Opinion Articles

Why did only some women get the vote in 1918, and what happened next?

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We have heard much in recent months about ‘some’ women getting the vote, at last, in 1918 and, occasionally, that all adult men gained the vote at the same time. There have been few attempts to ask whether these two reforms were connected or why the female vote was restricted to those aged 30 and above, who were graduates, owned or rented property worth at least £5 annual rental or were married to someone who did.

The Labour Party had long campaigned for votes for all adults — the only party committed to votes for women. We know how women campaigned for the vote before the war, some with mounting militancy as their demands were ignored, leading to increasingly violent opposition: the imprisonment and forced feeding are well known, the sexual abuse from police and in prison much less so. It wasn’t publicly discussed in polite Edwardian society, though it influenced Christabel Pankhurst’s cry, ‘Votes for Women, Chastity for Men!’.

Campaigning was muted during the war when it seemed even less likely to succeed. But by 1916 the Liberal-Conservative coalition government felt it must reward the men fighting for Britain with the vote, especially because from 1915 they had no choice: they were conscripted for the first time in modern Britain. 40% of adult men were excluded from voting, mainly for failing the property qualification later preserved for women. Most were working class, though some unmarried middle-class men who lived in family property or as lodgers elsewhere were also excluded. But enfranchising millions of working-class men was daunting for the politicians, especially as Labour grew in strength during the war, even more in 1917 when the Russian revolution brought the spectre of socialism still closer. Nevertheless, in 1918 the male vote was extended to all men at 21, or younger if they had served in the war, though conscientious objectors were banned from voting for five years after the war. It was a move towards class equality among men which deserves more celebration than it has received.

Allowing women to vote was at least as alarming for many men who had long resisted it, especially because, if they qualified on equal terms with men, they would be a majority of voters. This was not just due to male deaths during the war, as is sometimes suggested. Women had long, possibly always, been a majority of the population because, on average, they outlived men, as we still do. The 1911 census recorded 107 females to every 100 males in England and Wales, and that of 1921, 110. The danger of making women a permanent majority of voters was one reason for parliament to raise women’s voting age — to 35, some proposed. Another was the belief that older women were mature and stable, less likely to turn socialist than unreliable young ‘flappers’. Retaining the property qualification reinforced this conservative bias by excluding working class women, including the many live-in domestic servants and those, married and unmarried, lodging in low-cost rented accommodation. Following the Representation of the People Act 1918 women were 43% of the electorate. It reduced some class and gender inequalities but reinforced others. Britain was unusual in restricting the female franchise. In the many other countries where women won the vote around this time — including Germany in 1918 — they gained it on equal terms with men.

Suffrage campaigners objected to the inequalities but accepted them as a first step and vowed to fight on. The Pankhursts’ WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) effectively disbanded during the war but many of its supporters carried on campaigning, including left-wing Sylvia Pankhurst, estranged from her more conservative mother and sister. Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) was renamed the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC) urging women, now they had the vote, to use it, and less conservatively than the politicians hoped. In November 1918 they gained the right to stand for parliament — surprisingly at age 21, like men. This passed easily through the Commons when some male MPs pointed out that they had been elected before they could vote, before they met the property qualification. Gender equality was acceptable for candidates but not for voters. Perhaps they expected few women to be elected, as it indeed turned out. Nevertheless organizations of women campaigned successfully for legal changes including gender equality in divorce, property rights and child custody, and gained access to professions including the law. Few women became MPs, but extra-parliamentary pressure was effective when politicians needed female votes, though there were limits: vigorous interwar campaigns for equal pay and employment rights failed.

Of course the campaign for equal voting rights continued. When the Conservatives won the 1924 election, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, promised women the vote: the election result seemed to confirm their reliability. Then he did nothing until by 1928, tired of his evasions, the campaigners threatened a return to militancy. The Daily Mail, long opposed to votes for women, warned ‘if the women come to use their power...men will be steadily dislodged’, but Baldwin gave in. In 1928 women gained the vote on equal terms with men and became 53% of the electorate. The Mail declaimed ‘it may bring down the British Empire in ruins’. It didn’t, though the 1929 election reinforced its fears by returning Labour as the largest party for the first time.

Women have carried on fighting for gender equality ever since but we have still not ‘dislodged’ the men, including from still holding two-thirds of parliamentary seats. The struggle continues.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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