How women won the vote
6th February 2018
by Kirstie Summers
On February 6th 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed by the UK government, signifying a momentous day for women. As well as abolishing many of the property qualifications for male voters, the law included this:
“Women over 30 years old received the vote if they were either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register, a property owner, or a graduate voting in a University constituency.”
For the first time, some women would be allowed to vote for their representatives in government. This was the culmination of a fight that had lasted for decades and marked one of the first major steps to towards equality for women in the UK.
Before the act was passed, women had to pay taxes and obey laws in the same way that men did, but had no say in who governed them. From the late eighteenth century, people were prepared to fight for women to have equal voting rights to men.
In the mid-nineteenth century, women began to join together in small communities across the country. Originally known as ‘suffragists’, they petitioned at a local level and held public meetings to encourage women to join the campaign for equal voting rights.
The first petition requesting votes for women was presented to the House of Commons on August 3rd 1832 on behalf of Mary Smith. That year, voting rights were expanded for new male demographics, but women were roundly ignored.
Another was submitted in 1866 by the Women’s Suffrage Committee, boasting 1500 signatures. It was presented to parliament by philosopher John Stuart Mill, but again failed. Mill continued to press the issue, including arguing for votes for all householders regardless of sex in 1867.
Continued petitions by women such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett and organisations like the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies were effective enough that debates about women’s right to vote were held every year between 1870 and 1884. This ensured that the issue was prevalent in the public eye and covered in the national press.
But for all the attention they gained, little progress was made in parliament. This frustration led some women to take more direct action in their campaigning.
Having been involved in the suffrage movement since 1880, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. Its motto was “Deeds not words”. While Fawcett and the NUWSS continued to submit petitions, the women of the WSPU fought for their rights through more attention-grabbing means.
Their campaigns sometimes turned violent. Women caused disruption and civil unrest, even attempting to invade parliament itself with a crowd of 60,000 people in October 1908. Some of them were arrested.
Many imprisoned women went on hunger strikes, with Marion Wallace-Dunlop undertaking the first in 1909 after being arrested for damaging a wall in the Houses of Parliament. Any woman who went on a hunger strike while imprisoned was dangerously force-fed in a humiliating and often life-threatening procedure. This was a standard practice until 1913, when the Cat and Mouse Act was passed, which permitted the early release of women whose hunger strikes had put them at risk of death. They were returned to prison once they had recovered.
In 1906, the Daily Mail described these militant women as ‘suffragettes’. The women took the word as their own.
The Conciliation Bill, which offered to extend voting rights to women, was read in 1910. This time when it failed, there was violence and riots outside Parliament.
One of the most famous and dedicated suffragettes was Emily Wilding Davison. She hid in the House of Commons on numerous occasions, including spending census night there in 1911 and listing it as her address on her census return. She was imprisoned a total of eight times, for offences including assault and stone-throwing. She is remembered for her final act of rebellion: stepping out in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in June 1913 and dying of the resulting injuries. She was 41.
Five years after Davison’s death, the Representation of the People Act, offering women the right to vote in the UK for the first time in history. 8.5 million women met the criteria to be eligible to vote.
It was not until 1928 when the Equal Franchise Act finally granted all women the same voting rights as men.