Sex and the Suffragette

This year marks a hundred years since the first steps were taken towards women’s access to democracy. In 1918, after more than twenty years of organised action, women over the age of thirty who owned property, female graduates voting in their university constituency, and female members of government, were trusted with the vote. It took a further ten years of continued organised pressure before all women were considered capable of engaging in the democratic process. Many different tactics were used to win the vote including: protest marches, hunger strikes, and the damage of property. Lesser known, however, is the suffragette’s engagement with the science of sexology.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries society began a process of trying to scientifically separate human bodies into two categories, one male, one female. The biologist, the psychologist, and the sexologist all tried to understand what characteristics made a person a man or a woman. At first this distinction may seem quite simple. Is it not the genitals that reveal the biological sex of a person? For the sexologist, no. In the Victorian era, sex (our biological sex), gender (our expression of sex), and sexuality (our sexual preferences) became mixed together. An individual’s sexual preference could change the way their sex was understood. A woman who was attracted to women, for instance, was understood as being more masculine. Similarly, a heterosexual woman who was considered to be dominant sexually could also be viewed in masculine terms, as too could the socially dominant woman. This system of understanding ‘male’ and ‘female’ allowed sub-groups to appear which categorised an individual as either a ‘healthy’ example of their sex or an ‘unhealthy’ one. Whilst different sexologist’s definitions of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ (and indeed, their use of these exact terms) differed, overwhelmingly we get a picture of the ‘healthy’ woman as being heterosexual, maternal, and domestically inclined.

This ‘unhealthy vs healthy’ categorisation of sex was a thorn in the side of the suffrage movement. Anti-suffrage campaigners used the ‘unhealthy’ model of womanhood to undermine suffragettes. Satirical images were produced in newspapers and on postcards which depicted the suffragette as masculine and unmaternal. These images often presented her as unkempt and unattractive, attempting to both shame her for her lack of femininity and reveal her as an ‘unhealthy’, ‘manly’ example of her sex. Others showed the impact of suffrage on the family home. Images were produced of dirty interiors, piles of washing, crying children, and over-worked husbands. The threat was clear; suffrage was making women ‘unhealthy’, masculine, and unmaternal, creating chaos in the family. Could these ‘unhealthy’ women really be trusted with a democratic duty?


The effect this negative presentation on the public and the British government was of such concern to suffrage groups that they were moved to take action. The Women’s Social and Political Union, headed by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, tackled this issue by requiring members to visually emphasise their femininity. Members had to dress in feminine and modest clothes and this was especially important when representing the organisation on political marches. The intention was to counteract accusations that those involved in the women’s suffrage movement were ‘unhealthy’ examples of their sex, and therefore not ‘fit’ to vote, by showing how feminine and ‘healthy’ they were. Many suffrage groups also used sexological ideas about ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ sex to support women’s right to the vote. They used the perceived feminine quality of maternity to demonstrate women’s suitability as voters. They presented women as mothers of the nation, both giving birth to society, literally, and caring for it via philanthropic and charity activities. In this way suffrage groups attempted to present women as socially responsible to show that they were contributing members of society that had a right to decide how it was run. These suffrage groups felt they had to prove themselves as maternal, ‘healthy’ feminine types to be afforded the respect of the vote.

votes for women

The fight for women’s suffrage saw a fraught relationship between feminists and the sciences that has continued ever since. Women have historically been the victims of biological ignorance or misinterpretation and their bodies have often been translated to the public as inferior. Based on studies of certain animal behaviour, sexologists developed an idea of ‘healthy’ masculinity as sexually aggressive and socially dominant in comparison to ‘healthy’ female submissiveness. Similarly, psychologists developed a model of the male brain as logical, problem solving, and spatially aware, whilst women were considered emotional. Society began to understand these features as innate differences between two distinctly different bodies and comparatively, women appeared to be the lesser sex.

It is only in relatively recent years that there has been significant development in our understanding of the female sex. Documentaries such as the BBC’s ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Children Go Gender Free?’ have shown us that ‘male’ and ‘female’ behaviours previously thought to be inbuilt in the brain are actually inscribed there from the moment children begin to develop socially. This means if we treated boys and girls differently, not only would they have different behaviours but their brains would change physically as well. Angela Saini’s book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, published last year, reveals that a mixture of human bias and commercial interests (it was often cheaper and easier to use men as research subjects) has historically swayed scientific research to the detriment of women. Then there are activists and academics like Riki Wilchins and Myra Hird who are showing us how cultural bias about masculinity and femininity can seep into even the most objective fields of research and how, in fact, gendered and sex difference are largely insignificant.
As a result of this new social understanding of sex, the political pursuit of the suffragette and the social agenda of the modern feminist are markedly different. A hundred years ago many women felt they had to adhere to a strict model of what it meant to be a woman, to be feminine, in order to gain a recognised place in democratic society. Today we are breaking apart the expectations that define ‘man’ and ‘woman’. New understandings of gender and sex are developing with the recognition of trans* identities, whilst the very concept of two distinct genders is being dissolved through a comprehension of gender non-binary. Like the 19th century sexologist, as a society we are revisiting what we mean by ‘gender’, ‘sex’, and ‘sexuality’ but unlike the strictly enforced codes placed on the suffragette, today’s feminist no longer sees femininity and masculinity as the domain of one sex, if, indeed, they consider them distinctly different at all.


Allegra Hartley is a doctoral researcher at the University of Huddersfield where she has recently finished writing a PhD thesis on motherhood, masculinity, and science in the interwar fiction of Charlotte Haldane. As a researcher and a writer she is interested in the cultural construction of gender and its historical significance in our modern society. To find out more about Allegra’s research follow her on Twitter, @allegrahartley.



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