Comparison of the Suffragette and Civil Rights Movements

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Last century has witnessed the modern social and political changes occurred on both sides of the Atlantic. The UK Suffragette movement and the US Civil Rights movement are two highlights of the western modern history. After the suffragette movement, women in the UK were eventually given the voting rights they demanded in 1918. Through the civil rights movement in the mid-20th century, African Americans achieved equality in some ways.

In this article, we argue that the Suffragette movement was more effective than the Civil Rights movement. Both were led by a comparatively inferior social group in the pursuit of equality, but ended up differently in terms of consequence and influence upon today, which indicate the effectiveness of a movement.

One criterium of the effectiveness of a movement is thoroughness. In this respect, the Suffragette movement was a great success. After the WWI ended, British Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act allowing women over the age of 30 to vote, which means that about two thirds of British women gained the rights to vote. And they achieved the same voting rights as men a decade later as women could also vote at the age of 21. In the US, however, it is hard to define whether the Civil Rights movement was a success or not. For one thing, the benefits of the civil rights movement did not cover all the African Americans. The Civil Rights Act in 1964 brought significant change to the south, as Vivienne Sanders (2016) points out that it “prohibited discrimination in public places, furthered school desegregation…” (p.131); yet there was rising anger among ghetto-dwellers in northern and western cities because little changed to their situation.

For another, there was always something left undone during the campaign. As Sanders (2016) points out, in 1954, the US supreme court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education neither spelt out an exact date by which desegregation would be achieved nor “said nothing about de facto segregation” (p.108), though the Brown ruling was significant in dealing with separate education; the Civil Rights Act was a great success, but there were still problems remaining unsolved, such as voting rights as well as poverty and discrimination in the ghettos (Sanders, 2016). Thus, it is clear that the civil rights movement was far less thorough than the suffragette movement.

The present can also reflect the effectiveness of a movement. By comparing the legacy of the two movements, we have found that the suffragette movement has had more positive influence in the UK today. First, the victory of suffragettes in 1918 promoted the passing of Equal Franchise Act in 1928 which eventually equalized men’s and women’s suffrage from the age of 21 (UK Parliament, 1989), so that it has built the foundation for UK’s political equality and led to increasing women representation in politics. The parliament used to be a game for men, but according to UK Parliament (2019), today there are 211 women Members of the House of Commons. “At 32%, this is an all-time high.” Furthermore, the victory of this event greatly encouraged other women to fight for their rights.

Instead of using peaceful methods, the WSPU firmly pursued the belief of “deeds not words”, which were commonly used in later campaigns (Haynes, 2018). In the US, however, the problems remaining from the Civil Rights movement still exist today. According to Ibram X. Kendi (2017), “the legacy of the Civil Rights Act’s failures abounds”, such as racism of police bullets, health disparities, decades of high unemployment rate, and rising segregation in public schools. Thus, the Suffragette movement was more effective from the current perspective.

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The factors of the effectiveness of a campaign are complex. What makes a movement effective must have something to do with its historical background, campaign methods as well as leadership.

In terms of historical background, suffragettes seemed to be in their best time to launch a campaign. According to Anna, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the number of women employed in factories had dramatically increased; as a result, employment not only made them more involved in the society, but also allowed them to be more independent than ever before. Under such circumstance where women’s role gradually became as important as men, women began to engage in campaigns to fight for their rights.

In contrast, African Americans in the campaign seemed to be in suppression. As a large social group always being discriminated against, African Americans faced considerable challenges that legally existed including “discrimination in employment, less access to quality housing, disenfranchisement, as well as continued struggles to integrate public schools” (Johns & Castro, 2016). Besides, their campaign was faced with the intensified impediment of the government and the society. For example, as Sanders (2016) points out, in response to the Brown ruling, white “massive resistance” campaigners showed opposition by closing some schools; Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered National Guard to restrict black students from entering Central High.

The flexible use of campaign methods is one factor of suffragettes’ victory. As known, suffragettes were members of the WSPU who campaigned by using violent means for women to get the vote, because they believed that explosion of bombs and violent death would rapidly catch more attention than mere words (Webb, 2014). However, during the WWI, the leaders of WSPU suspended militancy and encouraged women to engage in war work, for they believed “the eventual reward for such loyalty would be the parliamentary vote” (Purvis, 2013). As a result, both their militance and patriotism helped change the perceptions of women’s role in British society.

In contrast, though the African American campaigners in the US peacefully expressed their complaint by protests, boycott and sit-in, their nonviolent persistence often did not work out in such a racist society. According to Peniel E. Joseph (2018), nonviolence in the movement was often described “uncivil” by critics, for example, that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat “could certainly be defined as uncivil behavior”. Therefore, we learn a lesson that the method used in the campaign must fit the historical background, which is neither simple nor static.

Leadership was also a key factor to the effectiveness of a campaign. In comparison of the two campaigns, we found that the leadership of suffragettes was more thoughtful about the situation. In the beginning, as some campaigners were impatient with the slow and stagnant development of suffragists’ peaceful constitutional actions, Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of WSPU, came up with militant ideas as expressed in their motto “Deeds, not Words” (Webb, 2014). During the WWI, it was smart of her to turn their focus to devoting themselves to the nation’s victory, which greatly changed the image of women’s role in British society (Purvis, 2013)

In contrast, Martin Luther King was a reluctant leader who was much less successful in later years (Sander, 2016). As Clayborne Carson (2014) reveals that “during the six years after the boycott's successful conclusion, he never planned and carried out a campaign of civil disobedience”. Carson gives an example of his victory in Birmingham almost became a failure. Malcolm X, another icon of African Americans, was more resolute, though, his separatist idea was so extreme that it intensified the grudges between the white and the black (Sanders, 2013). Thus, it seems that Civil Rights movement lacked a leader that was both determined and reasonable.

In conclusion, the Suffragette movement was more effective than the Civil Rights movement in respects of its result and further social impact. The British suffragettes succeeded because they took advantage with situations by switching campaign methods, while African Americans struggled nonviolently but were still confronted with complicated racial problems. However, the effectiveness of a campaign does not define its value, for both of the campaigns have contributed to today’s equality.

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