It’s the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave women over the age of 30, with certain property qualifications, the right to vote in national elections in the UK for the first time (UK Parliament, 2016). How much of that law was influenced by the Women’s Suffrage Movement is hotly debated among academics and historians.
The term ‘women’s suffrage’ is often incorrectly used to mean ‘Suffragette’ but in fact Suffragettes were the more militant wing of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) lead by Emmeline Pankhurst. Suffragists using more law-abiding methods under the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, did not describe themselves as Suffragettes and there is a question over whether the more famous, militant actions were as effective as the quieter lobbying by the NUWSS (Purvis, 2013).
Both arms of the Suffrage Movement were led and powered by volunteers and the growing army of female (and sometimes male) supporters increased pressure on both government and society as a whole to regard women as equal to men.
“Between 1870 and 1884 debates on women’s suffrage took place almost every year in Parliament. Not all those campaigning for women’s right to vote favoured militant action. Moderate women’s organisations, such as the NUWSS, were instrumental in building up the legal and constitutional support for the enfranchisement of women, but their contributions were often overshadowed by the high profile actions of the suffragettes” (UK Parliament, 2016).
“In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst and others, frustrated by the lack of progress, decided more direct action was required and founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with the motto ‘Deeds not words’” (UK Parliament, 2016)
Starting with acts of civil disobedience, the WSPU soon escalated to more violent protests and law-breaking which resulted in imprisonment and hunger strikes but these tactics attracted a great deal of attention to the campaign for votes for women which until now had been quietly lobbying in Parliament (UK Parliament, 2016).
Some have gone as far to suggest that the Suffragettes’ militant actions were tantamount to terrorism, even though they didn’t employ indiscriminate killing and injuring which has become a familiar tactic in more recent violent protests (Monaghan, 1997).
1918 Representation of the People Act
The 1918 Representation of the People Act most famously gave women over the age of 30 the right to vote but in fact it was a much broader piece of legislation, which instated electoral reform in a number of guises.
Section 4 of the Act gave the vote to women, but at a higher age to men and later that same year the Qualification of Women Act allowed women to become MPs at 21, meaning they could vote on national legislation but not in a general election (Blackburn, 2011). That said, only thirty seven women were MPs in the inter-war years and only a handful of those sat on parliamentary committees which were hostile environments for female MPs – pioneering female participation in political life and helping the cause of women’s suffrage (Holloway, 2014).
Reactions to the 1918 legislation were mixed. Millicent Garrett Fawcett called it the greatest moment of her life, but with the introduction of a voting age of 21 for men (and 19 for those who had seen active duty) many women didn’t see it as a victory (History Learning Site, 2016). There continued to be pressure on government to give equal voting rights for women, although with a much more moderate, law-abiding style to their actions 1912-14.
Pictured: Millicent Garrett Fawcett
“After…1918 the NUWSS and WSPU disbanded. A new organisation called the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship was established” (Spartacus Educational, 2016). The militancy of the pre-war years never returned to the women’s movement and the political pressure increased from both female politicians and male MPs sympathetic to their cause.
In fact, there was a shift by all political parties to try to understand what female voters wanted as the power of women’s votes became apparent when ‘the electorate tripled to 21.1 million’ (Goskar, 2016).
In 1928 the passing of the Equal Franchise Act meant that women over the age of 21 could now vote, with no property restrictions, giving them the same voting rights as men for the first time in history and increasing the electorate once more to nearer 30 million voters. Garrett Fawcett was one of the few suffragists to live to see the passing of the act and remarked in her diary that evening “”It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20th, 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning.” (Spartacus Educational, 2016)
The Women’s Movement continued beyond 1928 until the present day to fight for equal rights in other areas of life women, but political equality both in the house of commons, and as voters, was established by the 1918 and 1928 Acts. The UK Suffrage Movement inspired further acts of agitation around the world by female activists including in Australia and America. Women’s Suffrage campaigns continue in other territories including Saudi Arabia where women were given the vote in municipal elections in 2015, nearly 100 years after British women were given the vote. Today in the UK, we have a female Prime Minister and women in the cabinet, which prior to 1918 would have been unthinkable, and much of that progress can be attributed to the actions of both the Suffragettes and the Suffragists.
The historical view
It’s important to consider the historical context of the texts written at the time about the Women’s Suffrage Movement, which may cloud our judgment somewhat and are in danger of allowing us to dismiss the Suffragettes themselves as unsuccessful. Both male writers of the time, and more surprisingly feminist historians, are hostile towards the WSPU (Purvis, 2013). More modern interpretations of the Suffragettes’ actions are much more forgiving but we mustn’t forget that at the time such militant action by women was unheard of so unlike now, when women are fully expected to express an opinion on political and social ideas, it was a completely radical way of trying to influence legislation. It is therefore possible that the influence of the Suffragettes’ more militant actions may have been played down by writers of the time and they may have had a much bigger impact that they have traditionally been given credit for.
Even more recent studies of the Women’s Suffrage Movement disagree to the extent of its direct effect on the change in legislation in 1918, particularly in regards to the Suffragettes rather than the more law-abiding Suffragists. As violent extremism edges towards terrorism for both political and religious causes by volunteer armies in modern campaigns across the globe, it’s easy to understand why violent action and further escalation is not a popular method of influencing policy among many historians and social commentators.
It’s also worth noting that while women were pushing for equal voting rights to men, not all men were equal themselves and democratic reform for both sexes was happening at the same time. It seems incredible by modern standards that a woman should have to own property and be over the age of 30 to vote, but the same had been true for men for many years before 1918 and the discussion of the issue of class, rather than gender, and the growing support of women’s votes by men themselves had an important part to play in leveling the playing, or voting, field for women.
There has been much written about the Women’s Suffrage Movement both during their activities pre-war, through 1918 and beyond until 1928 and much of that written gives conflicting accounts and opinions although “none of these books provide a definitive final word on this topic, although they will all undoubtedly contribute to aspects of ongoing debates.” (Cowman, 2000).
The sections pertaining to women’s right to vote in the 1918 Act, and the further 1928 Act, were most likely passed due to a combination of factors including pressure from the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the wider population with which the movement was then popular, a change in social attitudes to women; particularly post war when they had proved themselves with ‘war work’, and more general political trends in democratic reform (BBC.co.uk, 2016).
This last point is particularly important as extending male suffrage had increasingly become a feature of democratic reform and it can be argued that a natural progression to this would have been giving women the right to vote too in due course.
If we limit ourselves to the question of the more militant Suffragettes, there is an argument that such violent action worked against their cause. Churchill said ‘their cause has marched backwards’ and the high-profile spats between Pankhurst and Garrett Fawcett did not endear them to the male MPs who were voting for the change (BBC.co.uk, 2016). Emmeline Pankhurst achieved notoriety though and that level of publicity forced the less militant, but more politically active, Suffragists to organise their efforts more carefully.
Pre-1914, popular opinion had begun to turn against the Suffragettes but it has been thought that as the Movement suspended militant activity in order to help the war effort there was a more sympathetic view towards women getting the vote as they were seen as more reasonable than their pre-war actions had demonstrated. Even then, there is a question over whether the war work was as influential as first thought.
“This assumption has now been challenged as not being as accurate as was once thought. Women in France did equally as important work in World War One but did not receive the right to vote after the war. One of the reasons put forward for this is that there was no pre-war suffragist movement in France – and certainly not the militancy of the Suffragettes…While the Suffragettes had shocked society (both male and female), no-one was keen to return to the violence of pre-1914 Britain, a nation exhausted by war. Therefore, the role of the Suffragettes may have been far more important than was originally thought.” (History Learning Site, 2016)
There is a possibility that the change of legislation may have happened in any case, but it was unlikely to have happened so quickly without pressure from the WSPU and the NUWSS. Even if direct correlation is difficult to prove, and despite the fact that the two arms of the Women’s Suffrage Movement weren’t working in complete harmony, it’s an interesting case study in how raising the profile of a cause using a volunteer movement and generating support in the general population, coupled with lobbying parliament, can lead to a change in government policy.
Bbc.co.uk. (2016). BBC – Higher Bitesize History – Why women got the vote
Blackburn, R. (2011), Laying the Foundations of the Modern Voting System: The Representation of the People Act 1918. Parliamentary History, 30: pp33–52
Cowman, K. (2000). Women’s suffrage campaigns in Britain. Women’s History Review, 9(4), pp.815-823.
History Learning Site. (2016). The 1918 Representation of the People Act – History Learning Site.
Goskar, T. review of The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender, and Politics in Britain, 1918-1945, (review no. 1594)
Holloway, G. (2014). The Aftermath of Suffrage: women, gender and politics in Britain, 1918–1945JULIE V. GOTTLIEB & RICHARD TOYE (Eds). Women’s History Review, 23(6), pp.1016-1018.
Monaghan, R. (1997). ‘Votes for women’: An analysis of the militant campaign. Terrorism and Political Violence, 9(2), pp.65-78.
Purvis, J. (2013). Gendering the Historiography of the Suffragette Movement in Edwardian Britain: some reflections. Women’s History Review, 22(4), pp.576-590.
Spartacus Educational. (2016). 1928 Equal Franchise Act. [online] Available at: http://spartacus-educational.com/W1928.htm [Accessed 7 Nov. 2016].
UK Parliament. (2016). Women get the vote.
DiCenzo, M. (2014). ‘Our Freedom and Its Results’: measuring progress in the aftermath of suffrage. Women’s History Review, 23(3), pp.421-440.
Hilton, M. and McKay, J. (2011). The ages of voluntarism. Oxford: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press.
Johndclare.net. (2016). Did the Suffragettes help women’s suffrage?.