The 1918 Representation of the People Act was the start of female suffrage in Great Britain. The bill was passed by an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons (385 for to 55 against) – an element of support that surprised the Suffragettes and other suffragist movements. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave women of property over the age of 30 the right to vote – not all women, therefore, could vote – but it was a major start.
Why did the House of Commons give such overwhelming support to the bill when just four years earlier it had been apparently so hostile to female suffrage?
A general assumption is that the act was a ‘reward’ for the vital work done by women during World War One. Before the war, society had been suitably angered and horrified by the acts of the Suffragettes – arson, vandalism, attacking politicians, the Derby of 1913 etc. Parliament rationalised on the following: how could women be given such a right when they could not be trusted to act decently? During the war, Britain had experienced a potentially disastrous munitions shortage and this was only solved by the work done by women in munitions factories. Women had also driven buses, worked on surface jobs in coal mines etc. Vital work was also done on farms to keep Britain well stocked with food.
This assumption has now been challenged as not being as accurate as was once thought. Women in France did equally as important work in World War One but did not receive the right to vote after the war. Why? One of the reasons put forward for this is that there was no pre-war suffragist movement in France - and certainly not the militancy of the Suffragettes. An argument put forward for the inclusion of a female suffrage section in the 1918 Representation of the People Act is that the work of the Suffragettes and the suffragist movements pre-1914 had been important. While the Suffragettes had shocked society (both male and female), no-one was keen to return to the violence of pre-1914 Britain, a nation exhausted by war. Therefore, the role of the Suffragettes may have been far more important than was originally thought.
Britain was shocked by the violence of the Russian Revolution – could it risk such social disorder here? If the Suffragettes re-started their campaign, where would it end? Could the government risk taking such a gamble? Many women who had done such valuable work during the war, had now by 1918 been made redundant or were being pressurised into returning to their old employment – invariably domestic work. How could the government gamble that these women would not join the Suffragettes, thus strengthening their numbers and engage in violent activities (even more violent that pre-1914)? Once society went into a spiral of violence, how could it be contained?
So why did the bill pass with such a huge majority? Did men in the House of Commons suddenly convert to the cause of the suffragist movement?
Many MP’s did believe that some reform was inevitable and that by passing the female suffrage section of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, it would keep the suffragists happy but also delay more radical reform – such as full and equal voting rights for men and women. A general view was that such equality could be delayed by up to thirty years if the 1918 bill was passed with a limited female suffrage section in.
The bill received support from the Conservative Party because their research had shown that in 142 constituencies, 98 supported women getting the right to vote and only 44 were against the principal. If this support was true over the whole of the country’s constituencies, then the party had to support female suffrage or potentially face the consequences at the general election.
While the suffragist movement welcomed the 1918 Representation of the People Act, it was, in fact, a remarkably conservative measure. Therefore, when the ‘small print’ was read, Conservative MP’s and those in other parties that opposed the issue of female suffrage, may well have seen the act as a success in that it could have gone a lot further.
The act only enfranchised women over 30. Many of the women who had worked in the fields and in munition factories were under 30 and therefore did not get the right to vote. There was a belief among politicians that women over 30 were more able to understand the intricacies of politics and that they would be less likely to support radical ideas. It was also reckoned that women over thirty would be more likely to be married with children – also making them less likely to belong to radical movements with radical ideas.
Ironically, those who had been the main supporters of the Suffragettes pre-1914 were also excluded. Educated middle-class women had gone into white-collar work after 1920 and many lived in rented property away from their parents as a sign of their independence. Therefore they were not property owners and did not qualify to vote in general elections
The bill passed the House of Lords with similar ease despite its reputation for being anti-female suffrage. Why?
The prominent lord, Lord Curzon, was president of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. He was expected to lead the campaign in the Lords to defeat the female suffrage section in the 1918 Representation of the People Act. In fact, Curzon had made it plain that he did not want to have a clash with the Commons and he stated that he would not oppose the bill. Other members of the Lords seemed to lose heart over his decision not to act as their spokesman and the Lords voted for the bill by 134 votes for to 71 against.
After being passed by both Commons and Lords, the bill only needed the Royal Ascent from George V. This it received as a failure to give it would have led to a huge constitutional crisis. It is also possible that advisors to George V made it clear that the bill only had a limited impact where female suffrage was concerned.
The 1918 Representation of the People Act increased the electorate to about 21 million. 8.4 million were women. Therefore the act gave women a 40% ‘stake’ in elections. About 22% of women 30 years of age and above were excluded from the right to vote as they were not property owners. These were women who were invariably working class. The tendency to think that many of the newly enfranchised women were conservative by nature and Conservative politically, seems to be true. Research on voting patterns in the 1920’s does indicate that women did tend to vote for the Conservatives.
At the time the 1918 Representation of the People Act seemed a major victory for the suffragist movements. Millicent Fawcett called the enactment of the act the greatest moment in her life. A victory party was held by suffragist societies at the Queen’s Hall in March 1918. Having witnessed in one act a jump from 0 to 8.4 million in terms of the number of women who could vote, many did see the act as a victory. However, there were women who still saw the act as a betrayal as it still classed them as second class citizens to men. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave all men over the age of 21 the right to vote (and aged 19 if the men had been on active service in the armed forces). Therefore, politically women were still not the equal to men in Britain even after the 1918 act.
Women achieved full equality regarding suffrage in 1928.