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Beyond the Ballot: Women’s Rights and Suffrage from 1866 to Today

Explore the campaign for women’s right to vote and its impact on women’s rights and equality to the present day.

26,986 enrolled on this course

Millicent Fawcett, President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, addressing a crowd in Hyde Park in 1913. The banner behinds Mrs Fawcett reads ‘Law-Abiding Suffragists’.

Explore the remarkable story of women’s rights and campaign for the vote

6th February 2018 marked the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, the piece of legislation which extended the vote to (some) women for the first time. 14th December 2018 marked the centenary of the first election in which women could then exercise their vote.

Discover how the vote was won, the nineteenth century background to the campaign and what happened next with Dr Claire Kennan from Royal Holloway and experts from the UK Parliament, The National Archives and the Women’s Library at the LSE.

Skip to 0 minutes and 12 seconds On the 6th of February, 1918, the Representation of the People Act received royal assent and passed into law– an act to amend the law with respect to parliamentary and local government franchises. That act granted the vote to women for the first time. In this course, we will chart the struggle for women’s rights and the vote in particular, from the first mass petition calling for female suffrage in 1866, to the Women’s March of January, 2017. Along the way, we will encounter women who rallied against the social and legal barriers that curtailed women’s rights in the 19th century, and examine how women were represented in literature and art.

Skip to 0 minutes and 49 seconds We will examine the campaign for the vote, its leading figures and organisations, assessing their tactics and effectiveness. And we will follow the passage of the Representation of the People Act in 1917 and 1918. So join us as we explore the history of women’s rights and their campaign for the vote.


  • Week 1

    Women in the Nineteenth Century: Myth, Reality and Pioneers

    • Introduction

      In this activity we will introduce you to the main objectives of the course and topics we are examining in week 1.

    • Women in Literature

      Next we turn to Victorian literature. How far does the literature of the time reflect the social and cultural attitudes that curtailed women's freedoms in the nineteenth century?

    • Women in Art

      In this activity we examine the representation of women in art to better understand social and cultural attitudes toward women in Victorian Britain.

    • Women and Work

      Contrary to the middle class ideal in which women managed the private sphere of the home, the reality for most women was a life of hard work alongside men in the public sphere, as we explore in this activity.

    • Women and the Law

      In this activity we examine how the law limited women's rights and liberties, with particular reference to the campaigns of Caroline Norton and Barbara Bodichon.

    • Pioneers: Women's Education and the Campaign to Abolish the Slave Trade

      Hannah More and Elizabeth Jesser Reid were pioneers who opened up new opportunities for women through education and challenged the slave trade, helping redefine what a women could do in the process.

    • Pioneers: The Contagious Diseases Act and Factory Reform

      In this activity we examine the incredible story of Josephine Butler and her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act and Helen Blackburn's efforts to improve working conditions for women.

    • Week 1 Conclusion

      Here we draw together some thoughts about the first week of Beyond the Ballot and look ahead to week 2.

  • Week 2

    The Women's Suffrage Campaign

    • Introduction

      Welcome back to Beyond the Ballot. This week we examine the campaign for the vote, from the first mass petition to Parliament in 1866 to the campaigns of the peaceful suffragists and the militant suffragettes.

    • The Campaign Begins

      In this activity we explore the origins of the campaign for the vote, looking at the first mass petition calling for women's suffrage and the political backdrop to emergence of the organised campaign in the 1860s.

    • The Suffragists

      In this activity we will explore in the more detail the role and tactics of the suffragists, Millicent Garrett Fawcett and the formation of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies.

    • The Suffragettes

      In this activity we introduce the Pankhursts and the Women's Social and Political Union. We will explore how their organisation grew, adopted increasingly militant tactics and, eventually, split.

    • Assessing Suffragette Militancy, Then and Now

      What did 'Deeds not Words' mean in practice? Next we explore with Dr Fern Riddell the extremes to which some suffragettes went and hear from Dr David Yuratich how these activities would be legally classed today.

    • Forgotten Organisations and Supporters

      In this activity we explore some of the forgotten societies that campaigned for the vote, the often overlooked contribution of working class women to the cause and introduce some 'suffragettes in trousers'.

    • Week 2 Conclusion

      Time to reflect on what we've discovered this week.

  • Week 3

    Responses to the Women's Suffrage Campaign

    • Introduction

      Welcome back. This week we are exploring the response to the women's suffrage campaign from politicians, the state and the public; the impact of the First World War; and the passage of the Representation of the People Act.

    • The Political Response to the Women's Suffrage Campaign

      In this activity we are looking at the position of the Liberal, Conservative and Labour parties on the women's suffrage question and profile three politicians whose positions were particularly significant.

    • The State Responds

      Next we examine how the machinery of state responded to the challenges posed by the militant suffrage campaign, looking at police and Home Office records held at The National Archives in Kew.

    • Popular Reactions to the Women's Suffrage Campaign

      In this activity we are looking at the popular responses to the women's suffrage campaign, the use of visual propaganda and the nature of some women's opposition to women's suffrage.

    • Impact of the First World War

      What difference did the war make to women's campaign for the vote? In this activity we visit Dr Naomi Paxton in the Parliamentary Archives to answer this and other questions about women and the First World War.

    • The Representation of the People Act

      In this activity we will examine the circumstances that led to the establishment of the Speaker's Conference, examining the broader question of electoral reform, and how this culminated in the extension of the vote to some women.

    • Conclusion

      Let's reflect on what we've discovered this week.

  • Week 4

    Beyond the Ballot

    • Introduction

      Welcome back to Beyond the Ballot. This week we are examining the Representation of the People Act 1918 and the continuing struggle for women's rights beyond 1918, exploring New, Equality and Second Wave Feminism.

    • The Impact of Women Voters

      What difference did the extension of the vote to women make to the 1918 election and to politics between the two world wars? To find answers to these questions we return to Royal Holloway to speak with Dr Alex Windscheffel.

    • Women in Westminster

      Who were the first women to take their seats in Parliament, what issues did they raise and what legislation and debates are they associated with?

    • New and Equality Feminism

      Having achieved the vote what did campaigners for women's rights turn to next? What was New and Equality Feminism? What issues were these movements concerned with and what actions did they take?

    • Second Wave Feminism

      In this activity we explore Second Wave feminism and case studies ranging from the Women's Liberation Conference to the Dagenham Women's Strike of 1968.

    • Women and Parliament Today

      What do current and recent women MPs think are the remaining barriers to equality, have they been treated differently as MPs as women and what do they think should be done to encourage more women to engage with politics?

    • Week 4 and Course Conclusion

      What have we discovered this week and throughout Beyond the Ballot? Where next for feminism?

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Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Assess and discuss the social, cultural and legal frameworks that curtailed women’s rights in the nineteenth century and how these were being challenged by a selection of pioneering women.
  • Assess and discuss the origins of the women’s suffrage movement and why early attempts to extend the franchise failed.
  • Evaluate and discuss why (some) women received the vote in 1918, comparing different arguments and assessing key documents.
  • Assess the impact of the struggle for equality since the passage of the Representation of the People Act, comparing the responses of early women MPs and campaigners and wider movements.
  • Reflect upon and discuss the role of protest in effecting political change and how Suffragette militancy and the government’s response at the beginning of the 20th century would be classified today.

Who is the course for?

This course is intended for anyone with an interest in nineteenth or twentieth century history, the women’s suffrage campaign or the history of women’s rights. It does not require any reading before you start or previous experience of studying the subject.

Who will you learn with?

Medieval ECR Historian, Citizens Project Officer and AHRC Creative Economy Engagement Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London & The National Archives.

Dr Matthew Smith, Senior Lecturer in Public Humanities, Royal Holloway, University of London

Steven Franklin, PhD researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Project Officer for the Citizens project, of which this course is a component.

Who developed the course?

Royal Holloway, University of London

Queen Victoria presided over the grand opening of Royal Holloway in 1886. Since then the College has continued to grow in size and status to become one of the top research-led institutions in the UK.

UK Parliament

The UK Parliament represents the people of the United Kingdom and makes decisions that affect us all.

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