The Women’s Movement: Legislation

With the centenary this year of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which granted suffrage to women who met certain qualifications[1] and universal suffrage to all men, I was inspired to relook at an old essay of mine on the women’s movement in Britain and share some of the key points from it.

One important factor to remember is that the women’s movement was a far larger cause than gaining suffrage for women. Although suffrage played a major part there were also several other issues that suffragists pursued. One suffragist, Ray Strachey, wrote the book, The Cause: A short history of the women’s movement in Great Britain, in which she tracks the movement from the earliest points with Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings and women’s philanthropic works in society, providing a valid public role for women, to the militant campaigns of the suffragettes in the 20th Century. Strachey argued “the true history of the women’s movement is the whole history of the nineteenth century”,[2] her work though went beyond that with even the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century also being included.

There are three main areas within which suffragists and others within the women’s movement were active in: legislation, belief system and opportunities within the public sphere.[3] I will therefore be running a series of blogs in order to cover each of these aspects.

Part 1: Legislation

The struggle to encourage parliament to extend the franchise to women was not the only law that feminists in the 19th Century were fighting to change. Caroline Norton was a woman who was in an unhappy and abusive marriage; she finally left her husband in 1836 after he had destroyed her reputation by accusing her and Lord Melbourne of having had an affair. Using her abilities as a writer, she became actively involved in changing the laws around coverture and divorce after her husband prevented her from having access to her children. Much of her campaigns, with the assistance of others who joined her cause, were focused around spreading their message as broadly as possible through avenues such as pamphlets and letters to spread the message of her protests, she even wrote to Queen Victoria. Her efforts were instrumental in the passage of the Infant Custody Bill 1839 and the Marriage and Divorce Act 1857.[4]

Josephine Butler was another important figure who fought for legislation to be changed. Butler fought for decades in one of the largest campaigns by feminists up to that point, to improve the sexual rights of women.[5] In 1869 Butler began to campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts 1864, 1866 and 1869 and continued that fight tirelessly through rallies, pamphlets and public speeches, despite their unpopularity and the dangers involved, until they were finally repealed in 1886. Considering the sexual subject of the campaigns, Butler’s public tactics were almost unheard of at that time, especially for a woman and, although shocking in the moment, eventually helped to make such topics more respectable for women to discuss.[6] In order to accomplish such an undertaking, she also established the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts with another feminist, Elizabeth Wolstonholme.[7]

The Contagious Diseases Acts granted police in garrison and port towns the authority to stop any woman they thought might be a prostitute and force them to undergo an examination to determine whether they were suffering from a venereal disease (VD). If these women were found to be infected with VD they would be imprisoned in a lock hospital until cured.[8] Much of the campaign against these acts was focused on highlighting the invasiveness of such tactics and referred to the examinations as a form of instrumental violation.

Later, Butler was also pivotal to the Criminal Amendment Act 1885 in which, along with other amendments, the legal age of consent for girls was raised from 13 years old to 16 years old. This was achieved through a series of articles released in the newspaper Pall Mall Gazette entitled “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.” Butler, along with the help of the Salvation Army encouraged the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette to write the exposé in which, with the help of a reformed procuress, Rebecca Jarrett, he was able to buy a young girl from her mother and took her out of the country to France. The aim was to demonstrate exactly how easy it was for traffickers – known at the time as white slavers – and procuresses to entrap young girls into prostitution. The public outcry that resulted from the articles was a vital component in the raising of the legal age of consent.[9]

Suffrage was also a major cause which was fought for within legislation. One of the movement’s earliest allies was Liberal MP John Stuart Mill who, throughout his career in Parliament, continued to fight for women’s suffrage. Mill believed that if women were granted suffrage there would be a trickle-down effect leading to equality for both genders across all areas of society. He was particularly active during the debates for the Reform Acts 1832 and 1867, in which he pushed for the language of the new acts to be adjusted in order to enable the extension to women as well. As time went by, there was a slow increase in sympathisers to the cause and, in Parliament, Mill was joined by Liberal MP Jacob Bright to argue in support for women’s suffrage.[10]

Outside of Parliament, the struggle for women’s suffrage was advanced by various groups and organisations of suffragists and suffragettes. The two largest and well-known groups were the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), suffragists who worked within the law to protest through distributing pamphlets, organising peaceful gatherings and signing petitions to Parliament, and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), suffragettes who used more violent and radical tactics such as breaking shop windows, posting letter bombs, starting fires in buildings, and famously, hunger striking when placed in prison. Although they used very different routes to promote women’s suffrage, together they were able to highlight women’s issues in a way never seen before and drew more attention to the cause.[11]

The examples given within this article are not extensive; suffragists and others within the women’s movement from around the country and from different organisations worked to improve women’s rights within the law through various different ways. They campaigned in different areas such as coverture – in which the married woman was under the protection and authority of her husband, or, essentially, his property, married women’s rights to property, married women’s rights to their children, equalising the divorce laws, suffrage, repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, and many more.

The next instalment of the Women’s Movement articles will be on the movement’s work on changing Victorian society’s beliefs and perceptions.

[1] The Representation of the People Act 1918: “A woman shall be entitled to be registered as a Franchises parliamentary elector for a constituency (other than a university (women) constituency) if she – a) has attained the age of thirty years; and b) is not subject to any legal incapacity; and c) is entitled to be registered as a local government elector in respect of the occupation in that constituency of land or premises (not being a dwelling-house) of a yearly value of not less than five pounds or of a dwelling-house, or is the wife of a husband entitled to be so registered.” Original Acts, Parliamentary Archives.

[2] Strachey, R., The Cause: A short history of the Women’s Movement in Great Britain, (London: Virago Press Limited, 1978), 5.

[3] Lambert, N., “The struggle for the vote was merely one aspect of a wider women’s movement.” Discuss”, essay, (London: Birkbeck College, 2013). 1.

[4] “History: Historic Figures: Caroline Norton (1808-1877)”, BBC,

[5] Caine, B., English Feminism 1780-1980, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) 89.

[6] “History: Historic Figures: Josephine Butler (1828-1906),” BBC,

[7] “Records of the National Association of the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts,” JISC archives hub, Women’s Library Archives,

[8] “Records of the National Association of the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts.”

[9] “History: Historic Figures: Josephine Butler (1828-1906).”

[10] Caine, 106.

[11] “Gallery Background: Gaining women’s suffrage,” The National Archives,

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History Gal

A history lover whose main areas of interest are with gender, sexuality and sex in the Victorian times. I am a PhD student from the UK who focuses on fallen women and masculinity within the Victorian period.

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