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World

100 Years Ago In Britain Some Women Won Their Right To Vote

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A hundred years ago today, after a painful years-long struggle, the first British women got the right to vote - that is, those over the age of 30. Cambridge University historian Lucy Delap says today, people across the country have suffrage fever.

LUCY DELAP: People are wearing the militant suffrage colors, which were purple and white and green, and some people are also wearing the colors of the law-abiding constitutional movement, which were red, white and green. So there's a bit of a clash of colors there.

CHANG: I spoke with Delap about the tension represented by those two sets of colors between women who peacefully campaigned for the right to vote and those who were more confrontational. She says they all campaigned at great personal risk.

DELAP: Some women risked prison, and some risked their health. And then there was also a cost to reputation because the public was quite skeptical about the so-called suffragettes and would greet them when they were speaking or passing through as pilgrims with rotten eggs, with vegetables, with heckling. It wasn't easy to preserve your kind of respectable reputation if you were involved in the suffrage movement.

CHANG: Violence became part of this movement, violence that was initiated by suffragettes, right?

DELAP: That's correct. And they were always very careful about how they presented and planned that violence because they said, it's not violence which is aimed at damaging human life. So they deliberately directed their violence towards property and towards symbolic acts.

CHANG: Ultimately, though, do you think violence bolstered or impeded the success of the movement over time?

DELAP: My feeling is that without the violence, the issue would not have risen up the agenda in the way that it did. It became a key issue of the day. But I think that without the massive hard work of the law-abiding suffragists - the marching, the petitions, the prayers, the pilgrimage - I don't think the violence would have meant anything. So I think both sides of the movements were essential.

The violence eventually became self-defeating because it pushed the government into a corner where they couldn't give the vote because the violence had been so extreme - burning down buildings and so on. So it was lucky that World War I came along and broke out of that deadlock. Three years later when they started discussing suffrage, it was possible then for the government to say, yes, we will give this in reward for women's war work. I think that was really just a convenient excuse. It was something they wanted to do anyway, but they couldn't because of the violence.

CHANG: Nowadays, what do people in Britain think about the women who fought for the right to vote a hundred years ago? Is there still some ambivalence about their methods or at least some of the methods, some of the militancy? Or are they all collectively honored today?

DELAP: With the passage of time a hundred years later, the levels of violence that the women's suffrage movement was offering do not seem particularly serious. That said, we live in a context where terror is a ever-present threat, and we have to think critically about any group who thinks that violence is the answer. So even though they weren't threatening human life, they were slashing artworks and setting empty buildings on fire. Those kinds of tactics have to remain controversial.

But we also need to ask ourselves how was it that they were pushed to that state in the first place? And it's because they were not included in any kind of democratic citizen context which allowed them to have their voices heard. So they were pushed into that position. And now that looks like the bad choices that the statesmen at the time made.

CHANG: That's Lucy Delap. She's a historian at Cambridge University. Thank you.

DELAP: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLIE HOLIDAY SONG, "PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.