Giving pardons to women who were jailed while fighting for the right to vote would be “complicated”, the home secretary has said.
Amber Rudd said she would “take a look” but giving legal pardons for offences such as arson wasn’t “straightforward”.
Jeremy Corbyn said suffragettes would have their criminal records overturned and given an “official apology” under a Labour government.
Events are being held 100 years on from some women getting the vote in the UK.
The Representation of the People Act was passed on 6 February 1918 and gave women over 30 and “of property” the right to vote.
Theresa May is due to hail the “heroism” of the suffragettes at a speech in Manchester marking the centenary of women’s votes.
Other ways in which the anniversary is being marked include:
- A public exhibition of life-sized images of the central figures of the suffrage movement in London’s Trafalgar Square
- Portraits of these people will also be in an exhibition at London’s City Hall
- A reception for female MPs past and present in Parliament, hosted by Mrs May
- The Parliamentary Archives will display the 1918 Representation of the People Act itself for the first time
- BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today Programme used only women contributors and an all-female presenter line-up on its show
Equality campaign group the Fawcett Society and relatives of the suffragettes are among those who called on the home secretary to overturn the convictions of women who were imprisoned while fighting for the vote.
Emmeline Pankhurst, a founder member of the Woman’s Social and Political Union, and leading suffragettes Emily Davison and Flora Drummond were some of the women jailed during the campaign for women’s votes.
Ms Davison was found guilty of placing a “dangerous substance likely to injure” in a post office letter box outside Parliament and sentenced to six months in Holloway Prison.
Records compiled by the England, Suffragettes Arrested, 1906-1914 collection indicate there were more than 1,300 suffragette arrests and many women were jailed.
Labour leader Mr Corbyn said his party would give pardons if it came to power as convictions of suffregettes were “politically motivated and bore no relation to the acts committed”.
He added: “Labour in government will both pardon the suffragettes and give an official apology for the miscarriages of justice and wider persecution they suffered.”
The Scottish Tory leader said she supported calls for posthumous pardons for the convicted women as they were simply “righting the wrong” of of an unjust law.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Ruth Davidson said: “Voting was a value judgement, not an intrinsic right. That inequality is one reason why I support calls by family members to offer a posthumous pardon to those suffragettes charged with righting that wrong.”
Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said pardons would be a “fitting tribute”.
Ms Rudd, who is also minister for women and equalities, said she would consider the issue.
However, she told Radio 4’s Today Programme: “I must be frank, it is complicated because if you’re going to give a legal pardon for things like arson and violence it’s not as straightforward as people think it might be.”
Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour celebrated the 100th anniversary by broadcasting the show from the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester, the birthplace of Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragette movement.
During the programme Jenni Murray interviewed Britain’s second female Prime Minister Theresa May, whose late godmother was a suffragette.
Mrs May said getting the vote was “the first step” for women to be involved “properly in public life”.
She said: “It was the point at which women were able to start to feel that they could bring their experience, their views, their opinions, into the world of public life.”
Meanwhile, as a tribute to the suffragettes, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a £500,000 fund to encourage more women to become involved in politics.
A debate will also take place at the Scottish parliament later celebrating 100 years of female suffrage.
The prime minister will also use her speech in Manchester to warn that online abuse and intimidation is threatening democracy.
She will say online abuse of political candidates and representatives is often targeted at women, gay people and members of ethnic minorities.
“In the face of what is a threat to our democracy, I believe that all of us – individuals, governments, and media old and new – must accept our responsibility to help sustain a genuinely pluralist public debate for the future,” she will say.
Mrs May will announce plans for a Law Commission review of legislation to ensure that illegal actions are also illegal online.
She told Radio 4 that the government is consulting on a “new offence of intimidation of parliamentary candidates and campaigners”.
She said: “I think we also see sadly, women often suffering bullying and harassment on social media and this is across the political spectrum.
“In my party Esther McVey has particularly suffered with this but Luciana Berger on the Labour benches has suffered from this,” Mrs May said.
Representation of the People Act 1918 – key dates
6 February 1918 – The Representation of the People Act is passed giving women aged over 30 and “of property” the vote
21 November 1918 – The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act is passed and allows women to stand for Parliament
14 December 1918 – Women vote in a general election for the first time
1928 – The Equal Franchise Act is passed and all women aged over 21 can now vote
30 May 1929 – Women aged between 21 and 29 vote for the first time