Suffragettes were members of women's organisations in the late-19th and early-20th centuries who, under the banner "Votes for Women", fought for women's suffrage, the right to vote in public elections. The term refers in particular to members of the British Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), a women-only movement founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst, which engaged in direct action and civil disobedience. In 1906 the Daily Mail coined the term suffragette for the WSPU, from suffragist, a general term for those advocating women's suffrage. The suffragettes embraced the new name.
Women had the vote in several countries by the end of the 19th century; in 1893 New Zealand became the first self-governing country to grant the vote to all women over the age of 21. When by 1903 women in Britain had not been enfranchised, Pankhurst decided that women had to "do the work ourselves"; the WSPU motto became "deeds, not words". The suffragettes heckled politicians, tried to storm parliament, were attacked and sexually assaulted during battles with the police, chained themselves to railings, smashed windows, set fire to postboxes and empty buildings, and faced anger and ridicule in the media. When imprisoned they went on hunger strike, to which the government responded by force-feeding them. The death of one suffragette, Emily Davison, when she ran in front of the king's horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, made headlines around the world. The WSPU campaign had varying levels of support from within the suffragette movement; breakaway groups formed, and within the WSPU itself not all members supported the direct action.
The suffragette campaign was suspended when World War I broke out in 1914. After the war, the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave the vote to women over the age of 30 who met certain property qualifications. Ten years later women gained electoral equality with men when the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 gave all women the vote at age 21.
Although the Isle of Man had enfranchised women who owned property to vote in parliamentary (Tynwald) elections in 1881, New Zealand was the first self-governing country to grant all women the right to vote in 1893 when women over the age of 21 were permitted to vote in parliamentary elections. Women in South Australia achieved the same right and became the first to obtain the right to stand for parliament in 1895. In the United States, white women over the age of 21 were allowed to vote in the western territories of Wyoming from 1869 and in Utah from 1870.
In 1865 John Stuart Mill was elected to Parliament on a platform that included votes for women, and in 1869 he published his essay in favour of equality of the sexes The Subjection of Women. Also in 1865 a discussion group was formed to promote higher education for women which was named the Kensington Society. Following discussions on the subject of women's suffrage, the society formed a committee to draft a petition and gather signatures, which Mill agreed to present to Parliament once they had gathered 100 signatures. In October 1866 amateur scientist, Lydia Becker, attended a meeting of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science held in Manchester and heard one of the organisors of the petition, Barbara Bodichon, read a paper entitled Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women. Becker was inspired to help gather signatures around Manchester and to join the newly formed Manchester committee. Mill presented the petition to Parliament in 1866 by which time the supporters had gathered 1499 signatures, including those of Florence Nightingale, Harriet Martineau, Josephine Butler and Mary Somerville.
In March 1867, Becker wrote an article for the Contemporary Review, in which she said:
It surely will not be denied that women have, and ought to have, opinions of their own on subjects of public interest, and on the events which arise as the world wends on its way. But if it be granted that women may, without offence, hold political opinions, on what ground can the right be withheld of giving the same expression or effect to their opinions as that enjoyed by their male neighbours?