Early debates and Bills
The first debate in Parliament that proposed votes for women was in May 1867, led by John Stuart Mill, a Conservative Member of Parliament (MP). Following this, several Bills in favour of women’s suffrage were presented to the House of Commons and gained the support of both Liberal and Conservative Members, but it was never enough to pass. The first Bill, called the ‘Women’s Disabilities (Removal) Bill’, was brought to Parliament by Jacob Bright (1871-4), with later readings initiated by William Forsyth (1875), and Leonard Courtney (1878). Suffrage support notices for this Bill survive in the papers of Bertha Marion Broadwood of Capel, who ironically was a staunch anti-suffrage supporter. The subject of women’s suffrage was debated in the House of Commons eighteen times between 1870 and 1904. Extracts of these debates in Parliament can be found at http://www.historyofwomen.org/index.html.
In 1884, the issue of women’s suffrage failed to form part of the Third Reform Act despite strong campaigning for it to be included. From 1886 onwards, every vote taken had shown the majority of MPs in favour of women’s suffrage, but when it came to passing the final Act the vote was always defeated. The campaign had considerable support by 1910, winning over major politicians and becoming a key voting issue for prospective Members of Parliament. Between 1910-1912, various ‘Conciliation Bills’ were put to Parliament which would have given some women the vote, but none were passed.
Suffrage and the First World War
At the outbreak of the First World War some but not all of the suffrage societies suspended militant tactics to focus on the war effort. The government in response granted an amnesty to all suffrage prisoners. Ironically, Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was one of the major societies to support the government, despite her having fire bombed the Chancellor’s house only months before. The amnesty was not universally applauded as many issues surrounding imprisoned suffragettes still remained. The Home Office also saw it not only as an opportunity to compile a list of all suffrage campaigners granted amnesty (more than one hundred of which were men), but also the means by which they could trace and link multiple convictions of the same person (see The National Archives, ‘Amnesty of August 1914: index of women arrested 1906-1914’, ref. HO 45/24665). Both the WSPU and NWUSS also ceased campaigning in 1914. However, public support and sympathy with the movement had greatly increased following the rough and unjust treatment of protesting women. Suspending their protests in the face of a greater threat to the nation showed that they were rational and reasonable.
During 1914-1918, two million women worked in roles traditionally fulfilled by men, an achievement which helped to silence one of the arguments against women’s suffrage. The contribution of women to the war effort became a key factor in obtaining the vote. In 1917, a report on electoral reform (resulting from a conference the previous year) universally recommended women’s suffrage, albeit limited.
A ‘Land Girl’ demonstrates her newly gained skills with a plough and horse at Cross Farm, Shackleford, 18 April 1917. This still is taken from original film entitled ‘Surrey Women War Workers. Demonstration at Cross Farm, Shackleford’ (courtesy of Screen Archive South East; the film can be viewed on their website at http://sasesearch.brighton.ac.uk/view/?film=1291).
See the Surrey in the Great War website and Surrey History Centre’s online guide to First World War sources for further stories of women during the conflict.
Securing the vote – the final hurdle
The electoral reform report of 1917 led directly to The Representation of the People Act being passed on 6 February, 1918. However, the Act only awarded the vote to women who were householders or the wives of householders, aged 30 and over. With these voting restrictions still in place, stalwart suffragette ‘Lillie’ Lenton was unimpressed and later recalled in a BBC documentary:
‘Personally I didn’t vote for a very long time because I hadn’t either a husband or furniture, although I was over 30.“
The sentiment of a bitter sweet victory must have been felt by many women. The leaders of the women’s suffrage groups were exclusively middle class, many of whom received the vote in 1918 but the movement was nothing without the support of working class women who remained excluded by the Act. In November that year The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act was passed allowing women to stand for Parliament. As a result, Constance Markievicz was the first elected female MP (Sinn Fein) although she did not take her seat; Christabel Pankhurst stood at Smethwick as the Women’s Party candidate but was narrowly defeated, meaning that it was not until 1919 when the first female MP, Lady Nancy Astor, sat in the House of Commons.
On 14 December 1918, 8.5 million women were eligible to vote in the general election for the first time. However, it was a further ten year wait for the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928 until women were given equal voting rights to men, and the voting age was lowered to 21. Fifteen million women became eligible to vote in the general election of May 1929.
Key dates in the road to the vote can be found on the Parliament UK website. The Vote 100 blog gives a detailed account of the chronology of the Representation of the people Bill at https://ukvote100.org/2017/06/16/the-representation-of-the-people-bill/
A very detailed timeline of the history of British women’s suffrage can be found at http://www.historyofwomen.org/index.html