British Women Gain the Vote Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The granting of voting rights to women age thirty and over marked the removal of a significant symbol of women’s subordinate status in Great Britain.

Summary of Event

The granting, in 1918, of the vote to British women age thirty and over marked the culmination of a struggle for a basic right that had been in progress for nearly half a century. The vote was a symbol of the political power that women lacked. Some saw enfranchisement of women as a means of overthrowing male tyranny in all aspects of life, whereas many others saw it as a matter of asserting the equal dignity of women and men. Suffrage;women Woman suffrage;Great Britain Great Britain;woman suffrage Women;suffrage Representation of the People Act (1918) [kw]British Women Gain the Vote (Feb. 6, 1918) [kw]Women Gain the Vote, British (Feb. 6, 1918) [kw]Vote, British Women Gain the (Feb. 6, 1918) Suffrage;women Woman suffrage;Great Britain Great Britain;woman suffrage Women;suffrage Representation of the People Act (1918) [g]England;Feb. 6, 1918: British Women Gain the Vote[04470] [c]Women’s issues;Feb. 6, 1918: British Women Gain the Vote[04470] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Feb. 6, 1918: British Women Gain the Vote[04470] [c]Social issues and reform;Feb. 6, 1918: British Women Gain the Vote[04470] Fawcett, Millicent Garrett Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst, Sylvia Strachey, Ray Mill, John Stuart

In late nineteenth century Britain, women were denied opportunities in many areas. Although a few women’s colleges had been established, higher education existed almost entirely to benefit men. Women who wished to be considered respectable were discouraged from seeking paid employment. Those who persisted in doing so discovered that jobs were segregated by sex, with higher-paying positions reserved for men. Until the 1880’s, a married woman in Britain did not even have the legal right to own property; her property became her husband’s when she married.

The discrimination against women was justified by the “separate spheres” doctrine, which asserted that men and women were designed by nature to perform different roles, with women best suited to being wives and mothers. It was impossible for all women to marry, as the population consisted of more women than men; even so, those women who remained single were viewed as incomplete persons for not having experienced marriage and motherhood. Some women bitterly resented the restrictions on their lives because they did not believe that their destiny should be determined by their sex.

The organized campaign for woman suffrage in Great Britain began in 1866, when Parliament considered extending the franchise to several million more men than had previously been eligible. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett, and others collected almost fifteen hundred signatures on a petition requesting that the vote also be extended to women. When the government introduced a franchise bill the following year, John Stuart Mill, speaking for women, proposed an amendment that would have added woman suffrage to the measure. After Parliament rejected the amendment, women seeking the right to vote formed several suffrage societies. In 1897, these societies joined forces and formed the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS); this organization directed the suffrage campaign until the vote was granted.

Opponents of woman suffrage believed that women’s nature made them unsuited for participation in political life. They claimed that women were too emotional to evaluate political issues rationally. Others maintained that women lacked sufficient knowledge of public matters, arguing that women’s expertise was in household and family matters, which had no relevance to the issues voters had to resolve. Also, because voting was often carried out in pubs and other places where alcohol was consumed, coarse language and brawling were known to occur in polling places; some opponents of woman suffrage argued that such environments were inappropriate for ladies. Finally, because women were generally believed to have a higher moral nature than men, many men feared that if women had the vote they would support reforms, such as temperance legislation, that men believed to be detrimental to their interests.

During their first thirty years of organized struggle for suffrage, women made little progress in gaining the vote in national elections. Woman suffrage drew its main political support from members of the Liberal Party, but that party refused to proceed with legislation because its leaders believed that most women, if given the vote, would support the Conservative Party. Women were thought to be especially susceptible to the influence of the Church of England, and the church’s active members tended to be Conservatives. Although the Conservative Party therefore might have gained the most from woman suffrage, it refused to sponsor legislation because its members tended to believe that a woman’s place was in the home.

Despite the barriers they encountered, women eventually made substantial gains. Many who opposed granting women the vote in national elections accepted women’s voting in local elections. Local government often involved issues of education, health, and welfare, which were perceived as being an extension of women’s domestic role. By 1900, women had gained the right to vote in many municipal and county elections and for school boards across Britain. Their responsible participation in local elections was important in undermining Conservative resistance to women’s right to vote in national elections.

The beginning of a new stage in the woman suffrage campaign came when Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia formed the Women’s Social and Political Union Women’s Social and Political Union[Womens Social and Political Union] in 1903. The members of this organization deliberately sought confrontation to force politicians to deal with the suffrage issue. Through its flamboyant tactics, the union gained much more publicity than had the NUWSS. On the other hand, its use of unlawful acts, such as setting fire to mailboxes, hampered efforts to obtain suffrage legislation by making it difficult for the government to grant the vote without appearing to be giving in to violence.

World War I created conditions in Britain that helped women achieve the goal of suffrage. Most suffragists were loyal supporters of the government’s war policy and concentrated their energies on shoring up the nation’s war effort. The suffrage groups stopped campaigning for the vote, thereby giving the government the opportunity to enact reform without appearing to be giving in to pressure. The war also forced the government to consider franchise reform in order to allow men in the armed forces to vote. Once the process of reforming the franchise was under way, it was difficult not to include some measure of woman suffrage. Conservatives who had doubts about the principle of woman suffrage were persuaded that it was wiser to include a modest women’s franchise clause in the bill than to risk the revival of agitation for a more radical measure after the war.

Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett, president of the NUWSS, agreed to accept a limited proposal in return for a pledge that some measure of woman suffrage would definitely be included in the bill. Fawcett suggested that setting a higher eligibility age for women than for men would be the least objectionable means of restricting the number of female voters. She recommended that the age of thirty be adopted, and the committee drafting the bill accepted her proposal. The bill was thus a modest measure, deliberately limited to make it acceptable to all parties. This helped the woman suffrage clause to pass the House of Commons easily in June, 1917, by a vote of 385 to 55.

The Representation of the People Act, which became law on February 6, 1918, was an important step toward ending the subordinate position of British women in public life, but in order to gain acceptance from the all-male legislature it had been carefully worded to minimize the degree of change it would bring. It extended the vote only to a carefully restricted group of women—those age thirty or older who themselves were qualified to vote in local elections or were married to men qualified to vote in local elections. Suffragists’ elation at having gained the principle of women’s right to vote was thus dampened by their awareness that they would have to continue their campaign in order to achieve equal suffrage rights.

Significance

The 1918 Representation of the People Act established the principle of woman suffrage in Britain, thus opening the door to the establishment of full and equal suffrage in 1928. The act was followed by a series of changes in law and policy that removed many restrictions on women’s opportunities. Measures were passed allowing women to be elected to the House of Commons, to be members of juries, to enter professions previously closed to them, and to receive degrees from Oxford University.

Under the Representation of the People Act, almost 8.5 million women gained the vote. Women constituted 39.6 percent of the electorate in the first general election in which they could vote, held in December, 1918. Candidates for election were very conscious of the new female voters and made special efforts to appeal to them. The three major parties added proposals to their election platforms designed to attract female voters. The women who had campaigned for woman suffrage were disappointed, however, by this first experiment with a female electorate. Seventeen women sought seats in the House of Commons in that first election, but only one was elected. The election resulted in a substantial increase in votes for the Conservative Party, and it is believed that the Conservatives benefited more from the new female voters than did the other parties.

When it had become clear in 1918 that Parliament would enact woman suffrage, many women shared the belief—articulated by Ray Strachey, an influential leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies—that women would now have the power to bring about sweeping changes in their lives. Strachey expected equal pay and equal employment opportunities to follow the vote, but she overestimated the impact of the franchise. Although important as a symbol of women’s acceptance as active citizens, suffrage did not bring dramatic changes in their lives. Instead of voting as a group for reforms specifically affecting women, female voters were drawn into existing political parties and adopted the political views of those parties. Furthermore, the women who had the vote, those age thirty and older, were for the most part married and not in paid employment, and thus did not always have the same outlook on issues as younger women, more of whom were single and working to support themselves. Suffrage;women Woman suffrage;Great Britain Great Britain;woman suffrage Women;suffrage Representation of the People Act (1918)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bartley, Paula. Emmeline Pankhurst. New York: Routledge, 2003. Biography of Pankhurst uses newly available archival material to examine her evolution into a militant leader of the woman suffrage movement. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamilton, Susan, ed.“Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors”: Victorian Writing by Women on Women. 2d ed. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2004. Collection of essays that are not otherwise easily accessible from women with views ranging from those of suffragist Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett to those of antisuffrage writer Eliza Lynn Linton. Includes chronology and biographical notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holton, Sandra Stanley. Feminism and Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain, 1900-1918. 1986. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Shows that although the Women’s Social and Political Union may have been the most militant in terms of tactics, it was not the most radical group seeking woman suffrage. The democratic suffragists within the NUWSS were more radical in that they urged universal adult suffrage and sought to link the Labour Party with the women’s suffrage movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hume, Leslie Parker. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, 1897-1914. New York: Garland, 1982. One of the most important works available on the main British women’s suffrage organization. Provides much information not available in other sources. Stresses the shift in the NUWSS focus from women’s right to equality to the notion that women needed the vote to protect their interests as wives and mothers. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kent, Susan Kingsley. Sex and Suffrage in Britain, 1860-1914. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. Demonstrates that the woman suffrage movement was not a single-issue campaign. Rather, suffrage was sought as part of a broad attack on the subordination of women. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liddington, Jill, and Jill Norris. One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. 3d ed. London: Rivers Oram Press, 2000. Focuses on the rise of the suffrage movement among working-class women in industrial towns.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mackenzie, Midge. Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. Compiled as a companion for a BBC-Warner Bros. television series. Especially valuable for numerous pictures documenting the activities of the suffragettes. Also reproduces selections from suffragists’ letters and other writings to provide an account in the participants’ own words. Includes brief bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitchell, David. The Fighting Pankhursts: A Study in Tenacity. New York: Macmillan, 1967. Excellent study of the militant woman suffrage leaders, despite the fact that it has received some criticism from feminists for lack of understanding.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Romero, Patricia W. E. Sylvia Pankhurst: Portrait of a Radical. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. Excellent, readable biography is very frank about some of the less attractive aspects of Pankhurst’s personality. Provides useful information on the East London Federation of Suffragettes. Includes extensive endnotes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosen, Andrew. Rise Up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903-1914. 1974. Reprint. London: Ashgate, 1993. Thorough account of the WSPU makes extensive use of the organization’s unpublished records. Critical of WSPU tactics, but not an unsympathetic study. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubinstein, David. A Different World for Women: The Life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991. Reevaluates the life of the long-term suffrage leader in the light of postsuffrage scholarship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Harold L., ed. British Feminism in the Twentieth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990. An account of the broader feminist movement of which the suffrage campaign was an important part. Includes a chapter on Emmeline Pankhurst’s ideas that shows how Romanticism shaped her views on how to bring about political change. Includes brief bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strachey, Ray.“The Cause”: A Short History of the Women’s Movement in Great Britain. 1928. Reprint. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1978. Authoritative history by an NUWSS officer includes an appendix that contains Florence Nightingale’s important essay “Cassandra.”

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Categories: History Content