From 1900 to 1918, no woman in Britain could vote. Therefore, no woman could stand as a Member of Parliament. As a result, there was no female presence in Parliament from 1900 to 1918. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act was introduced and this enfranchised women 30 years of age and older who had property rights. This act also gave women the opportunity to stand as a Member of Parliament. However, there was no mass change in Parliament – this took time and many would argue that female representation in Parliament remains too low.
In 1918, society was still oriented towards men leading society in all areas – especially politics. There was still a negative reaction among many men towards the activities of some of the Suffragettes. Therefore there was little impetus to include women as potential Parliamentary candidates at elections.
The first duly elected female MP, Countess Markievicz, stood for Sinn Fein (Dublin, St. Patrick’s) and refused to take her seat. It was not a particularly good start to female representation in the Commons. To many in mainland Britain, Sinn Fein was simply the political voice of the IRA and memories of what was called the ‘great betrayal’ – the 1916 Easter Uprising – were still fresh.
Even the political party that claimed to represent the working class seemed loathed to push women forward as party candidates in elections. Whereas it is relatively easy to explain away a party entrenched in old attitudes (and one that was dominated by men), society itself may well have pushed the Labour Party into primarily selecting men as election candidates. There were many in society who believed that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ and it is likely that more working class women believed this – therefore a Parliamentary career was simply a non-starter for the vast bulk of working class women.
In 1918, the Labour Party put up 361 candidates for the election in that year. Only 4 of these were female – about 1% of the total. For the 1924 election, Labour sent out 514 candidates. Only 22 were women – about 4% of the total. Before World War Two, the highest number of endorsed Labour candidates was in 1935 when 33 women stood for election out of a total of 552 Labour candidates – 6% of the total Labour candidates.
In the 1945 election when Clement Atlee was swept to power with a large majority, Labour put up 603 candidates. 41 were women – 7% of the total. By the 1979 election, the Labour Party contested 623 constituencies; 52 candidates were women – 8% of the total.
Therefore between, 1918 and 1979, the growth of women who stood as Labour candidates went from 1% to 8% of the total.
As its title might suggest, the Conservative Party seemed less inclined to embrace any form of radical change even if the party did produce one of the Twentieth Century’s most enduring political figures – Margaret Thatcher.
In the 1918 election, the party put forward 445 candidates – only 1 was female. In the 1929 election, the Conservative’s contested 590 constituencies and put forward 10 female candidates. In the 1945 election, out of the 618 candidates, only 14 were women. In 1979, of the 622 candidates, 31 were women. Therefore, from 1918 to 1979, the growth in female candidates at elections for the Conservatives went from 0% to 5%.
The third main political party in the Commons during the Twentieth Century was the Liberal Party. In the 1918 election, the party put up 421 candidates – 4 were women. In the 1929 election campaign, out of the party’s 513 candidates, 25 were women. In the 1945 election, the party contested 306 constituencies and put up 20 female candidates. In 1979, the party had 577 candidates; 52 were women – 9% of the total. However, by 1979, the Liberal Party had little political clout as all the post-1945 elections were effectively contested between the Conservative and Labour parties.
The highest percentage of women contesting by-elections came between 1929 and 1931 – 9.4% of total candidates and between 1974 and 1979; 9.7% of all candidates.