2018 marked 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.