This week is the 100th anniversary of The Representation of the People Act of 1918 – making it legal for some women to vote in national elections for the first time. There is no doubt that for every woman – and man – in the UK, this is something to celebrate. But as with all great moments in history it is embedded in a complicated tissue of politics, propaganda and personal stories.
Here are five things you may not know about women and the vote:
1. The Representation of the People Act 1918 only allowed some women to vote
“The Act only enfranchised women over 30,” explains Dr Sarah Richardson, research historian at the University of Warwick. “In this way, politicians could minimise the impact women had on the system.
“British politics at the time only really featured two political parties – the Liberals who were in government and the Conservatives who were in opposition. The Labour Party was only in its infancy. The Conservatives were mostly against extending the franchise but weren’t in power. The grass roots of Liberal Party on the other hand was mostly in favour of allowing women the vote, however the cabinet, having resisted for so many years feared that most women, given the chance, would vote Conservative and they would lose power. Giving the vote only to a proportion of women meant they could minimise political damage.”
2. It was an afterthought
“Although hailed as a grand gesture, giving women the vote was only really an afterthought,” explains Dr Richardson.
“Politicians from both Parliament and the Lords met at The Speakers Conference on Electoral Reform in 1916, before the end of World War I. Before the war only 60 per cent of men had the vote and it became a realisation that many young men out fighting on the front for Queen and country would return and not be able to have a say – clearly this wouldn’t sit easily with the public. The Speakers Conference was convened to address this and they agreed to extend the franchise to men over 21. The whole issue of women having the vote was rather secondary.”
3. There were two tribes
The Suffrage Movement – a moderate set of organisations campaigning properly and politely for political change had been working away since 1867. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was set up under Millicent Garret Fawcett in 1897 and its modus operandi was to keep the line, petition and lobby.
It was only later in 1903 that the firebrand Suffragettes emerged. Fed up with the moderate line, Emmeline Pankhurst set up the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her daughters and they were very much more vocal.
Dr Richardson explains: “In 1905 when Crystabelle Pankhurst was arrested for spitting at a policeman the WSPU quickly realised that this type of shocking action got attention. Their moto became ‘Deeds not Words’ and they began a campaign of direct and violent tactics aimed at public events and figures. Members would throw stones, light fires, use bombs and chain themselves to railings.
“It was a suffragette, Laura Ainsworth, who was first subjected to force feeding in prison. Arrested in Birmingham after throwing roof tiles at Lord Asquith, the Liberal prime minister, she was taken to Winston Green Jail. She insisted on being treated as a political prisoner and went on hunger strike. Although the government policy was to release prisoners who took this tack and re-arrest them when they were strong again, the prison governor wanted to make an example out of Ainsworth and decided to force feed her with a tube. They tried through the nose but it was broken and bloody having stones thrown at her during her violent arrest. So they inserted the tube down her throat, used a cork gag to keep her mouth open and force fed her twice a day.”
Ironically, it was the WSPU that did the stunts but the NUWSS that benefitted. Every time the militants hit the headlines the moderates got a boost in membership. At its peak the NUWSS had over 400,000 members.
4. It was the war what won it
The Suffragette’s actions were a thorn in the side for the government and they were not winning public opinion with the brutal treatment of some of the women involved. But when war broke out most suffrage organisations stopped activity to join the war effort. Those that didn’t were branded unpatriotic and later, Bolshevik sympathisers.
The result of the Speakers Conference to allow the enfranchisement of women over 30 was communicated as a reward for the war effort, but actually the vast majority of women who contributed during the war years were young, single women, who still would not be able to vote.
“It was rather more that the politicians did not want to return to dealing with militant organisations,” continues Dr Richardson. “Winning the vote was slightly tainted. It was a huge concession and it certainly is a celebratory occasion for us now 100 years on, but we must not forget it was not an out and out concession by the government.”
5. It was another ten years…
“After the war, many campaigners stopped, because getting broadly what they wanted took the wind out of their sails,” concludes Dr Richardson.
“Millicent Garret Fawcett published a pamphlet entitled: ‘After the Vote was Won’ which lists legislation passed because of women, but mostly the movement faded. We must not forget that it spanned the class divide and the political spectrum and involved women and men from across the whole of the UK. People from many different backgrounds were focussed on this single issue, so when this was broadly achieved, there was nothing holding them together.
“It took another ten years before The Equal Franchise Act 1928 was passed, this time allowing all men and women over 21 to vote.
“The Liberals were correct though. After holding women at arm’s length for so many years, women weren’t about to forgive them. The Labour Party, which was founded in 1900 but had made little headway before 1914, took many of the radical votes and was able to form a minority government in 1924.”
6 February 2018
Dr Sarah Richardson is a research historian at the University of Warwick. She is an expert in women and political culture in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century. This year she will present Warwickshire Women and the Fight for the Vote, a talk uncovering the unsung and unknown activists from the largely rural county of Warwickshire, at a number of venues across the county.
The images used here are from the collection at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick. To mark the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, the MRC is exhibiting selected documents from the archives on the fight for the right to vote, and the campaigns for equality beyond the ballot box. Equal Votes, Equal Rights runs until 2 March 2018 and includes documents relating to protest and parliamentary reform in the 19th century, the women's suffrage movement, and the broader campaigns for women’s economic and social rights in the early-mid 20th century.
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