On February 6th, 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed giving approximately 8.5 million women the vote. Equality was still some way off - the Act enfranchised all men over 21 but only women over 30 who met a property qualification - but it was a landmark moment.
For over half a century numerous petitions had been sent to Parliament - 1,747 between 1851 and 1905 containing 486,747 names. Woman suffrage was debated in Parliament no less than 20 times, 12 Bills were brought forward, some gained a second reading. All were ultimately rejected - until 1918.
But it was a potential crisis over male voters that started the ball rolling. Only men resident in the UK for twelve months prior to a general election were eligible to vote. At a stroke, thousands of servicemen risking their lives for their country were disenfranchised. Something had to be done. In 1916 an inter-party committee was formed to discuss franchise reform. This Speakers’ Conference Committee, as it became known, was chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons, James William Lowther, the same man who had ruled against the women in 1913. It didn’t bode well.
But, in a startling about-turn, Asquith gave a speech to the Commons that implied he was relaxing his opposition to women’s suffrage. Why the change of heart? According to Asquith it was to recognise the vital wartime role of women. Over 700,000 were employed in munitions factories. Thousands more worked on farms, in the docks, government departments and other male-dominated industries such as engineering. Not to speak of the huge increase in women in more traditional working roles as typists and secretaries. More than ever women realised they could function as well as men. It was something they wouldn’t forget once the war was over.
Asquith knew that when the men returned, women would be ousted from roles that had given them confidence, independence, new skills and an income. They would be made redundant or forced back into domestic work - creating a fertile recruiting ground for the suffragettes. It would be a flashpoint for a return to, as Asquith put it ‘that detestable campaign that disfigured the annals of political agitation in this country’. The escalation of militancy before the war divided the suffrage movement. Many thought it did more to hinder than advance the cause. But the prospect of a return to that militancy inevitably played a part in Asquith’s about-turn. How could he imprison and torture women who had made such a valuable contribution to the war effort? The last thing society needed now was massive social unrest.
The days before the report was published were an anxious time for suffrage societies, finally united under the banner of the National Council for Adult Suffrage. They inundated the government with resolutions: ‘that the war has made obsolete all our past system of enfranchisement and registration. That the only solution of the difficulties that have arisen is adult suffrage, including women.’ Votes for Women entered the fray with a barbed reminder of past promises. In an editorial directed at the Prime Minister, no longer Herbert Asquith but Lloyd George, it commented: ‘It is not forgotten how he [Lloyd George] “torpedoed” the Conciliation Bill because its franchise was not broad and democratic enough … now is his golden moment.’
In reality, women’s suffrage was very much on the Committee’s agenda. In a measure of how far attitudes had changed they considered awarding women an equal franchise with men. But to create a female majority was a step too far. They compromised with a recommendation that the franchise should be limited to women over the age of either thirty or thirty-five. This was the proposal presented to Lloyd George in January 1917.
Two months later, twenty-two suffrage societies, under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett, met with Government ministers for a briefing on the recommendations of the Speakers Conference. The women made their dissatisfaction clear. The proposal still fell short of their demand for the vote on the same terms as men, a double blow given that the voting age for servicemen was being reduced to nineteen. But compromise was inevitable. They agreed to support a Bill if the age limit for women was lowered to thirty.A few weeks later Herbert Asquith stood in the House of Commons to move that a Bill be introduced in accordance with the Speakers Conference recommendations. The Bill achieved a massive majority at its first reading, 341 votes to 62. Support was undiminished at the second reading and on June 19th 1917, the Commons approved the women’s clause by 387 to 57 votes.
The Representation of the People Act 1918, given Royal Assent on the 6th February, gave the vote to all men over twenty-one, or nineteen if in service in the war, and every woman of thirty or over who was a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register, a property owner, or a graduate voting in a University constituency. The 7.7 million citizens entitled to vote in 1912 leapt to 21.4 million, with women making up about 43% of the electorate.
But the majority of women who had contributed so much to the war effort, many risking their lives in munitions factories, were young and single - the very women still denied the vote. Some saw this as a betrayal, leaving them second-class citizens. This political inequality remained the status quo for ten more years until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 finally gave women the vote on the same basis as men, bringing the number of women eligible to vote up to 15 million.
Catch the full story in North Devon at my presentations at Ilfracombe Museum on February 6th and at St Anne's, Barnstaple on March 8th, International Women's Day.