The Role of Nursing in the Suffragette Movement
07 February 2018

This week in 2018 marks the centenary of suffrage for some women in the UK, with the 1918 Representation of the People Act having awarded women over 30 who were married and owned property with the right to vote. Though it wasn’t until 1928 that all women were able to vote, the beginnings of women’s suffrage are still worth discussing.  

We’re all taught in school about famous suffragettes, including Emily Davidson who threw herself in front of the king’s horse and Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, but there were many lesser known women who supported the movement, many of which history forgot. These were nurses who felt their ethical position as carers extended to female suffrage and the fight for the emancipation of women being shunned in the political sphere. 

The Royal College of Nursing was established in 1916, two years before the beginnings of women’s suffrage in 1918. The building of the RCN headquarters was witness to much suffragette activity, with the RCN’s benefactor Lady Cowdray having been a strident activist and member of the Women’s Social and Political Union. In 1920 Cavendish Square became the headquarters of the RCN in 1920, a building that was previously owned by Henry Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister from 1908-1916 but previous Chancellor of the Exchequer and strong opponent of the suffragettes. It’s no surprise then that the RCN was the geographical center of much suffragette activity with many arrests made in the square.

When it comes to individuals who contributed to the fight for suffrage through nursing, Nurse Catherine Pine (1864-1941) was one of them, the Pankhurst family’s special nursing assistant, who nursed many of the women sick after hunger striking or police violence at the nursing home she ran at 9 Pembridge Garden, Notting Hill. There was speculation surrounding whether or not she received a ‘Suffragette Medal’, usually a medal given to women part of the WSP who went on hunger strike, since in her will she stated that she wanted the medal left to the History Section of the British College of Nursing.

Another suffragette nurse who went on to become a British Red Cross nurse during the First World War, the only time that the suffrage movement was halted to help the war efforts, was Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh, daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh and god daughter to Queen Victoria. There were also countless others involved in the suffragette movement who went on to be nurses during the war or who were nurses and used their care and empathy to further the cause for female enfranchisement, not only in the UK, but in the USA and beyond.

What are your thoughts on the recent discussions around the history of women’s suffrage? Are you a nurse who would like to comment on the link between nursing and the suffragettes? Let us know your thoughts on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn