The Academy: session abstract and readings

History, Lecture 4: Suffragettes - women in public

Dr Jennie Bristow

The Suffragettes’ fight to gain the franchise indicated the importance attached to participation in the public sphere at the turn of the 20th century. But the determination to deny suffrage to women, and the reluctance amongst many in the movement for women’s suffrage to extend the vote to working-class men, reveals that the idea of the public sphere was a partial one, designated as a democratic space for only a section of the public. The campaign for female suffrage also disturbed deep-seated ideas about nature, morality and sexuality, explicitly challenging the public/private divide.

The militant Suffragettes were portrayed as unfeminine, unnatural, and profoundly immoral; depicted as man-haters and nation-breakers whose cause would ultimately harm women too. Yet many of the Suffragettes themselves held a maternalist outlook, believing that women’s role in the private sphere was a key argument as to why their involvement in politics would benefit public life, and exert a civilising impact on male behaviour. The extension of the franchise eventually happened alongside a shift in ideas about whether public and private were, or should be, separate spheres, and the development of an increasingly close relationship between politics and social administration.


See the Academy 2015 readings page for attendees.

what's happening next

Battle of Ideas Festival 2019

Saturday 2 & Sunday 3 November 2019, Barbican, Silk Street, London