members of the Kensington Society decided to form the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. Millicent Fawcett joined the group the following year. She was a superb organiser (although not a brilliant public speaker), and she quickly became the leader of the London suffragists. This is important because they needed to pull all of their ideas and plans together so that they could actually get things done and combat the Anti-Suffrage Movement's propaganda. Similar women’s suffrage groups were forming all over Britain at this time.

In 1897, seventeen of these individual groups joined together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Lydia Becker, head of the society for women’s rights in Manchester) was elected President. Three years later, Millie took over when she died.

The NUWSS held public meetings, organised petitions, wrote letters to politicians, published newspapers and distributed free literature. Although they were very determined to achieve their purpose of votes for women, they never resorted to violence to do so.

In 1903 a group of former NUWSS members left to form a new organisation, the WSPU. Led by Emmeline Pankhurst, the new organisation said that it was no longer willing to restrict itself to the constitutional methods favoured by the NUWSS – it was willing to behave more ‘violently’ and openly unwomanly.

Millie Fawcett, like other suffragists, feared that the militant actions of the WSPU would alienate potential supporters of women’s suffrage. However, Fawcett and other NUWSS members also admired the courage of the suffragettes and were initially unwilling to criticise them.

In 1905 the Liberal Party won the general election, and the NUWSS believed that women would now be granted equal rights with men. They were wrong. Millie had always been a Liberal, but she became increasingly angry at the party’s unwillingness to give full support to women’s suffrage. In 1908, Herbert Asquith became the Prime Minister. Unlike other high-up Liberal politicians, he was strongly opposed to granting women the vote. In 1912 Millie and the NUWSS decided to support Labour instead in the parliamentary elections.

Even at its peak in 1914, the WSPU only had about 2,000 members. The NUWSS was a much larger organisation and in 1914 had 500 local branches and over 100,000 members. This shows (possibly) that women (and the men who supported them) tended to empathise with the less rampantly militant groups – perhaps because they were less controversial or less likely to land them in jail. The less confrontational groups might not have attracted as much attention as the suffragettes, but they didn’t upset or annoy people either.

Two days after the British government declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, Millicent Fawcett announced that the NUWSS was suspending all political activity until the conflict was resolved.