Popular myths debunked on the centennial of The Representation of the People Act
Women have been able to vote in Britain for 100 years.
In some ways, yes, but also, emphatically, no.
In 1918 some women were given voting rights. To qualify for this right, women had to be over 30 years old and fulfil certain property qualifications or have a family member in local government or be in a university constituency from which they had graduated. This accounted for just over a third of women in Britain at the time.
In essence, only well-connected, well-off, well-educated and mature women were deemed suitable for voting privileges. The same law, The Representation of the People Act, allowed all men over the age of 21, and servicemen over the age of 19, to vote.
Women had to wait another 10 years until The Equal Franchise Act of 1928 to have the same voting rights as men.
The 1918 act, passed on February 6th, 100 years ago today, was nonetheless a step in the right direction and a key success for women.
It was all the work of the suffragettes.
The Suffragettes were the members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) founded by Emmeline Pankhurst. They were fed up of the petitions and paperwork that had been the mainstay of the suffrage movement for decades and decided more radical action was required. Often resorting to violent means and protests they forced the public and the government to take notice of their cause.
Suffragettes were just one of the groups who fought for women’s suffrage. The word ‘suffragette’ was coined by the Daily Mail as a derogatory term for these women.
Suffragists, by contrast, favoured peaceful means to further their cause. The leader of the main suffragist group was Millicent Fawcett.
There were many other groups that also petitioned and fought for women’s suffrage, including a group founded by Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter Sylvia, after she was cast out of the WSPU for her involvement with socialist and labour causes. Sylvia founded the East London Federation for Suffragettes.
Though disparate and holding different views on how their aims were to be achieved, and often what those aims were, all these groups had one aim in common: for women to be able to vote on the same terms as men.
It all started with the war.
The suffrage movement had been active long before the arrival of World War One.
Queen Victoria famously refused to support petitions for women’s suffrage, thinking it unfit for women who were best suited to domestic life.
The industrial and social revolutions of the 19th century meant that many more women were working and mixing outside of the home. They were able to discuss politics and share ideas and there was a growing consciousness that they were not treated as the equals of men.
World War One acted as a catalyst for the cause because women visibly stepped up to the mark, filling the roles of men who were off fighting. In these roles, they matched the skills and abilities of their male counterparts.
The Suffrage Movement took a back seat during wartime. As Emmeline Pankhurst pointed out: there was no point fighting for rights in a country that might not exist if they didn’t win the war.
The efforts of the women in wartime, as well as their willingness to band with the nation to fight the war, earned them respect and the promise of voting rights once the war was concluded.
The Representation of the People Act actually came 9 months before the war officially ended on 11th November. In December 1918 women were able to test out their voting rights for the first time.
However, as we have already pointed out, this new right only extended to some privileged women. The work of the suffrage movement was far from over.
Women in Britain can vote so we don’t need feminism.
Just over 30% of MPs elected in 2017 were women. The number is climbing gradually, but we’re still quite a way from that elusive 50%…
All women may have received the right to vote in 1928, but that doesn’t mean they were awarded equality with men, or that different minority groups are equally represented.
The 20th century has seen a wealth of legislation and political change directed at remedying these inequalities but many still persist.
Until all social groups, genders and races are fairly represented and protected by law and by society, we need people willing to stand up for what is right. You can substitute ‘all people’ for ‘women’ in the following quote:
“Justice and freedom for women are things worth securing […] for civilisation itself.” – Millicent Fawcett, 1928
Only 100 years ago, women couldn’t vote. Your grandmother or your great-grandmother couldn’t vote.
In 1918 over 60 percent of women still couldn’t vote, women couldn’t join many professions, women had limited or no property rights, women had few legal rights over their own bodies or their own money.
100 years is not so long ago.
Imagine if you couldn’t vote today. What else would you not be able to do?