Scotlands History

Women's rights and suffragettes

Traditionally, prior to World War I, women were kept out of public life, and the roles of married women were confined to the domestic sphere. Suffragists simply wanted votes for women on the same terms as men.

Legislation was totally male dominated.

Elsie Inglis (1864-1917), among many others, was appalled at the injustices, and became a founder member of the Scottish Women’s Suffragette Federation in 1906. Determined to be a doctor, she could only qualify when the degree finally became available for women. Flora Drummond, a postmistress, was imprisoned nine times for her activities as one of the more militant leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Much change in Scotland came about through the war effort: women could prove their worth by joining the Women’s Land Army or Voluntary Aid Detachments. Many worked in munitions factories (they were known as ‘munitionettes’), in engineering, driving buses or ambulances, and as nurses at home or at the front.

In 1915 unscrupulous landlords increased rents around the shipyards and munitions plants. The Govan and Partick women organised resistance - Helen Crawford was leader - and as a result of the ‘women’s fight’, the Rent Restriction Act froze rents. Women had at last broken a social barrier.

By 1918 the Representation of the People Act changed the voting system. Women over 30 and men over 21 were given the vote, and women were for the first time allowed to stand for Parliament.

  • Suffragettes campaigning for the vote, in Alfred Street, Stromness, c.1913
  • Penny stamped with the suffragette slogan 'Votes for Women'
  • Image of women at milling machines during World War I

Click on the image to view a larger version.

Watercolour painting of a lady wearing a wide hat, a white top and long skirt carrying a placquard that reads

Votes for Women

Use this interactive resource to learn how women campaigned and won the right to vote in elections.