Women and politics before 1918

Dr Ruth Larsen, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Derby, talks about the history of women in politics and how they ‘officially’ gained the right to vote in 1918.

 

Women active in elections

2018 marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act. This Act widened suffrage at general elections by removing nearly all of the property qualifications for men and enfranchising women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications. The Act was seen as a victory, at least in part, for the suffragists and suffragettes, despite the fact that men and women were still not treated equally at the ballot box; this disparity was not corrected until 1928. However, when women went to vote in the General Election of December 1918, it was not the first time that women had been active in an election.

Some women had been taking part in local government elections since the late nineteenth century. The Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 meant that unmarried women who were ratepayers could vote in local elections, and extended to some married women in the Local Government Act of 1894. Women had also been active in general elections before the twentieth century too. Traditionally, the right to vote in an election was only granted to those who held property above a certain value.

Women property owners

Historians have argued that there is evidence from the seventeenth century that some property-owning women believed that they had as much right to the franchise as male freeholders. Some women were even allowed to cast their vote, although the validity of their votes was sometimes questioned in disputed elections. Women could vote because there was nothing in the guidelines that specified the gender of the owner of the property; it was not until the 1832 Reform Act that there was clarification that the electorate had to be male property owners. About a tenth of all property was owned by women in the eighteenth century, and so they may have made up a small, but significant, proportion of the electorate. However, the practice of women voting in person was very unusual. It was normal for propertied women to send a proxy to vote – this was sometimes their son or another relative. A small number of women probably did vote themselves, and their names appear on some electoral registers, but evidence is limited.

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Voting was a family affair

There were some eighteenth century writers who felt that women should have been more actively encouraged to vote and that the franchise should have been broadened. William Paley argued in the 1780s, when there were discussions about electoral reform, that: ‘if this right be natural, no doubt it must be equal, and the right, we may add, of one sex, as well as of the other’ (Gentleman’s Magazine, February, 1788). Also, while most women were not able to vote some were still politically active. Those who had husbands and other relations who were standing for parliament were often actively engaged with electioneering, and some, such as the fifth Duchess of Devonshire, was active in party politics too. Others were involved in radical politics, whether as writers demanding the expansion of rights for women, or as protestors demanding better work and living conditions for themselves and families. Women were central to the antislavery movements in the early nineteenth century too.

When the 1832 Reform Act was passed, there was some concern about the explicit removal of the vote from women. That year saw the first petition to parliament in support of female suffrage, led by Mary Smith of Stanmore. However, much of the campaigning during the nineteenth century was for the widening of the franchise more generally, and not specifically about the rights of women to vote. Instead, many saw voting in elections as a family affair, and the concerns of organisations such as the Chartists were much more focused on ensuring that all men had the right to take part in elections.

From man to person

Throughout the nineteenth century there were various attempts to restore the vote to women. As one of the MPs for Westminster, John Stuart Mill introduced an amendment, the Second Reform Act, in 1867 to replace the word ‘man’ with the word ‘person’ in order to extend the parliamentary franchise to women. While this was defeated, for the next fifteen years there were very regular parliamentary debates about votes for women.

Another legislative attempt was made in 1884 as part of the Third Reform Bill. The man who introduced this amendment, William Woodall, MP for Stoke-on-Trent, noted that although his attempt had been defeated: ‘no one who has watched the course of public opinion on this subject will hesitate to say that there has been a remarkable and very strong growth of public opinion in its favour.’ (House of Commons Debate, 10 June, 1884). Although there was still a long way to go, there was a growing movement in support of universal suffrage.

The right to vote

The work of the campaigners for female suffrage in the early twentieth century was central to leading to the changes that restored the right of women to vote, and it is right that they are duly celebrated this year. However, as is usually the case with history, the ‘struggle for suffrage’ was much more complex than has been presented by many of those marking the centenary. It is important to know that 1918 was not the first time that women could vote, and to note the fact that there had been a long history of female political involvement before the twentieth century.

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