Suffragette-defaced penny

United Kingdom, AD 1903

The earliest calls for women to be given the vote in the United Kingdom began in the nineteenth century, with local women’s groups organising petitions and distributing propaganda.

In 1896, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was founded, to act as an umbrella organisation for the many local societies, and to work with sympathetic members of parliament. Despite some early successes, including the second reading of a private member bill in 1897, the South African War (1898-1902) meant that Parliament’s attention was focussed elsewhere.

In 1903, after the end of the war, the campaign gained a new impetus, and women’s suffrage was once again debated in parliament. In the same year, in Manchester, a more radical group, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter. Their frustration with the NUWSS meant that from 1905 onwards WSPU used new tactics including civil disobedience, rallies and demonstrations.

This coin – a perfectly ordinary penny minted in 1903 – was part of this civil disobedience. Stamped with the suffragette slogan “votes for women”, it circulated as small change, and spread the message of the campaigners. At the time, defacing a coin was a serious criminal offence, and the perpetrators risked a prison sentence had they been caught. We don’t know when the slogan was stamped on this coin, but stamping it on small change rather than a silver coin meant that it was less likely to be taken out of circulation by the banks. The message could have circulated for many years, until the law giving women the same voting rights as men was passed in 1928.

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Museum number

CM 1991,0733.1


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