2018 marks the centenary of The Representation of the People Act 1918 in which women over the age of 30 meeting certain property qualifications were granted the right to vote. The act also gave the vote to all men over the age of 21, regardless of status.
Before this, a woman’s role was domestic and women had almost no role in politics. In 1912, there were just 7.7 million entitled to vote, all men. Following the Act, by the end of 1918, there were 21.4 million registered voters of which about 43% were women.
Campaigns for women’s rights, including the right to vote, started around the mid-19 century, after Mary Smith delivered the first women’s suffrage petition to parliament in 1832. But it wasn’t really until 1897, when Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), that the campaign for women’s suffrage really gained momentum. These campaigners were known as suffragists and they believed that debate, petitions and peaceful protest were the keys to success.
The efforts of the NUSWSS to gain the vote, through lobbying and parliamentary private members bills failed, and early on some campaigners decided a more militant approach was required. Under the slogan ‘Deeds not Words’, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – the Suffragettes, was formed in Manchester in 1903. It was led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, again middle-class women.
Suffragettes were a shock to Edwardian society. They interrupted political meetings, heckled politicians, chained themselves to railings, cut phone lines, set fire to buildings and threw bombs, yelled while waving banners emblazoned with ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’, were regularly arrested and, whilst in prison, went on hunger strike. The WSPU actions made headlines around the country.
Not all women favoured the actions of the suffragettes but many men backed their wives to succeed.
WW1 started in 1914 and this changed the direction of the actions of these women. At the outbreak of war, the WSPU decided to embrace the war effort. They declared a temporary halt to their campaign and, in July 1915, they organised the Women’s Right to Serve march in London, in support of the hiring of women in the munitions industry, with the same pay as men. Eventually, women could be found as railway guards and ticket collectors, bus and tram conductors, postal workers, police, firefighters and as bank and clerks. Some women also worked heavy or precision machinery in engineering, led cart horses on farms, and worked in the civil service and factories.
Finally, the suffragettes’ fight paid off with the passing of the 1918 Act, a major step in the right direction. The Government would later claim that women had been given the vote in 1918 because of their contribution to WW1.
However, it would be a further 10 years until the vote was extended to all women, when the Equal Franchise Act 1928 was passed, reducing the voting age for all to 21. It wasn’t until The Representation of the People Act 1969 that suffrage was extended to all 18- to 20-year olds as well.
Mary Willcocks has been described as Devon’s forgotten feminist. She was born at Cleeve, near Ivybridge. Well educated, she attended Plymouth High School for Girls and a Young Ladies’ College, before qualifying as a schoolmistress and working in Jersey, Edinburgh and Leamington Spa. In the evenings she wrote, but she was over thirty before her first novel, Widdicombe, was published in 1905 by John Lane’s Bodley Head. She would eventually publish twenty-four books, many based around the area of her birth and she was a contemporary of D.H. Lawrence, with whom she corresponded. As well as novels she wrote biographies, essays and translations.
After the success of her second novel she gave up teaching and moved to Exeter where she remained for the rest of her life, although she also travelled widely throughout Europe.
Apart from being a successful romantic novelist, Mary’s ideas were advanced for her time and she was a feminist, socialist and pacifist and a formidable lecturer and debater. She was interested in child health, the treatment of widows and orphans and industrial protectionism of women and was a supporter of education in prisons.
She was a founder member of both the Exeter NUWSS and Exeter’s Worker’s Educational Association (WEA) and a regular speaker on the suffrage circuit. In June 1913 she joined hundreds of West Country women in the suffragist march from Penzance to London, later describing how they were ‘stoned in Totnes’. In 1918 she stood for the Labour Party in the Exeter City Council Elections
In March 1919 Mary belonged to the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC), the new name for the NUWSS. This had close links with the Labour Party. It adopted a six-point reform programme and was finally disbanded after the passing of the Equal Franchise Act in 1928.