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 Great Pilgrimage of 1913 was a march organised by the NUWSS. Women marched to London from all around England and Wales, culminating is 50,000 attending a rally in Hyde Park in July. Plans were drawn up for six routes from all over the country, one of which began at Land’s End. The march was organised in great detail. Advance information provided to marchers included a “village-by-village itinerary” with details about accommodation and facilities. Marchers were asked to wear rosettes in green, white and red – not the purple of the suffragettes.
The march’s journey through Devon saw the women gathering at Plympton to stir up support and then they moved onto Ivybridge where they had a picnic in Victoria Park. Women from all social classes joined in the campaign for the vote and at the end of the rally in Hyde Park the motion “That this meeting demands a Government measure for the enfranchisement of women” was unanimously passed.
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 organized 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.