Women get the vote!
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. 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 National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (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 an estimated 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 therefore became a key factor in obtaining the vote. Many Surrey sffragists rallied to help the war effort in the county and beyond.
The NUWSS newspaper, Common Cause, of 28 May 1915 published a report from suffragist Lady Florence Norman, of Chiddingfold, asking the Women’s Liberal Association for more women cooks to work in the military hospitals at the Front. She later became involved with the setting up of the Imperial War Museum and was subsequently awarded a Mons Star and a CBE for her war service in connection with British Hospitals in France. Lady Norman’s husband, Sir Henry Norman MP and her brother, Walter McLaren MP, were amongst the leading politicians who were supportive of extending the Parliamentary Franchise to include women on an equal footing.
Violet, Countess of Onslow had signed the national NUWSS petition in 1917 as one of ‘500 prominent women workers’ whose support it was hoped would promote the case for inclusion of clauses relating to women in the Representation of the People Bill (SHC ref G173/149/2, 4). During the war, Violet’s home, Clandon Park, became a war hospital, for which she served as its commandant until 1919. Her husband, Richard, 5th Earl of Onslow, was a Conservative peer, with a voice and a vote in the House of Lords and it is likely that, although initially resistant to the suffrage cause, he became convinced that women had proved themselves capable and deserving of the vote, particularly in the light of their contribution to the war effort.
In 1914, Clara Stoehr, an active committee member of the Haslemere Society for Women’s Sufrage, worked with the International Women’s Relief Committee helping to interview applicants and assess their difficulties. She also became the Honorary Organising Secretary of the South Kensington Hostel for Belgian Refugees during the First World War and financially supported the Millicent Fawcett Hospital Units that brought female medical units to the Front line.
Annie Miller, well known as an enthusiastic worker on behalf of women’s suffrage in Farnham, became Commandant of Highlands Military Hospital, Farnham and was awarded an OBE in 1918.
New Zealand born suffragist, Noeline Baker, who had co-founded the Guildford branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, made a significant contribution by working with the London Society for Women’s Suffrage register of voluntary women workers, the Surrey Women’s Farm Labour Committee and the Women’s Land Army and later received a MBE for her war work. 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.
Author and suffragist Isabella Fyvie Mayo, who was buried in the churchyard at Christ Church, Coldharbour, in 1914, unfortunately did not live to see women get the vote.
Securing the vote – the final hurdle
The electoral reform report of 1917 was instrumental in clearing the final hurdle of female enfrachisement. David Lloyd George had replaced Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister in 1916, bringing a more liberal stance, and arguments for women being enfranchised could no longer be ignored. On 6 February 1918, after 52 years and 16,310 petitions to parliament, the Representation of the People Act finally granted the vote to women over the age of 30, but only if they occupied property (as a householder) to the value of at least £5, or were married to a man who met the property qualification. With these voting restrictions still in place, stalwart suffragette Lillie Lenton, who had been imprisoned and forcibly-fed, 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.” (watch Lillie Lenton’s 1960s BBC interview)
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 but only seventeen women stood for election across the whole country. Three prominent Surrey suffragist campaigners stood; Charlotte Despard was the Labour candidate in Battersea North, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence as the Labour candidate in Rusholme and Nora Elam [aka Norah Dacre Fox] was an Independent candidate in Richmond. None of these women were successful in obtaining a seat as an MP. 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, following her by-election win in the Plymouth Sutton Constituency.
On 14 December 1918, 8.5 million women were eligible to vote in the general election for the first time. Surrey newspapers record that women in the county turned out in significant numbers, in some places out numbering men by 20 to 1. By this time, nearly all the main political parties in Surrey had women’s committees and the surving records show the significant input that women members had on rallying for their chosen candidates.
For many women, the injustice prevailed, a sentiment echoed by Marie Core, who in 1923 was matron at the Southern Railway Servants’ Orphanage in Woking. Marie wrote to The Times (7 Dec 1923) to protest about ‘Unmarried Women’s Votes’ and the injustice of the current Parliamentary franchise, age, occupation, and marital constraints as against the right of citizenship and class.
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. Surrey elected its first female MP, Virginia Bottomley (Conservative) for South West Surrey in 1984.
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 detailed timeline of the history of British women’s suffrage can be found at http://www.historyofwomen.org/index.html
For a Vote 100 blog about women MPs 1918-1997, and Hansard recording of parliamentary business, see https://ukvote100.org/tag/women-mps-1918-1997/.