Past Talks

Votes for Women: The Long Struggle

Date: 21st March 2016
Speaker: Muriel Pilkington

The background to the fight for women’s suffrage includes the unexpected information that women in countries such as France, Sweden, Corsica and Sierra Leone had had the right to vote during the 18th century. In 1756, in the USA, Lydia Taft cast her late husband’s vote. However, these rights were subsequently abolished and we learnt that the real origins of the movement for votes for women lay in the French Revolution.

Mary Wollstonecraft, the well-known English writer, philosopher and advocate of women’s rights, observed the French Revolution and published her important work A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. Her book, with its advocacy of women’s equality, was rediscovered in the 1960s during the feminist movement in the UK.

In 1881, women of the Isle of Man became the first British women to vote. Other examples include New Zealand (1893) and Australia (1902), but Great Britain lagged behind these developments.

The Representation of the People Act (1832) extended the vote for men, but since it referred specifically to ‘male persons’ those women who had the right to vote prior to 1832, due to property ownership, were disenfranchised. It has been argued that it was the inclusion of the word ‘male’, providing the first explicit statutory bar to women voting, which provided a source of resentment from which, in time, the women's suffrage movement grew.

In the first half of the nineteenth century women had other inequalities to fight against: they could not hold public office; married women had no property rights; they could not go to university or enter the professions (apart from teaching and nursing); married women’s earnings belonged to their husbands.

Significant events later in the century included Elizabeth Garrett Anderson qualifying as the first female doctor; a school for girls founded by Francis Buss, a pioneer of women’s education; the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, which allowed wives to divorce their husbands and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act 1864 following campaigning by Josephine Butler.

As campaigning continued apace a number of important groups emerged. In Oxfordshire the Central & South of England Society established groups in Oxford, Banbury and Woodstock. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed in 1896. Members were known as suffragists and brought pressure on the government through lawful and peaceful methods. In contrast, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903, took a more militant stance under the control of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters. These were the suffragettes whose motto was ‘Deeds not Words’.

By 1900 many working class women had joined the fight for women’s suffrage and 7th February 1907 was hugely significant as 3000 women gathered in London to march through the city. Organised by the NUWSS, this was the first demonstration of woman from all classes. Keir Hardie, one of the founders of the Independent Labour Party was among the leaders of the march. The Mud March, as it became known due to the wet conditions, helped make large suffrage processions a key feature of the British suffrage movement and put suffragists in the public eye. It gave the movement an aura of respectability the militant tactics and extreme protests of the suffragettes had failed to achieve.

During 1916-1917, the House of Commons Speaker, James William Lowther, chaired a conference on electoral reform which recommended limited women's suffrage. The prime minster Lloyd George favoured votes for women, acknowledging their role in taking on men’s jobs during WW1. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 gave the vote to women over 30 years of age who met a property qualification. Only 58% of the adult male population was eligible to vote before 1918. This act abolished property and other restrictions for men, and extended the vote to all men over the age of 21 years. Among the restrictions lifted was the fact that only men who had been resident in the country for 12 months prior to a general election were entitled to vote. It was quickly realised that this element effectively disenfranchised troops who had served overseas during the war. Despite these reforms, inequalities between men and women still existed. It was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women over 21 years were able to vote and women finally achieved the same voting rights as men.