This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. Read more here     Accept
Find us +44 (0)113 2837100



The Vote at Long Last: The Representation of the People Act of 1918 and the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage               

Posted by. Rosemary Mitchell
Posted on 07 February 2018


​Professor Rosemary Mitchell, Professor of Victorian Studies at Leeds Trinity University, discuss the history of women securing the vote.

The Representation of the People Act of 1918, the anniversary of which we are celebrating this week, gave the vote to women over the age of 30 and in possession of some property. Younger and less affluent women had to wait until 1928, which saw the introduction of the 'flapper vote'. The Act was a momentous change for women (and also for some men, who had also been disenfranchised), and it was the culmination of more than 50 years of work by suffrage campaigners, both women and men, both suffragists and suffragettes.

We tend to forget the legal position of women in the mid-nineteenth century. In the early Victorian period, a man could beat and rape his wife, and take her earnings and her children away from her ­– and she had no legal recourse against him. If anything, the political rights of women had actually declined in the early nineteenth century: the 1832 Reform Act specifically banned women from voting (some historians suspect that women householders may have previously voted on occasion). 

So it is perhaps unsurprising that the later nineteenth century was to see the rise of campaigns to secure rights and liberties for women – to manage their own property and legal rights, to receive higher education, and to enter the professions. It was a struggle every step of the way. Millicent Garrett Fawcett's own sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, became the first qualified doctor in 1865 – but the Society of Apothecaries immediately introduced a ban to prevent other women gaining a licence. Eliza Orme took a law degree in 1888 at University College London, but was barred from acting as a barrister or solicitor.

While many of these campaigns primarily affected middle-class women, there was also increasing recognition of the oppressive conditions under which working-class women led their lives. The London match girls' strike of 1888, which highlighted the dangerous conditions affecting women workers in the Bryant and May match-making factory, showed how working women and middle-class social and political reformers – such as Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh – could work together. Cross-class collaboration was to characterise many suffrage organisations too.

The suffrage campaign was foremost among these movements to improve the lives of half the population. In 1867, John Stuart Mill – Liberalism's greatest Victorian theorist – unsuccessfully sought an amendment to what become the Second Reform Act to enfranchise women. The Second Reform Act was already, as Disraeli put it, 'a leap in the dark', and few MPs were interested in adding the risk of enfranchising women to that of giving the vote to the 'respectable' working-class men. Mill had already presented a petition assembled by women activists in favour of women's enfranchisement in 1866, and was – with his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill – the author of The Subjugation of Women (written c. 1861). After the failure of 1867, the National Society for Women's Suffrage was formed, and the campaign began in earnest.

In 1884, at the time of the Third Reform Act, there was another attempt to enfranchise women. It was again unsuccessful. But there are some successes along the way: the 1907 Qualification of Women Act allowed women to be elected to borough and country councils and to become mayors (certain women, householders in their own right, had long been allowed to vote in local elections).

We're hearing a lot about the contribution of the suffragettes – particularly the Pankhursts' Women's Social and Political Union - at the moment, perhaps because their colourful campaigns catch the popular imagination so effortlessly. We think of the Leeds suffragette, Leonora Cohen, and her 1913 attack on the display case for the crown jewels in the Tower of London. Or Emily Wilding Davison's fatal intervention at the Derby in the same year, which resulted in her death and a funeral procession attended by 50,000 people. Or Mary Richardson's 1914 attack on the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery, which was motivated by both its prestige and its erotic appeal to male viewers.

This is not to mention the breaking of the Liberal Prime Minister Asquith's windows or the 'grille episode', when two suffragettes from the Women's Freedom League secured themselves to the grid between the Women's Gallery and the floor of the House of Commons, which was simultaneously deluged with suffrage leaflets. The grille was intended to prevent women being seen as well as heard, something which the suffragettes had no intention of accepting. Their sense of spectacle was a powerful tool in their armoury, and mass gatherings and demonstrations – such as the 'Mud March' of 1907 - played a central part in their campaigns. 

But we should not forget the quieter contributions of the suffragists, in particular the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett – who is rightly to become the first woman to have a statue in Parliament Square. This organisation, which at its height had more than 50,000 members, played a key role in putting the case for votes for women and persuading many senior Liberal politicians of its justice.

By 1906, before the militant campaign really got underway, the Liberal Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and many MPs were increasingly convinced of the justice (or perhaps the inevitability) of votes for women. That being the case, what did the militancy of 1905-1914 contribute to the cause? More than perhaps some (often male) historians, such as Martin Pugh and C.J. Bearman, have been willing to concede. Militancy, after all, came in a variety of forms, not all of them violent – and many militants were concerned to limit attacks to property and avoid injury or death. 

There is no doubt that militancy gave an urgency to the call for reform, allowing the suffrage campaign to attract politicians' attention, which might otherwise have focused on the Irish Home Rule issue or other current concerns. Recent work by Laura Nym Mayhall and other feminist historians has stressed how militant suffragettes articulated a constitutional narrative which it was difficult for Liberal politicians in particular to deny. If it was right for the barons to force King John to put his seal to Magna Carta, or for the parliamentarians of the 1630s and 1640s to resist the 'tyrannical' rule of Charles I – why was it wrong for women to campaign forcibly for their political rights?

Perhaps the government – after its unsuccessful and unpopular attempts to contain suffragette hunger strikes through the so-called 'Cat and Mouse' act of 1913 – was about to concede the vote. Perhaps not. But there can be no doubt that the decision of women suffrage campaigners to suspend their activities after the outbreak of World War 1, and to encourage women to contribute to the war effort, played a key role in securing the vote in 1918. Women here demonstrated that they were as capable of citizenship as men, as they had long been arguing in both word and deed. 

With the close of the war, their time had come at last.