Great Britain Lowers the Voting Age for Women Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The 1928 Representation of the People Act lowered the age at which British women could vote from thirty to twenty-one, thereby granting them suffrage at the same age as male voters.

Summary of Event

In 1918, Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act, which gave men in Great Britain the right to vote at age twenty-one but restricted suffrage for women to those qualified to vote in local elections and age thirty and over. This step was welcomed by women’s suffrage organizations because it conceded the principle of women’s suffrage, but as women remained second-class citizens, it did not fulfill their objective of equal suffrage rights. Therefore, almost immediately after celebrating their partial victory, women’s suffrage organizations began preparing for a new campaign to obtain the vote on the same terms as men. [kw]Great Britain Lowers the Voting Age for Women (July 2, 1928) [kw]Britain Lowers the Voting Age for Women, Great (July 2, 1928) [kw]Voting Age for Women, Great Britain Lowers the (July 2, 1928) [kw]Age for Women, Great Britain Lowers the Voting (July 2, 1928) [kw]Women, Great Britain Lowers the Voting Age for (July 2, 1928) Suffrage;women Woman suffrage;Great Britain Women;suffrage Representation of the People Act (1928) Great Britain;woman suffrage [g]England;July 2, 1928: Great Britain Lowers the Voting Age for Women[07060] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 2, 1928: Great Britain Lowers the Voting Age for Women[07060] [c]Women’s issues;July 2, 1928: Great Britain Lowers the Voting Age for Women[07060] [c]Social issues and reform;July 2, 1928: Great Britain Lowers the Voting Age for Women[07060] [c]Civil rights and liberties;July 2, 1928: Great Britain Lowers the Voting Age for Women[07060] Astor, Nancy Baldwin, Stanley Churchill, Winston Rathbone, Eleanor Rhondda, Margaret

Women sought equal suffrage for a variety of reasons. Many viewed it as an insult that they should not be trusted with the vote until they reached the age of thirty, whereas men could vote at the age of twenty-one. Unequal suffrage was seen as a symbol of the wider pattern of sex-differentiated policies that hampered women’s opportunities in employment and in public life in general. Jobs were generally segregated by gender, with higher-status and higher-paying positions reserved for men. Even in the few areas, such as teaching and the civil service, in which women did the same work as men, they received lower pay. In many areas, employers imposed a marriage bar that forced female employees to resign from their positions if they married. In addition, the government refused to allow doctors at public health clinics to provide married women with birth control information. Women hoped that the additional political power they would gain from equal suffrage rights would enable them to change these discriminatory policies.

The postwar campaign for equal suffrage was conducted primarily by women’s organizations that had fought for woman suffrage before the war. The largest and most important of these was the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC), which was known as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies until 1918. Led by Eleanor Rathbone, NUSEC worked for reform by quietly lobbying political leaders rather than by using the more militant, and more public, methods associated with the prewar suffragists.

NUSEC’s efforts to get a commitment from the Conservative Party to act on the issue benefited from the assistance of the first female member of the House of Commons, Lady Nancy Astor. An American who had married the wealthy British member of Parliament David Astor, Lady Astor was elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative in 1919. She viewed herself as a spokesperson for women and was taken seriously in this role by politicians seeking support from female voters. Those who find it curious that equal suffrage was eventually enacted by a Conservative government should bear in mind Lady Astor’s persistent lobbying for that reform within her own party.

During the 1924 election campaign, under prodding from NUSEC and other women’s groups, the Conservative Party leader, Stanley Baldwin, pledged that if his party were returned to office, it would sponsor a special parliamentary conference on the issue of equal suffrage. Many women understood this as a commitment to introduce legislation for equal suffrage, although some Conservatives who opposed that reform thought it a clever way of attracting female votes without promising to do anything more than hold a conference to discuss the issue. The Conservative government thus did not become unequivocally committed to proceed with equal suffrage until 1925, when a cabinet minister, William Joynson Hicks, pledged that the government would act on the matter before the end of the current Parliament.

When the government failed to take action during the next two years, women’s groups began to fear that they had been deceived. NUSEC joined with more than forty other women’s organizations on July 3, 1926, in sponsoring a march through London to Hyde Park to demonstrate the degree of support among women for equal suffrage. Although some speakers warned that there could be a revival of suffragist tactics if the government did not proceed with reform, Lady Astor privately discouraged militant action. She claimed that suffragist violence would make it impossible for the government to proceed with legislation, as it would appear that the politicians were giving in to force. Reluctantly, Lady Margaret Rhondda accepted this advice, but her dissatisfaction with NUSEC’s backstage lobbying tactics led her to form a new group, the Equal Political Rights Campaign Committee, Equal Political Rights Campaign Committee to increase pressure on the government.

The suffrage reformers were correct in believing that prominent members of the cabinet were seeking a way to avoid honoring the government’s pledge on equal suffrage. The cabinet committee appointed by Baldwin to draft a bill devoted most of its time to trying to find some reason for not proceeding with it. One of the cabinet ministers most adamantly opposed to legislation, Winston Churchill, feared that granting the vote to women at age twenty-one would be a political disaster for the Conservative Party, as he anticipated that most of the newly enfranchised women would vote for the rival Labour Party. Other Conservatives opposed reform on the ground that it meant enfranchising “flappers,” a pejorative term implying immature, empty-headed females who knew nothing about politics or life and who would likely cast their votes for the most attractive male candidate. Underlying the various arguments opposing equal suffrage was an awareness that it would make women the majority of the electorate; some Conservatives feared that women would be less willing than men to vote for policies running the risk of war to protect the British Empire.

Despite the strong resistance within his party, Baldwin insisted that the government proceed with legislation. He was aware that if the Conservatives did not act, the Labour Party would make an issue of it at the next general election and might gain enough female votes to defeat the Conservatives. As a Labour government would then almost certainly introduce equal suffrage, Baldwin believed that reform was inevitable and that inaction by the Conservative government would only improve the Labour Party’s election prospects. He was also convinced that a majority of the newly enfranchised women would become Conservative voters, given the party’s special interest in promoting home and family life.

As a result of Baldwin’s support, the government finally introduced its equal-franchise bill in 1928. It granted women the right to vote at age twenty-one on the same terms as men. Once the bill was introduced in Parliament, the outcome was never in doubt, in part because opponents feared that speaking against the bill could antagonize existing female voters. The bill was supported by the Labour and Liberal Parties, and thus the only opposition came from a handful of diehard Conservatives. The antisuffragists’ dire predictions of the consequences that would follow if the bill passed seemed so outdated that they provoked laughter rather than serious discussion from the members supporting the measure. Late in March, 1928, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for the bill: 387 endorsed it with only 10 opposing. When a majority of the House of Lords also voted for it, the Representation of the People Act, also known as the Equal Suffrage Act, Equal Suffrage Act (1928) became law on July 2, 1928.

Significance

The Equal Suffrage Act removed one of the most important remaining symbols of women’s inferior position under British law. Baldwin described the act as the final step in granting women equal rights. Many women accepted this claim and withdrew from women’s reform organizations to devote themselves to their families and private lives. Women viewed the act as the culmination of a movement for political rights begun nearly sixty years earlier. Some activists, such as Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett, had devoted most of their adult lives to the suffrage campaign. It should not be surprising, therefore, that for many women the sense of elation was mixed with a feeling of relief that the struggle was finally over.

Although antisuffragists had predicted that equal suffrage would bring radical change to British political life, this expectation proved mistaken. About five and one-half million women gained the right to vote as a result of the act. Although the act is usually described as having granted the vote to women between the ages of twenty-one and thirty, nearly one-third of those who gained the franchise were over thirty and had been prevented from voting by the property-owning requirements of the previous electoral law. As a result of the act, women became a majority of the electorate; at the next general election, held in 1929, 52.7 percent of the voters were female.

Nevertheless, only 14 women were elected to the House of Commons in 1929, compared with 601 men. The new women members were absorbed into the existing political parties and voted as the male members of their parties did; they did not form a distinct women’s group in Parliament. Women voters did not vote as a bloc but divided their votes among the three major parties much as men did. Although some claimed that the new female voters were responsible for Labour’s victory in the 1929 election, this has not been proven. Most studies have shown, on the contrary, that women were slightly more likely than men to vote Conservative.

In the short term, women gained few direct benefits from equal suffrage. The newly elected Labour government was surprisingly indifferent, if not openly hostile, to women’s issues. It took no steps to protect women’s rights to work when rising male unemployment stimulated public criticism of women workers. Although Minister of Labour Margaret Bonfield Bonfield, Margaret was the first female cabinet minister, she was directly responsible for legislation that deprived many married women of their right to unemployment benefits. The Labour government did nothing to assist the campaign for family allowances that had been so important to Labour Party women in the 1920’s. Finally, the Labour government resisted women’s demand that public health clinics be allowed to provide birth control information to married women and permitted this change to be introduced only when Labour-controlled city councils joined in the campaign.

One of the most important consequences of equal suffrage was women’s withdrawal from active campaigning for sex equality. After 1928, the membership of the largest feminist organization in Great Britain, the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, declined rapidly. By the early 1930’s, it had become a much smaller and much less influential organization. Suffrage;women Woman suffrage;Great Britain Women;suffrage Representation of the People Act (1928) Great Britain;woman suffrage

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adam, Ruth. A Woman’s Place, 1910-1975. 1975. Reprint. London: Persephone Books, 2000. Well-written, lively history of British women for the general reader. Presents a good summary of developments affecting women in the 1920’s and relates the suffrage campaign to other women’s issues. Includes bibliographic endnotes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alberti, Johanna. Beyond Suffrage: Feminists in War and Peace, 1914-1928. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Well-informed study of British feminists in the 1920’s. Makes extensive use of manuscript material to add to the understanding of the women involved in the campaign. Includes an appendix with useful biographical information on the major feminists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrison, Brian. Prudent Revolutionaries: Portraits of British Feminists Between the Wars. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987. Collection of excellent biographical studies of many of the women involved in the campaign for equal suffrage. Presents much information not previously published, especially on the women’s personal lives. Includes valuable bibliographical essay and outstanding index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayhall, Laura E. Nym. The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Discusses the use of militant tactics by the woman suffrage movement in Great Britain. Presents material from participants’ private papers as well as pamphlets and newspaper articles of the time to place the suffragists’ actions in context. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Middlemas, Keith, and John Barnes. Baldwin: A Biography. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969. One of the fullest biographies available of the prime minister responsible for the 1928 suffrage act. Includes discussion of the conflict within the Conservative Party on the issue and Baldwin’s reasons for proceeding with it against the strong opposition of prominent members of his own party. Features references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Harold L., ed. British Feminism in the Twentieth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990. Collection of original essays on various aspects of British feminism. Chapters on feminism in the 1920’s and on Eleanor Rathbone provide the context for the 1920’s suffrage campaign. 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: Virago, 1978. Important study by a prominent figure in the largest women’s suffrage organization, although rather bland and not as revealing as it could have been. Useful as a detailed narrative of what happened and how the women involved perceived the events. Includes brief bibliography (now badly dated) and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vickery, Amanda, ed. Women, Privilege, and Power: British Politics, 1750 to the Present. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001. Collection of essays addresses the various ways in which British women have exercised political power in Great Britain since the mid-eighteenth century. Includes discussion of the woman suffrage movement.

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