Votes for Women – at last

This year, 2018, marks the centenary of the first time that women were able to vote in a British General Election. For women over the age of 30, who were householders or married to householders, the long fight to have a say in the government of their country was won. During this year, I will be tracking some of the events that led up to that momentous day one hundred years ago.

It was on 11th December 1918 that some women were able to go to the polling station and vote for their preferred candidate in the general election of that year. It was only a month or so after the end of the Great War. We often say that women were enfranchised because of the way that they had conducted themselves during the war, supporting the war effort in numerous significant ways, including undertaking over a million jobs that had traditionally been done by men.

However, this neat summary should not obscure the fact that the campaign for the vote for women had been going on throughout the war. We know that Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst had called off the militant suffragette campaign of their Women’s Social and Political Union, but the Women’s Freedom League and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies had not. These groups had several pacifists amongst their leaders, and with their broader agendas for women’s equality, had never ceased campaigning.

It’s obvious from the records that the busy war-time coalition government was not that bothered about votes for women. However, they did need to give the vote to the remaining unenfranchised men – these were often the soldiers who were fighting so hard to ensure a British victory. The vigilant women’s organisations made it clear that they would not tolerate such a move if women were excluded, and during 1917 persuaded the Speaker of the House of Commons to convene a conference to decide about giving the vote to all the adults who did not yet have it. There were massive arguments in the women’s suffrage organisations about the proposal, which would fully enfranchise male adults but limit the vote to about half of adult women – women over thirty, who were householders or married to householders. In the end it seemed that was the best that could be achieved.

At this time a hundred years ago, the Representation of the People Bill was winding its slow way through the parliamentary process. Women crowded into the little ‘women’s gallery’ to see what was going on in the Commons below – eventually the Bill was passed by 385 votes, with only 55 MPs voting against. Then it had to go to the Lords, where the Leader, Lord Curzon, was also President of the Anti-Suffrage League. There were the same old speeches – how women are unfitted to vote because they lack knowledge, they are inexperienced, they don’t meet and talk, they don’t read newspapers, they are represented by their husbands etc. It was all very familiar to those watching, but in fact there was far less of it, and the Bill was passed by the Lords early in January 1918 (134 to 71).

There was jubilation, of course, but anger too at the many adult women who would remain voteless. The campaign was not yet over.