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From Munitionettes to Citizens – Women in 1918

image-large.jpgThe experience of the Great War helped to radically change notions of citizenship in Britain. 100 years after the end of the First World War, Dr Sarah Richardson from the Department of History at the University of Warwick, examines how life changed for British women after 1918.

Three days after the armistice was signed, a general election was called and was held on Saturday 14th December 1918. Over six million women were able to vote in parliamentary elections for the first time following the Representation of the People Act which enfranchised all men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30.

A cross and nothing more

Pamphlets were issued, instructing women on how to cast their vote, reassuring them that ‘it is not an alarming process’. They were encouraged to act in ‘conscientious secrecy’ placing a cross, and nothing more, in the square space opposite the name of the candidate they wished to vote for. After placing their voting paper in the ballot box their duty as free and independent parliamentary electors had been exercised. The Daily Mail urged women to ‘Vote for the sake of your men, your children, yourselves.’

Businesses also got in on the act with one food manufacturer running adverts announcing, ‘How Women Vote. One subject only on which women vote unanimously: Turban Puddings. Ask your grocer today’.

Bands of women

The newspapers eagerly reported the spectacle of women voting for the first time, with the Times terming the poll as ‘largely a women’s election’. In some districts of London, women voters outnumbered the men by 20 to 1. In Scarborough it was reported that at one polling station there were 50 female voters to one man. Bands of women helpers had been arranged by some candidates to mind homes, look after babies, and even cook the midday meal while wives went to vote. In Birmingham it was reported that women voters brought male relatives or friends with them to show them what to do at the polling station. Many women took their babies with them to the polling station.

Although the numbers of women voting was high, turnouts were generally low across the country with only 57% of those eligible casting their vote. This was ascribed to the weather and to voter apathy as it was expected that the Coalition, led by David Lloyd George, the then Liberal Prime Minister, would easily win the election. Lloyd George had negotiated with the Conservative Party and issued coupons to candidates of all parties who would support a coalition government. The forecast was proved right and the coalition won a landslide victory, with the Conservatives increasing their MPs. Labour overtook the Liberal party in terms of the number of votes cast, but barely increased the number of seats they held with some high profile candidates such as Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden losing their contests. In Ireland Sinn Féin under Eamonn de Valera won 73 constituencies (47 of the candidates fighting the election from prison) but none of the elected MPs took up their seats, instead sitting in the Irish Revolutionary Assembly, the Dáil Éireann.

Women stood as candidates

Sixteen women candidates stood for election, none supported by the Coalition. Many had been leading members of the women’s suffrage campaign, including Christabel Pankhurst who stood for Smethwick as an Independent; Charlotte Despard, the Labour candidate for Battersea and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence who was the Labour candidate for Manchester. Only one of the sixteen was elected: Countess Constance Markievicz (née Gore-Booth) who polled 7,635 votes for the seat of Dublin St. Patrick with a majority of over 4,000. As a Sinn Féin MP, Constance did not take up her seat and indeed fought the election from her prison cell in Holloway. The press challenged whether she was lawfully elected as she was the wife of a Polish Count and therefore ‘an alien’, an allegation Maude Gonne McBride called despicable and un-Irish. Thus, despite there being a large female electorate, women did not appear to favour female candidates, and indeed largely voted for each party in roughly the same proportion as male voters.

Women at work – but not for long

After fifty years of concerted campaigning, women had at last won the right to become full citizens and vote in Parliamentary elections. But this was not the only change the war made on their lives. During the conflict women had entered the workforce in increasing numbers finding employment in areas which hitherto had been dominated by men such as transport, chemical and munitions factories and agriculture. Their wages rose although they were still paid less than men for the same work.

The land girls and munitionettes became iconic symbols of women’s significant contribution to the Home Front. However, the independence they had achieved by entering the workforce was short-lived. The 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act forced many women out of the jobs they had undertaken during the war and by 1921 there was a lower percentage of women working than in 1911. The death of more than 700,000 men during the war also led to a gender imbalance particularly in the 25-34 age group (and it was more marked for the middle classes). The surfeit of so-called ‘surplus’ women meant that many would never marry and had to adjust their expectations and forge lives and careers of their own.


6 November 2018


sarah_richardson.jpgDr 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.

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