World War One played a significant part in developing women’s political rights – so it is frequently assumed. However, World War One may well have stymied the drive by women to gain political rights or its part may have been overstated.
On June 19th 1917, the House of Commons voted by 385 to 55 to accept the Representation of the People Bill’s women’s suffrage clause. Suffragists were astonished by the margin of support given to them by the still all-male Commons. There had been no guarantee that the bill would be passed, as government whips were not used in the vote. To try to ensure that the bill was passed, Suffragists were encouraged to contact their MP’s to support the bill. On the day that the vote was taken in the House of Commons, members of the NUWSS made sure that known supporters of the bill did not leave the House until the vote had been taken. Clearly, the strategies used by the Suffragists were important when the size of the support given to the bill is taken into account. The huge majority of 330 was to play an important part when it came to the bill moving to the House of Lords.
Why did women get the vote?
It is generally assumed that the House of Commons was in favour of supporting the bill, as they were very appreciative of the work done by women in the First World War. The work done by women during the war was vital but its importance to the passing of the bill may have been overstated. Historians such as Martin Pugh believe that the vote in favour of female suffrage was simply a continuation of the way the issue had been moving before the war had started in 1914.
In 1911 there had been a similar vote to the one in 1917. Of the 194 MP’s who voted for the bills in both 1911 and 1917, only 22 had changed their stance: 14 had changed to being in favour of female suffrage and 4 changed from being for female suffrage in 1911 to being against it in 1917. This leaves a difference of only 14 – a long way off of the 330 majority of 1917.
Therefore, it seems likely that the direction Parliament seemed to be moving in before August 1914 was a significant factor in the 1918 Representation of the People Act. The activities of the Suffragists andSuffragettes pre-1914, therefore, may well have been more important at a political level than the work done by women in the war. As an example, in France, women did important war work in industry and agriculture, but they did not get any form of political suffrage after the war. However, in France there was no history of a women’s movement for political rights before the war.
It is also possible that Parliament was very conscious of the fact that the militancy pre-1914 might return after the war had ended in 1918. What would be the public reaction to the arrest of women who had done important work for the nation during the war simply for wanting political rights after it? Would those women who had not supported the Suffragettes or Suffragists before the war, be driven into their corner after 1918 if Parliament did not recognise the importance of political rights for women? Along with this was the fear of social and political upheaval as seen in Russia with the overthrow of the tsar in February 1917 followed by the Bolshevik take-over of Russia in October 1917. Could Parliament even vaguely risk such unrest in Britain?
Therefore, while the work of women in the war should not be understated (if only that it got some men on their side), other reasons are also important in explaining why the 1918 Act was passed. A continuation of the way things were going pre-1914 is an important factor as was the fear of social and political unrest in the aftermath of what had happened in Russia.
Ironically, while the war is credited by some as being the factor in pushing Parliament to introducing the 1918 Act, it may well have hindered the progress of female suffrage.
From 1910 to 1913, two issues dominated British politics: the clash between the Lords and the House of Commons and the continuing rise of militancy by the Suffragettes. The death of Emily Wilding Davison at theDerby in 1913 seemed to many to show that the very fabric of society was at risk as this was seen as a direct attack on the royal family. With churches and politicians attacked, a bomb being placed in Westminster Abbey etc. many feared that the violence of the Suffragettes would get worse.
Alongside this, however, was the work done by the Suffragists. They did not approve of the violence that was seemingly commonplace in Britain then. Movements such as the NUWSS and the ELFS had won support among a large number of MP’s who supported their stance. Famous MP’s such as Sir John Simon and David Lloyd George seemed to offer their support. The Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, had met members of the NUWSS and the ELFS. There seems to have been a climate developing post –1910 that was reasonably positive towards the Suffragists, if not the Suffragettes. It is possible that there would have been some form of female political representation before it actually happened in 1918, but the war took over. However, there had been seemingly positive negotiations between the Suffragists and the government before which had come to nothing.