Suffragettes were members of women's organisations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which advocated the extension of the "franchise", or the right to vote in public elections, to women. It particularly refers to militants in the United Kingdom such as members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). "Suffragist" is a more general term for members of the suffrage movement, particularly those advocating women's suffrage.
The term suffragette is particularly associated with activists in the British WSPU, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, who were influenced by Russian methods of protest such as hunger strikes. 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. But by 1903 women in Britain had still not been enfranchised, and Pankhurst had decided the movement would have to become radical and militant if it was going to be effective. The campaign became increasingly bitter, with property damage and hunger strikes being countered by the authorities with jailing and force-feeding, until it was suspended due to the outbreak of war in 1914.
Women in Britain over the age of 30, meeting certain property qualifications, were given the right to vote in 1918, and in 1928 suffrage was extended to all women over the age of 21. Opinion amongst historians today is divided as to whether the militant tactics of the suffragettes helped or hindered their cause.
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?
Two further petitions were presented to parliament in May 1867 and Mill also proposed an amendment to the 1867 Reform Act to give women the same political rights as men but the amendment was treated with derision and defeated by 196 votes to 73.