Society in general did not want to enfranchise women and it was a deeply divisive political issue. The increasingly militant suffragettes were subjected to thuggish and sexualised manhandling by the police and were the victims of blows, kicks, spit and insults by onlookers. The governments, courts and press were hostile to the women, who were considered fair game because they pestered and stalked MPs, dropped burning rags into postboxes, made phosphorus bombs and set fire to schools, town halls, hayricks, timber yards, railway stations and empty private houses, as well as disrupting meetings, smashing windows, slashing paintings and generally causing mayhem in their bid to shed "the degrading disability of sex".

Their slogans were "Deeds Not Words", "Through Thick and Thin We Ne'er Give In", "Arise! Go Forth and Conquer", "Taxed But Voteless", "Women's Will Beats Asquith's Won't" and "The Bill the Whole Bill and Nothing but the Bill". In clashes with the police in Parliament Square they sometimes managed to burst in to the House of Commons and were arrested for willful obstruction, disorderly conduct, breach of the peace, and using threatening and abusive language.

Woman after woman went off to prison, to spend weeks or months in the damp and cold of the second and third division cells, denied the first division status of political prisoners. At first they usually received two weeks in prison, prompting them to protest further about their lowly jail status, being treated as common criminals. This meant being forced to wear prison clothing rather than their own, made to scrub floors and be kept in solitary confinement. When they started hunger strikes they were viciously force-fed with tubes through the nose or throat. Still, many of them were prepared to go to prison again and again for acts that grew increasingly dangerous and fanatical.

The beginning of the movement dates to 1832 when the Great Reform Act extended the franchise to give the vote to "male persons" over the age of 21 who lived in the counties, and for the first time included small landowners, tenant farmers and shopkeepers, and householders living in the boroughs who paid a yearly rental of 10 pounds a year or more. This enlarged the existing electorate of half a million men by 300,000 new voters, but the insertion of the word "male" was the first actual statutory bar to women having the vote. Previously some women had a parliamentary vote as property owners but now they were excluded, providing the catalyst for the increasingly fierce protests.

That year, 1832, a woman asked an MP to present a petition to Parliament calling for the vote for women but the petition was rejected after the briefest of discussion. In 1851 the Sheffield Female Political Association was formed, the first organisation for women's suffrage in Britain. More organisations followed but the campaigners' efforts were generally ridiculed in Parliament and in society generally.

Nonetheless, private members' bills or resolutions in favour of women's suffrage were presented to the House of Commons almost every year between 1870 and 1914. Some 12,000 petitions were taken to the Commons between 1866 and 1914, and hundreds more to the House of Lords. But no Conservative or Liberal government in those years was prepared to countenance a bill, for fear that enfranchised women would vote for the opposition. Conservatives feared that female voters would look to the left. Much of the left believed that more men should be given the vote before it was extended to women. Most politicians feared for their own positions.

Women in other parts of the world were already getting the vote, in the United States in Wyoming in 1869 and Colorado in 1893, in New Zealand also in 1893, and in 1902 in South Australia, New South Wales, Western Australia and Utah.

In 1905 in Britain, when the first women's suffrage bill in eight years was to be debated in the Commons, it was deliberately "talked out", with parliamentary time eaten up by discussion about whether carts travelling on public roads at night needed to carry a light at the rear as well as the front. MPs laughed and applauded when time ran out.

A Daily Mail journalist, Charles Hands, was the first to use the word "suffragette", on 10 January 1906. Turning the word suffrage into suffragette, he made it feminine and small, like maisonette and brunette. It was coined as a term of abuse but the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester in 1903, proudly made "suffragette" their own, pronouncing it with a hard "g" to emphasise that they would "gette" the vote. A cartoon in Punch magazine showed an ugly "shrieking sister" being admonished by "The Sensible Woman" saying: "You Help Our Cause? Why, You're Its Worst Enemy."

On 9 March 1906 the 30 women of the WSPU paid a surprise call to 10 Downing Street and asked to see the prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Two minions told them to go away and slammed the door, prompting Irene Fenwick Miller to rap the door knocker. She was taken to Canon Row police station and became the first suffragette to be arrested in London. In later incidents, Downing Street windows were smashed.

The suffragettes became more and more tenacious, bold and canny. By 1910, the WSPU had 98 salaried organisers and staff paid for by donations and membership subscriptions, several hundred volunteers, 23 branches outside the capital and 20 in London. The war chest contained £60,000 and the circulation of the Votes for Women newspaper had grown to 40,000.

As peaceful protest achieved nothing but token gestures, quickly rebuffed, so they became more militant with wild stunts and incessant daily battle. Faced with the obduracy of the government, the movement splintered into those advocating more peaceful pressure and those convinced that only increasingly violent confrontations would yield results. The police, obeying orders, became more brutal. Women returned from their battle expeditions bruised, their eyes swollen, their corsets ripped off, their health damaged. On one occasion, 150 women were physically assaulted – one of them in her wheelchair – and 29 others sexually molested. Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, instructed the police to "throw the women around from one to the other".

Hunger strikes were dealt with by cruel force-feeding: one woman in Holloway women's prison was force-fed 232 times. When the women were released from jail, usually in the early morning, they were feted with "martyrs' breakfasts". Their passion was matched by the vehement hostility of those who argued that to give women the vote would "damage the country and the Empire".

Atkinson's book is excellent and probably definitive. Her detailed research has uncovered the roles of many of these brave women who were jeered, jostled and jailed. There are the famous names, such as Davison and Pankhurst, whose mother took her to a women's suffrage meeting in 1872 when she was 14, with Emmeline in turn mothering Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, who also became suffragettes. The Pankhursts were astute propagandists.

The author rightly dedicates much of her dramatic chronicle to the many hundreds of less celebrated figures whose fight was no less dogged. There was Charlotte Despard, who ran a soup kitchen in Battersea and who piled her white hair high under a mantilla, 19-year-old Margery Bryce wore a full suit of armour and rode a white horse at the head of a procession in London, and the diminutive Lilian Lenton was the "Elusive Pimpernel", master of escape, disguise and arson. May Billinghurst was "the cripple suffragette", using her hands to power her invalid tricycle, canvassing door-to-door and holding street meetings after illness left her paralysed from the waist down at the age of five years.

The women were from all kinds of backgrounds. Young and old, rich and poor, Fabians, from all over the UK and Ireland, doing all kinds of jobs – actresses and composers; boot makers and cotton workers; teachers, doctors, shop girls, factory workers, cooks and housewives – are featured in this great story.

The WSPU was one of the better-known organisations but Atkinson also highlights more obscure ones such as the United Suffragists, the Manchester Society for Women's Suffrage, the Women's Franchise League, the Langham Place Group and the Kensington Society.

The last mass protest, a deputation trying to gain access to George V, took place on 21 May 1914. It resulted in the arrest of 66 women and two men, most of whom then went on prolonged hunger strike. On 14 August, the decision was taken to suspend campaigning for the duration of the First World War. The suffragettes turned to war work, replacing men as carpenters, mechanics and munition workers or becoming advocates for peace. The dramas of the battle for women's rights were, in effect, over.

On 6 February 1918, the Representation of the People Act to extend suffrage to some women became law. It paved the way for universal suffrage by removing most property qualifications for men over 21 and reducing them for women over 30 (although they had to be a householder, married to one, or have a degree). Universal suffrage was finally brought about by the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928.

But what an incredible battle it had been, exhaustively detailed by Diane Atkinson.

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