To what extent did women have different views, aims and aspirations throughout the nineteenth century?

Alf Wilkinson

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A maidservant washing a woman's feet - Wellcome Collection

When we study the fight for female suffrage, we often focus on the ideas and actions of the suffragettes and the WSPU, sometimes forgetting the half-century before of suffragist activity. We also tend to think of the population at the time being split in two – male and female. Of course, there were males who were pro-suffrage, just like there were female anti-suffragists. But, as everyone knows, history is much more complicated than that – things are never black and white; there are usually an infinite number of shades of grey. This enquiry focuses on the female population – a majority, not a minority – and their attitudes and actions over the battle for women and the vote.

Key learning points

Scholarly rationale

Much recent research has focused on the suffragists, rather than the suffragettes, and the continuities of their tactics with other, earlier, more successful Victorian pressure groups, like the Anti-Corn Law League. This enquiry tries to explore the variety of wishes, aims and ideas behind the changing status of women throughout the nineteenth century.

Curricular rationale

History is complicated. There is a tendency to simplify things for our students. This enquiry deliberately seeks to engage students with the differing aims, ideas and aspirations of women throughout the nineteenth century. Women were not one voice, but many. Using the database and sources, the enquiry explores the utility of primary evidence and asks students to reach their own conclusions – then the final activity asks them to rethink their initial conclusions in the light of their continuing work.

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