Forgotten Women (Part 3) – The Road to Equal Suffrage

While there is much focus on the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, what seems to have been almost forgotten is that 2018 is also the 90th anniversary of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, which gave women the right to vote on the same terms as men. If anything the latter is as important as the former, as it finally recognised women as equal to men when it came to the ballot box.

Although the campaign to secure women parity with men when it came to voting lacked the headlines and the colourful personalities, the women and men involved fought a 10 year campaign to redress the shortcomings of the earlier 1918 Act. In this blog, we shall see what difficulties the campaigners faced, how the tactics of the equalists were different to the suffragists and the suffragettes of the pre-war period and how changes in attitudes finally paved the way for equal suffrage to become a reality in 1928.

 

After 1918 – the war is far from over

When the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918 giving women over 30 the right to vote, it was seen as flawed and many of the suffragists and suffragettes were not prepared to accept that women were not equal when it came to men at the ballot box. This omission, as Cheryl Law observed, “cast doubt on the claim that giving the vote to women had been in grateful recognition of their wartime service” given that the vast majority of munitionettes, nurses, police constables, bus conductors and Land Girls were excluded from the vote due to their age. There were also over 2 million women over 30 who could not vote due to the following categories – professional or business women with business premises or unfurnished rooms, shop workers and domestic servants who “lived in” and unmarried daughters still living at home with their parents.

Many campaigners realised that the war was far from over. The opposition to women gaining the vote had not gone away and the struggle for equality and recognition was still on going. In the aftermath of a cataclysmic global war, millions of demobilised men were returning home hoping to return to their old jobs or to quickly find a new one. The consequence of this was an easing out of the women who had entered the workforce in their millions during the war in order to return to a life revolving around “children, church and kitchen.” However, there was the general consensus that now that some women had the vote, it was only a matter of time before the voting age was lowered. As Margaret Viscountess Rhondda, herself a former suffragette observed, women by virtue of the 1918 Act “had passed the first great toll-bar on the road which leads to equality…..[but] it is a far cry yet to the end of the road.”

As with the pre-war suffrage movement, the post war equalist movement was divided as there was some reluctance on the part of the likes of Millicent Garrett Fawcett to launch an immediate campaign to lower the voting age. Part of her lack of enthusiasm was a desire not to burden with additional issues a government coping with demobilisation and the winding down of the wartime economy. She and other leading women’s rights activists were also more concerned with moves to push women out of the workforce, any attempted restrictions on those who were about to enter the workforce and continuing discrimination. As Fawcett told a crowd at a meeting, the struggle was far from over, “we cannot be half free and half serf.”

Another source of division was due to the fact that there were many former suffragists and suffragettes who were actually opposed to lowering the voting age for women as they believed that the so-called “flappers” were too young and frivolous to understand current issues and seemed to be more concerned with having a good time than devoting their time to self-improvement, education and preparing themselves to become good citizens.

These concerns were shared by those who opposed giving women the vote at all. Realising that they had lost the argument, they shifted towards opposition to giving women the vote on equal terms with men. This is not surprising as in the aftermath of the First World War, there was a backlash against women and women’s rights; there were many factors for this but two reasons stood out – first was the demographic factor where the war had precipitated a population change, as millions of men met their end on the trenches of the Western Front or the deserts of Mesopotamia, so there was a dearth of men especially among the economically active.

Secondly, the backlash was compounded by this gender imbalance in Britain’s post war population. This was made worse by those who returned home from the war: far from coming back to a land “fit for heroes,” they were left disappointed by a lack of jobs as well as burdened by physical and psychological injuries. As a result, there was the general feeling of being threatened by a “surplus generation” of women who were greater in number and had gained much freedom during the war and after, which led to fears of the country being swamped with women.

Post-war Britain was obsessed with the “women problem” and with the reality of Britain’s economic weaknesses becoming apparent as the 1920s and 30s rolled on, the backlash against women became very apparent, with the attacks on women workers which were most acute during periods of high unemployment. One of the ways by which the so-called “women problem” was tackled was through the 1918 Act which gave women over the age of 30 the vote with a host of other restrictive clauses as mentioned above. The restrictions were a way for Parliament to ensure that the electorate was not swamped with female voters as by the 1920s, demographically women outnumbered men. Those who opposed giving women the vote or lowering the voting age set by the 1918 act used the demographic imbalance as grounds to avoid upsetting the status quo. Another main justification was that “girls” of twenty one were still much too young and immature and not responsible enough for the duties of citizenship. The use of marriage as one qualification for the right to vote was also seen as a form of control of a woman’s decision being more tempered by marriage.  Linking marriage and the right to vote was also seen as an inducement for women to leave the work force for marriage and motherhood. It was also believed that since by the standards of the time, 30 was already considered to be middle aged, women would be put off by registering to vote as this would give away how old they were.

The perpetuation of bias against women and the change in arguments this time in denying women parity with men when it came to the franchise led to new challenges in the campaign for women’s rights and equal suffrage.  Campaigners used varying platforms to make their voice heard and to ensure that equal suffrage would be achieved in less time than the previous campaign to secure the franchise for women.

 

Making their voice heard

After the passage of the 1918 Act, the National Union for Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) became the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC). Its main goal was to work for the enfranchisement of women between the ages of 21 and 29 to be able to vote on equal terms with men as well as to remove the current restrictions around women’s right to vote. In addition, the NUSEC was also committed to furthering the cause of women’s rights as their main objective was to “obtain all other reforms, economic, legislative and social as are necessary to secure a real equality of liberties, status and opportunities between men and women.” On the women’s rights front, they sought to encourage and educate women on their new found rights and how to make the most out of their new influence. They were also committed to advocate the opening of professions and the civil service as mandated by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act and defend the rights of married women to employment.

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The NUSEC did all these by publishing several pamphlets guiding women through the registration process and how to vote. They also lent their support to women’s groups campaigning for a host of issues ranging from family to education and employment. During the 1920s, more women entered the workforce which led to the rise of organisations for working women.  Crucially, due to the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 professions and sectors formerly barred to women were opened up and despite the barriers that existed in defiance of the law, there was no stopping women entering the workforce and professions: hence the establishment of organisations and groups that catered to the latter. Among them were the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), the Electrical Association for Women (EAW), National Union of Women Teachers (NUWT) and Women’s Local Government Society (WLGS) which provided a platform for professional women to campaign on issues affecting their sector and a woman’s place in it. Other organisations provided more practical support with the most notable example being the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) which ran hostels and leisure facilities for the benefit of working women, many of them living far away from home and needing a place to live.

Another way by which women were making their voices heard was through the power of mass media. Following the end of the war, the press developed a schizophrenic attitude towards women, women’s issues and women’s rights. While they (especially the popular and tabloid press) made much of the panic regarding “surplus women” and some took a conservative stance on a woman’s place in society; the same papers however began to integrate more women into its political discourse, highlighting the strides made by women in the political process and praised the election of women to Parliament. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail employed prominent women like the former suffragist Ray Strachey to become one of its columnists writing on a wide variety of political and social issues.

Even with the continued idealisation of women as wives and mothers, this idealism took on a new dimension of seeing housewives both as citizens and consumers whose day to day living could be impacted by government policy and in turn could help affect change. Side by side with this conservative message was the celebration of female “pioneers” with the likes of Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat as a Member of Parliament; Margaret Bondfield, the first woman Privy Counsellor; Amy Johnson, celebrated for her exploits as an aviator as well as a host of firsts in medicine, law, sports among others. As Cheryl Law wrote, the press gave a considerable amount of attention and coverage to “women who had achieved prominence in any sphere previously confined to men (who) were assisting in the emancipation process by virtue of the visibility of their success.”

The most visible voice came from the women who were elected to the House of Commons from 1919 onwards. Nancy Astor was elected to the seat vacated by her husband who had to leave the Commons following his elevation to the House of Lords. Although she was on the fence with regards to the women’s suffrage question before the war, following her election to Parliament, Astor took the issue of equal suffrage with dedication while her husband led the campaign from the Lords. She was also dedicated to issues affecting women and children as well as lending her support for women’s groups such as the EAW and YWCA.

Nancy Astor

Astor was followed into Parliament by other women such as the former suffragist Ellen Wilkinson, ex-Women’s Freedom League member Margaret Wintringham and former trade unionist Margaret Bondfield as well as aristocratic women like the Duchess of Atholl and Lady Cynthia Mosley (nee Curzon). While women MPs struggled to be taken seriously and were generally expected to confine their advocacy on women’s issues, they were instrumental in introducing and seeing through legislation that would have an impact on everyone, not just women.

Apart from their support of women MPs regardless of party affiliation, the NUSEC continued their non-party stance by cultivating allies within the political establishment especially sympathetic MPs and peers in their efforts to guide legislation through Parliament. In February 1920, Thomas Grundy a Labour MP introduced a bill that would lower the voting age of women to 21. Although it passed on its second reading, the bill failed as the government cited constitutional procedure which meant that if the bill became law, it would be forced to call for another General Election. Two years later Lord Robert Cecil, one of the prime supporters of women’s suffrage before the First World War, carried on the fight for equal suffrage. After Grundy’s bill failed, Cecil introduced another one in 1922 and although it was voted by a majority of 208 to 60, it suffered the same fate as Grundy’s attempt; but women’s groups saw that this was a positive step towards realising the goal for equal suffrage.

 

How the vote was finally won

The fight for equal suffrage did not have the same drama and personalities as the pre-war suffrage campaign. There was no heckling, no terrorism campaign, no publicity stunts and no great pilgrimages. As Brian Harrison observed, “[n]ow that the franchise attached to persons rather than to property, equalising it presented fewer tactical and strategic differences, and prudent suffragist leadership ensured that between 1916 and 1928, feminist self-sabotage no longer materialised.”

The suffragettes were conspicuously absent in the equal suffrage campaign which is not surprising as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) disbanded during the First World War and both Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst lost interest in the suffrage campaign. Other suffragettes “retired” from the suffrage movement with some resurfacing in the 1930s by joining the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and becoming Fascist and Nazi sympathisers: such as Norah Dacre Fox (later Elam) and  Mary Richardson (who slashed the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery). On the surface, as Simon Webb mused, it was a paradox that these women were attracted to a movement that was fairly hostile to female equality and rights, however on closer inspection, it wasn’t. As Lady Pethick-Lawrence (a former suffragette who was ousted from the WSPU after questioning the validity of militancy) observed, the WSPU was no different to the fascist movements and parties that gained power in Italy, Spain, Germany and other countries in central and Eastern Europe.

A few suffragettes carried on the fight by standing for political office or joining the organisations mentioned above as well as joining forces with the NUESC and the WFL. Although there were protest marches calling for the government to lower the voting age, they were few and far in between. Nancy Astor managed to persuade Lady Rhondda to reconsider her plans to fund and organise demonstrations as she wrote reassuringly, “the Government are certain to give equal suffrage without this.” To fellow MP, Eleanor Rathbone, Astor wrote of her fears that demonstrations would do more harm than good to the fight for equal suffrage by implying that politicians who supported the measure would not keep their word: “I am sure this is the wrong line to take, and it is for this reason that I am myself keeping very quiet on this question.”

The campaigners resorted to peaceful means such as speeches, petitions and meetings in order to keep the issue at the forefront of political discourse and persuade ordinary people and the establishment of the merits of equal suffrage. They pointed out several legal inconsistencies: for instance with the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 with gave women over the age of 21 the right to stand for Parliament and become MPs but then women under the age of 30 could not vote. In 1926, the NUESC organised a demonstration in London where several women’s groups together with a contingent of women parliamentary candidates, mayors, councillors and magistrates joined in together with those representing working women and professionals. It was a remarkable event as it was one of the rare occasions when Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard were together lending their support for the equal suffrage campaign. In speeches, women leaders also decried more legal inconsistencies such as for instance setting the age of consent for women at 16 who were still unable to vote at the age of 21 when that was set as the legal age for adulthood. Fawcett echoed this in a speech by also pointing out that Britain was the only country that discriminated against young women, there was already equal suffrage in the white Dominions and the United States in 1918 already gave its women the right to vote on equal terms with its men. She also pointed out that the young had something to contribute and had a stake in how the country was being governed as she added: “[t]hey will grow old quickly enough; but let us benefit from their youth as long as it lasts for helping on the right solution of the great problems that lie before us.”

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The 1926 march had the desired effect: although Labour was the only political party that explicitly had equal suffrage in its manifesto, its leader Ramsay Macdonald was in reality lukewarm to the issue of women’s suffrage while some of its members and the trade unions had always been hostile to women’s suffrage and women’s rights. Stanley Baldwin on the other hand together with Conservatives had many members who were sympathetic and were active campaigners for the extension of the franchise. When Baldwin won a majority in 1924, one of his pledges was to lower the voting age for women and the campaigners wanted to ensure that he kept his promise.

In 1927, Baldwin agreed to introduce a bill lowering the voting age for women to 21 and on equal terms with men. Although there was no mention of equal suffrage in the King’s Speech on 7 February 1928, the Prime Minister sprang a surprise by reaffirming that evening that a Franchise Bill would be introduced and true to his word, the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Bill was introduced less than a month later. The bill finally passed on its second reading on 29 March with a vote of 377 ayes and 10 noes with 218 abstaining. The act finally received royal assent on 2 July 1928 which finally meant that women had achieved electoral parity with the men.

It had taken Britain ten years to achieve what other countries had done following the end of the Great War. Which then begs the question, why did it take so long (although not as long as the pre-war suffrage campaign)? Apart from the stubborn institutional bias against women there were also big issues that dominated post-war Britain. From the national debt, chronic unemployment and industrial decline the country had a lot on its plate and equal suffrage was never high on the government’s priorities. It is only with the patience and perseverance of the campaigners and their supporters in both houses of Parliament that it was finally realised.

Secondly, why was there no resumption of militancy? As mentioned earlier, the WSPU had disbanded during the war and never really recovered. Recent research has also cast doubt on how effective militancy was. As shown by the pre-war suffragists and the greater role played by women during the war, patient campaigning and doing their part for the war effort had demonstrated women’s capabilities far more than militancy ever did. Crucially, women had come a long way since before 1914; women were now MPs while others occupied government posts such as councillors, justices of the peace and magistrates. There were also a greater number of women in the workforce and in professions as well as those blazing the trail in other aspects of public life. Cheryl Law called the equalists “prudent revolutionaries” – women who worked for change by playing the rules of the club (i.e. parliament) and it is through this that women finally had the vote on equal terms with the men at last.

 

Further Reading:

Pat Thane. ‘The Impact of Mass Democracy on British Political Culture, 1918-1939’ in Julie V. Gottlieb and Richard Toye (eds) The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender and Politics in Britain 1918-1945 (Basingstoke, 2013), pp. 54-69.

Adrian Bingham. ‘Enfranchisement, Feminism and the Modern Woman: Debates in the British Popular press, 1918-1939’ in Julie V. Gottlieb and Richard Toye (eds) The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender and Politics in Britain 1918-1945 (Basingstoke, 2013), pp. 87-104

David Rubinstein. A Different World for Women: The Life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett (London, 1991)

Brian Harrison. ‘Women’s Suffrage at Westmister 1866-1928’ in Michael Bentley and John Stevenson (eds) High and Low Politics in Modern Britain (Oxford, 1983), pp. 80-122.

Cheryl Law. Suffrage and Power (London: I.B. Tauris, 1997)

Martin Pugh. Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain 1914-1959 (London, 1992)

Simon Webb. Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists (Barnsley, 2014)

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