First mass petition for women’s suffrage

Follow the story by completing the activities in each section. Learn about the context, explore historical documents and enter into the minds of people living at the time.

A petition in 1866 marked the start of the organised women’s suffrage campaign. This campaign became one of the most topical issues of the day. It culminated in the 1928 Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, which gave women equal voting rights to men. The women’s suffrage movement had many phases and made some women household names. However, hundreds of thousands of active campaigners are unknown to us today.

Before you move to the next section, watch the story of the 1866 petition

When was the petition started?

The petition was started in 1866 by a women's discussion group called the Kensington Society. Their attitudes, however, were not typical for the time.

Calls for women’s rights and specifically for women’s suffrage were not widely supported in the mid 19th century. There was great progress for industry, though. Railways connected people for the first time and provided unprecedented access to goods. Increased mobility helped the spread of ideas and improved communication between like-minded groups across the country.

Before you move to the next section, answer true or false below and find out more about life in 1866

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What was the 1866 petition?

The 1866 petition was a document drafted by a small group of women calling for women to have the right to vote.

Around 1,500 women from all areas of the United Kingdom sent their signatures to show their support. The organisers collected the signatures, which were printed and circulated in a pamphlet. The 1866 petition marked the start of organised campaigning by women for the vote. Today, the petition is a vital source for understanding the early movement for women’s suffrage.

Before you move to the next section, click on the points on the petition document below and see what can be inferred

How many people signed?

The level of support for the petition varied around the country.

The petition received unprecedented support from women across the whole of the UK. Significantly, support was not confined to the major cities due in part to the recent improvements in communication.

Before you move to the next section, click on the map below and see how many women signed in your area
132 424 63 93 28 38 © 30 134 70 28 57 324

Who would have signed?

The petition attracted approximately 1500 signatures from a wide variety of women. The women who signed were not all from the same region or social class.

Many factors would have contributed to a woman’s decision to sign, from family pressures to economic status. Many women may not have signed simply because they wouldn’t have felt that the vote was necessary for women.

The four stories below explore how women in different circumstances might have felt about the 1866 suffrage petition. Before you move to the next section, read the scenarios and consider if they would have signed.
  • “My husband and I have lived in Bristol all our lives. My husband works on the railways while I stay at home raising our four children; it is tough but we get by. I want to see a more equal future for men and women but my father and my husband think votes for women does not make sense. They do not understand why women should get the vote when not all men have it.”

    Family pressure would have played a huge part in peoples' decisions about whether or not to sign the petition. In 1866, the idea of women’s suffrage was rarely discussed. Many women would not have wanted to risk alienating family members over a political cause. However, there are examples of women who signed without the support of their families and friends.

  • “I work from dawn to dusk at my local cotton factory earning just enough to escape the workhouse. I’m lodging with family friends and although they are generous to me, I cannot stay here forever. If I could vote, I would have a say in who governs this country and I would elect people who believe workers should have a fairer deal. Right now, though, it seems like a distant dream.”

    Many working class women signed the petition. They would have seen on a daily basis the injustice of the political system and the limited opportunities for women. This early petition could have been a way for them to voice their frustration in a society that rarely gave them a voice.

  • “I grew up in a happy home and was fortunate enough to have a good education. Although I lead a comfortable life, living in a big city, I am constantly reminded of the vast inequalities between rich and poor. I see so many people around me who cannot afford necessities such as food and medicine. I wish I had more of a say on how wealth is distributed in this country.”

    While girls in 1866 could go to school if their parents could afford it, there were barriers to continuing their education, for example women could not go to university in 1866. Women may have signed the petition in the hope that it would start a debate about the rights of women and their role in society.

  • “My husband and I live a very comfortable life and he has a good job working for the Mayor. My husband laughed at the very idea of the petition. He told me that we have everything we need. A lot of my friends are saying a similar thing; when we have everything we could want, surely it would be an added burden if women had to vote alongside men?”

    In 1866 women's suffrage was not a popular cause. Women and their families who were already in comfortable positions often may not have been able to see the argument for women having the vote. The public sphere was seen as the man's domain while a woman's responsibilities were thought better confined to the domestic sphere. In 1870, even Queen Victoria expressed her opinion that women should not have the vote.

What happened to the petition in Parliament?

The organisers of the petition had demonstrated that there was significant support for women's suffrage. To achieve change, they needed a MP on their side to take the petition to Parliament. At the time women were not allowed to be MPs in the House of Commons.

John Stuart Mill was a Liberal MP who believed in women’s suffrage. He presented the petition to the House of Commons on 7 June 1866, and spoke about it in the House of Commons Chamber on 17 July 1866. He argued that because the petition had been organised and signed exclusively by women, it was the first indication that women themselves wanted the vote. The following year, Mill initiated the first parliamentary debate on votes for women, when he argued to change the wording of the law, replacing ‘man’ with ‘person’. His powerful speech was well received but the resulting vote was lost 73 votes to 196.  Mill was encouraged enough by this to continue to argue for votes for women and instigated another suffrage petition in 1868, which gathered more than 21,000 signatures.

Before you move to the next section, listen to the two speeches arguing either side of the debate


The speech in Parliament ‘for’ the women’s vote.


The speech in Parliament ‘against’ the women’s vote.

What happened next?

The 1866 petition is widely agreed to be the starting point of the organised women's suffrage movement in Britain.

The petition brought the issue of women’s suffrage to the heart of Parliament and led to the formation of groups that lasted right up until the movement’s final days in the early 20th century.

Explore the decades long struggle for women’s suffrage on the timeline below.
  1. 1866

    First national petition calling for women’s suffrage was organised and brought before Parliament.

  2. 1867

    First time women's suffrage is debated in the House of Commons, during the passage of the Second Reform Bill.

  3. 1884

    The law on voting rights was amended through the Third Reform Act which gave voting rights to more men but didn't address women's voting rights.

  4. 1897

    The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett. The NUWSS united a number of suffragist groups across the country.

  5. 1903

    Emmeline Pankhurst, frustrated by the traditional methods of the NUWSS, formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Women aligned with the WSPU and other militant suffrage organisations were known as suffragettes and campaigned on a basis of ‘deeds not words.’

  6. 1909

    An increasing number of suffragettes were being arrested. Hunger-striking and force-feeding began.

  7. 1914

    Outbreak of the First World War. The NUWSS and WSPU suspended public campaigning activities to support the war effort but active campaigning continued behind the scenes. Many, although not all, suffrage campaigners supported the war effort.

  8. 1918

    The Representation of the People Act was passed giving the vote to some women over the age of 30 for the first time. The efforts of women during the war on the home front convinced many in Parliament that women should have the vote.

  9. 1919

    The first female MP, Nancy Astor, took her seat in the House of Commons. Countess Markievicz had previously been elected in Dublin in December 1918 but did not take her seat as a member of Sinn Fein.

  10. 1928

    The Equal Franchise Act was passed allowing all men and women over the age of 21 to vote, regardless of marriage and ownership of property.