Women voting for the first time in a General Election Feb 6th, 19
The fight for woman’s suffrage in the UK consisted of a series of individual, known and unknown, acts of social and political activism, and, many collective battles, before the final realisation of votes for women on the same basis of men. It took a century of persuasion, decades of protest and even the horrors of the First World War for it to happen, but finally – on the 6th February 1918, David Lloyd-George’s government enfranchised 8 million British women over 30. Once this gate had been opened the granting of Universal Suffrage was a matter of time.
In the early 19th century, Britain had been the birthplace of some of the world’s first gender equality movements, as writers like Mary Wollstonecraft, began to question the role of women in society. As the century wore on, the aforementioned question, was given increasing thought by liberal male thinkers like, John Stuart Mill, who wrote an essay called The Subjugation of Women in 1869. When elected to Parliament Mill campaigned for a change in the franchise laws, but met with a largely stony response from an all-male Parliament. As a result, despite increasing attention and support for their bid to gain voting rights, women’s concrete political position had changed little by the turn of the century.
Alongside the persuasive and moderate activities of the Suffragist Movement, two major events served as real catalysts for change. The first was the rise of Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragette movement. Before Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (the WSPU) protest had largely been confined to intellectual debate, letters to MPs and pamphlets, but the charismatic woman from Manchester mobilised larger numbers and used new more headline-grabbing tactics in the first decade of the new century. Though not always clever (they attempted to burn down David Lloyd-George’s house despite him supporting women’s suffrage) or dignified, their new shock tactics won the WSPU (or suffragettes as they were known by then) greatly increased press coverage and awareness to their cause. Indeed, Suffragette tactics increased the numbers of both men and women supporting the cause once they’d seen the lengths that 'these' women were willing to go to. The ultimate symbolic moment was the death of Emily Davidson in 1913 after she was trampled while trying to pin a rosette to the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. As these public protests and marches grew ever more dramatic, the government knew that something would eventually have to be done. The following year, however, the issue was dwarfed by the onset of World War I.
A suffragette chained to the railings in protest in the early 1900s
During World War i, the suffragettes recognised both the gravity of the situation and the opportunity that it presented to women, and agreed to work with the government. As the war dragged on, more and more men disappeared to the front and industrial production came to increasingly dominate domestic issues, women became heavily involved in the factories and other jobs now open to them. Far from slowing things down as some managers may have feared, this proved to be an immense success, and eased the burden on a country where, by 1918, young men were in short supply. Having worked with the government and made a large contribution to the effort, Lloyd-George – who was now Liberal Prime Minister – knew that he had good grounds for finally changing the law.
The fight for voting rights was far from over when women over 30 who met certain property rights were historically given the vote on the 6th February 1918, but it was the first sign of the new Britain that would emerge from it. With all the complacency of Imperial hegemony shaken terribly, nothing would ever be the same again. The qualifications on age and property were based on the concerns held by many MPs, had that due to the serious manpower shortage in the country, universal female suffrage would mean that their share of the vote would go from 0 to an overwhelming majority overnight, and so complete equality would take another ten years.
Published cartoon sketch entitled ‘History Up To Date And More So. By a Suffragette Pavement Artist’, by Marie Brackenbury, 1908, based upon ‘This is the house that Jack Built’, from cuttings compiled by the Vaughan Williams family of Leith Hill, c.1913.
The Final Hurdle
The electoral reform report of 1917 led directly to The Representation of the People Act being passed on 6 February, 1918. However, the Act was limited in that it only granted the vote to women who were property owners or the wives of Property owners, aged 30 and over.
This meant that many working class women, who had campaigned and fought alongside their middle class sisters, were denied the vote for another ten years.
Nancy Astor – The UK’s first female MP in 1923
In November 1918 The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act was passed allowing women to stand for Parliament. As a result, Constance Markievicz was the first elected female MP (Sinn Fein) although she did not take her seat; Christabel Pankhurst stood at Smethwick as the Women’s Party candidate but was narrowly defeated, meaning that it was not until 1919 when the first female MP, Lady Nancy Astor, sat in the House of Commons.
On 14 December 1918, 8.5 million women were eligible to vote in the general election for the first time. However, it was a further ten year wait for the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928 until women were given equal voting rights to men, and the voting age was lowered to 21.