Want to know more about women’s suffrage? These 10 books are just what you need.
Purple, white and green: the colours most often associated with the suffrage movement in the UK were the markers of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by Emmeline Pankhurst.
While the Pankhursts, the WSPU and militant action were a key part of the suffrage movement, the story of the fight for women’s right to vote started before the suffragettes (militant campaigners) got involved, with the suffragists (non-militant campaigners, largely part of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies).
Here’s a guide to some of the best books for anyone wanting to find out more about women’s suffrage here, and across the world.
My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst
The suffrage movement and the Pankhurst name go hand in hand. This book stops before women gained the vote, but it’s a fascinating chronicle of how the suffragettes and the creation of the WSPU changed the game in the fight for women’s votes. It’s clear from the book that Pankhurst was both a figurehead and a driving force of woman suffrage, as well a new way of trying to get the vote. Reading this also makes it clear that suffrage was achieved on the backs of women in less privileged positions than Pankhurst who gave up much more than she did - in some cases, their lives.
The Women’s Victory - And After by Millicent Fawcett
Fawcett headed up the largest suffrage union in the UK - the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies - and opposed the violence of the suffragette movement. In this book, written in 1920, she looks back at the long campaign for the vote and examines what was really achieved in 1918. Anyone reading Pankhurst’s story should also read this to get a rounded view of the campaign for suffrage.
(Cambridge University Press, £18.99)
Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell
In Death in Ten Minutes, Riddell uncovers the story of Kitty Marion, a radical suffragette who was sent across the country by the Pankhurst family and the WSPU to carry out a nationwide campaign of bombing and arson attacks. Her actions, and those of other militant suffragettes, were hushed up and disowned by other members of the movement after the First World War, but their stories deserve to be told.
(Hodder & Stoughton, £20)
Hearts and Minds by Jane Robinson
This is a deep dive into the women’s march on London that took place in 1913, an event largely ignored when looking at the story of women’s suffrage. The suffragists of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies were behind the Great Pilgrimage, which involved rich and poor, old and young, from all parts of the country. They marched for six weeks, with the event culminating in a rally in Hyde Park. Robinson draws from diaries, letters and unpublished personal accounts to tell the story of the march.
Rebel Voices: The Rise of Votes for Women by Eve Lloyd Knight and Louise Kay Stewart
This gorgeous, graphic novel (technically a children’s book) looks at 100-odd years of women’s suffrage across the world through a series of dark, moody illustrations and brief text. Starting in 1893 in New Zealand and ending with women formally getting the right to vote in Saudi Arabia in 2015, this shows how women’s suffrage often came in waves, connected to war, revolution or freedom from colonialism. And Rebel Voices doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that in some countries, the right to vote wasn’t given to all women at the same time.
(Wren & Rook, £12.99)
Sophia by Anita Anand
It can be easy to think that the suffrage movement in the UK was made up of only white women, but Anand’s book proves different. It tells the story of Sophia, goddaughter of Queen Victoria, member of one of the most revered families in India, and a key part of the fight for women’s votes in the UK. She stood alongside Emmeline Pankhurst, marched, and provided money to help women gain the right to vote. She’s often erased from the narrative, but Anand’s highly readable biography sets her in her rightful place.
Deeds Not Words by Helen Pankhurst
Taking its name from the slogan made famous by the suffragettes, in this book the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst takes a look at how women’s lives have changed over the last century, and what is still to be done. Split into five themes - politics, money, family and identity, violence, and culture - this analyses how to strengthen feminist campaigning for the future. Pankhurst is a women’s rights activist and a senior advisor for CARE International.
Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
What did the suffragettes do after they’d won the right to vote? This novel imagines the story of a militant suffragette, and what happened when she no longer had anything to fight for. Matilda Simpkin was jailed five times, heckled Winston Churchill, broke windows, and now lives a life which is missing excitement. Evans is a brilliant storyteller who perfectly captures the feeling of a person who is restless in their own life.
Suffragettes: The Fight for Votes for Women edited by Joyce Marlow
Using diaries, memoirs, newspaper articles, speeches and more, this is a comprehensive yet accessible look at the whole of the UK suffrage movement, from its beginnings in 1825 to when women were finally given the vote in 1928 on the same terms as men. Among the gems are the story of Lily Maxwell, who was discovered to be on the voting register and so cast a vote in an election in 1868, and an extract from a letter in which Queen Victoria says the “mad wicked folly of ‘Woman’s Rights’” needs to be checked.
Short on time, but really want to be able to talk about the suffrage movement in an informed way? Then The Suffragettes, part of Penguin’s Little Black Classics series, is for you. In just over 60 pages, this book provides a potted history of the suffragette movement through pamphlets, posters, newspaper articles and letters. As a bonus, it’s the perfect size to put in your work bag for your commute.
(Penguin Classics, £1)
Stylist is celebrating the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. See more of our commemorative content here.
Main image: Arunas Naujokas