On February 6th, 1918, Parliament voted into law the Representation of the People Act. This Act of Parliament gave some women in the United Kingdom the vote. This landmark piece of legislation followed decades of campaigning by various Women’s Suffrage groups. The Government granted voted the vote during the First World War. The more vigorous campaigning for suffrage had been set aside. It wasn’t just campaigns for female suffrage that led to the change though, it was a matter of need.
Campaigns for Women’s Suffrage had grown in the second half of the 19th Century. Women’s discussion groups had discussed the idea. Separate female groups had emerged within some of the political movements. Suffrage was first mooted as a political aim in 1865. A Women’s Suffrage Committee collected names for a petition in advance of the Second Reform Bill. Soon after followed groups in Manchester, London, Edinburgh and Dublin.
The above groups had a mix of political standpoints. Members may have come from very different political backgrounds. The Suffrage movement really grew in stature and significance as new groups emerged that were quite specific in their aims and methods. Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1897. This amalgamated many smaller groups and offered a national voice for Suffragists. They acted as a peaceful pressure group who lobbied Members of Parliament.
A second national organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), was set up in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. The WSPU had a radical approach to getting the vote. They organised rallies and members took sometimes violent actions to press home their point. The WSPU had members who were willing to go to prison for the cause.
The imprisonment of well to do ladies was newsworthy and elicited support. Building on this some chose to refuse food. Hunger Strikes took place which resulted in the Government hastily passing the Cat and Mouse Act. The tactics were making the politicians act. Behaviour and methods such as those deployed by the WSPU are much debated by historians: did they help, or hinder the cause for Women’s Suffrage?
First World War
The outbreak of the First World War changed things. Fawcett’s moderate lobbyists did continue to lobby for the vote. Many also took up work in support of the war effort. WSPU campaigning halted. The Pankhurst’s and their followers supported the war effort.
Three and a half years into the war, Women were granted the vote. It had been a period of moderate lobbying. What had prompted eligibility for the vote to change then?
Firstly, the campaign had long term support from many politicians. The coalition Government included Labour Party members who were supportive. The Liberal Party had a majority in support but notable opponents in the leadership. One such opponent was Herbert Asquith. In 1916 he was replaced as Prime Minister by David Lloyd George, a supporter of Women’s Suffrage.
Secondly, an election was due. This might not immediately strike you as a reason to give women the vote, after all there had been many elections prior to 1918 without females voting. An election during the war would cause a problem though. Voting law as it was at the time meant that any man who was absent from the home would not be eligible to vote. This law would disenfranchise every man serving overseas. Changing the rules for them could reignite the militancy of the WPSU. Not changing the rules for them could lead to mutiny. The law needed changing.
Thirdly, a compromise could be reached. Many arguments against giving the vote to women related to their role in society. These had been challenged or overturned by the war. This meant that limited changes to the franchise could be ‘sold’ to the undecided Members of Parliament. There was pressure to extend male suffrage and so introducing limited female suffrage could be part of a wider reform package.
Who could vote?
Women over 30 could vote after the act if they were property owners, married to a property owner, University graduates or renting a property in which the annual rent exceeded £5. The male franchise was extended to men over the age of 21. As a result of the act, some 8.5 million women gained the vote. Ironically, many of the most active women of the suffrage movement were ineligible due to either their age or the property rules. These rules were changed again in 1928 when women received the same voting rights as men.