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History Corner

 

 

Representation of the People Act

1918 – 2018

‘Votes for Women’

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The origins of the Great War of 1914-18 may have confounded any single explanation at the time, but it is now clear that the conflict set in motion a train of events which shaped the social and economic structure of our own times. More than the result of a straightforward rivalry between Britain and Germany, that four-year long exercise in continental mass suicide turned Europe and other parts of the world upside down. Its social impacts have rumbled on for a century.

 

The number of men deployed across the battlefields was extraordinary.

 

This war democratized suffering. In most combatant countries, roughly 50 per cent of the male population between the ages of 18 and 49 were in uniform. Nothing like this had ever happened before. France and Germany mobilized the highest proportion: about 80 percent of men of military age were conscripted. Austria-Hungary mobilized 75 per cent of its adult male population; Britain, Serbia and Turkey called up between 50 and 60 per cent. In Russia, about 16 million men or 40 per cent of the male population . . . . In the United States, in the brief space of eighteen months about 4 million men, or roughly 16 per cent of the same age group, were in uniform.[FN1]

 

Of the years leading up to the war, the British economist John Maynard Keynes writes:

 

What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August 1914! The greater part of the population, it is true, worked hard and lived at low standard of comfort, yet were, to all appearances, reasonably contented with this lot. But escape was possible, for any man of capacity or character at all exceeding the average, into the middle and upper classes, for whom life offered, at a low cost and with the least trouble, conveniences, comforts, and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages.[FN2]

 

To the suffragists, having long agitated for the equal right to vote, the outbreak of a conflict on such a scale no doubt confirmed their belief that any system of governance which omitted female influence from the polity of the nation invited such a calamity. Writing in the August 1914 edition of The Suffragette, Christabel Pankhurst sets the blame squarely on the pugnacious male:

 

[A] dreadful war-cloud seems about to burst and deluge the peoples of Europe with fire, slaughter, ruin – this then is the World as men have made it, as men have ordered it. A man-made civilisation, hideous and cruel in time of peace is to be destroyed.

 

But if men could properly be said to have precipitated it, the war would demand the participation of the women if victory was to be had. Still largely conservative in their social views, the women who had engaged in the suffrage movement before the war, now suspended the cause and shifted their patriotic energies into national defence.

 

Women from both the working class and the well-off elite migrated into essential work in hospital, factory, farm, office and munitions plant. Serving as nurses overseas with the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the British Red Cross, many laboured close to the front lines and were maimed or killed. Even wives and mothers on the home front, tending the household and sustaining their children on ever-tightening rations, ran the occasional risk of being bombed by the German Zeppelins and biplanes which targeted major cities:

 

The most spectacular episode in the air war against civilians was the German raid on England on the night 2-3 September 1916. This attack [was made] by Zeppelins, which dropped five hundred bombs, half of them incendiaries . . . . Amazingly, only four civilians were killed and twelve wounded. What made the event linger in the popular mind was rather the destruction of a German airship . . . 571 feet long and 81 feet high, and [which] carried a crew of sixteen. It was shot down over London by a British biplane . . . .[FN3]

 

The war ran far longer than the country’s statesmen and over-zealous generals had predicted. The four years that elapsed from the first rifle shot to the last might just as well have been four hundred, for the murderous conflict had blasted the old social order to smithereens. The new order which began in 1918 would be revolutionary.

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Marriage may or may not be the only good, the only ideal existence for all women; but the law of England has long ago refused to drive women into marriage, as sheep are driven into a fold, by shutting every gate against them but the one they are intended to go through. Even if all unmarried women ought to be looked upon as stray sheep, still, as we have already seen, both law and custom in this country have bestowed upon them abundance of rights and privileges; and the assertion that such people have no right even to exist, is out of place in answer to the question, whether the rights they already possess do not naturally imply one right more?

            Helen Taylor, 1867, Victorian Women Writers Project

 

The so-called feminism of the pre-war and inter-war decades – esteemed radical by the standards of the day – was at root a call for rebalancing the relationship between woman and man. It is true, that although its principal aim was to win a specific legal right implicit in democracy – the grievance sprang from a long-standing subjugation of women in a number of areas. Evangelical Christianity had at least raised the social stature of the woman in significant ways. Nonetheless, other restrictions pertinent to the female role in, say, a church setting, ought not to have been applied to civic life or politics. Indeed, one might argue from the biblical standpoint that since – according to Gen. 2:18 – woman was intended to be man’s ‘helper’ in earthly matters, she ought to have been accorded more responsibility in shaping society. Perhaps the maxim that ‘two heads are better than one’ is apropos.

 

Millions of servicemen, demobilised at war’s end, in 1918, had returned to their previous spheres of employment, displacing women, most of whom resumed their status as housewives or servants. But in fashion, entertainment and travel, social relations were shifting. And regardless of the mediocre electoral rewards offered by legislators, the fact remained that women in unprecedented numbers had already tasted independence, having formed the backbone of the workforce during the war. The psychological effect of this achievement – along with the new liberalising trends then coming in – made the goal of full female franchise inevitable. But women were not going to stand idly by and wait, at the behest of the men. In order to preserve the skills they had learned during wartime work, many entered fields formerly the preserve of males.

 

In 1918 the National Council of Women of Great Britain formed a committee to study the problems of women taking up engineering as a post-war career. This led to the founding of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), open to women from all branches of professional engineering, metallurgy, physics, chemistry and mathematics. Its stated aims were “To enable technical women to meet and to facilitate the exchange of ideas respecting the interests, training and employment of technical women and the publication and communication of information on such subjects.”

 

The war may have ended, but the passion for female suffrage was unabated. Still, there was no widespread return to the demonstrations of the suffragette years. Beginning in 1917, Parliament discussed the possibility of extending a limited franchise to women. In February 1918, the Government introduced the Representation of the People Act,

 

deemed necessary as millions of returning soldiers were not entitled to the vote because of property and residential qualifications. This Act widened suffrage by abolishing almost all property qualifications for men and by enfranchising women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications. The Act also instituted the present system of holding general elections on one day, and brought in the annual electoral register. These changes saw the size of the electorate triple from 7.7 million to 21.4 million. Women now accounted for about 43% of the electorate. However, women were still not politically equal to men, as men could vote from the age of 21. The age 30 requirement was to ensure women did not become the majority of the electorate. If women had been enfranchised based upon the same requirements as men, they would have been in the majority, due to the loss of men in the war.

 

Many of the women who had toiled in the factories during the war were under 30, and did not benefit directly from the Act. Even so, the trend was in their favour.

 

In November that same year, a separate piece of legislation became law, the Qualification of Women Act. In twenty-seven words it allowed for a woman over the age of 21 to stand for election as a Member of Parliament:

 

A woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage for being elected to or sitting or voting as a Member of the Commons House of Parliament.

 

Ironically, this meant that a woman between the ages of 21 and 30 could be voted for but that she herself could not vote.

 

The ultimate prize was not reached until July 1928, when the Equal Franchise Act became law, granting any woman over the age of 21 the full right to vote. In the eyes of the law, she was now on equal electoral footing as the man. This Act added 15 million women to the voting register, putting them in the majority.

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Endnotes

 

[fn1] Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett, The Great War (London: Penguin Studio; 1996), p. 362.

[fn2] John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London: Macmillan and Co.; 1920), p. 9.

fn3] Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett, The Great War (London: Penguin Studio; 1996), p. 132.

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