Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Votes for Women!

This month sees the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which for the first time gave women the vote in Parliamentary elections. The heyday of the Suffragette campaign had been in the years immediately before the First World War; so why had the campaign achieved no results until 1918?
   It is important to remember the political circumstances. From 1910, Britain had a hung Parliament, with the Liberals and Conservatives almost exactly equal in the House of Commons; the balance being held by the 80 Irish Nationalist M.P.s and the 40 of the new Labour Party. Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister, was not a supporter of women's suffrage, but took no initiative of any kind on the issue; seeming to hope that it would all just fade away in time. Both the two main parties were hopelessly divided on the question of votes for women; but the Irish Nationalists were strongly opposed, and even the Labour Party was querulous. This was because at the time there was no universal suffrage even for adult males: a property qualification excluded large numbers of the poorest men. The Labour Party therefore thought it more important to achieve votes for all men as a priority. Also, since the Suffragettes campaigned principally for votes for better-off women, Labour feared, probably righly, that these new women voters would give their support to the Conservatives. Furthermore, the Trades Union movement was not sympathetic to women's causes, being strongly opposed to women being admitted to the skilled trades.
   In 1913 a Bill to bring about universal male suffrage attracted an amendment which would also give the vote to some women, but this led to the whole Bill collapsing, doubtless to Asquith's relief. There the matter rested till 1918. 
   It should be remembered that the movement for women's suffrage was overwhelming organised by middle-class or aristocratic ladies, like Mrs Pankhurst herself. Only her younger daughter, Sylvia, went to the East End of London to campaign with the poorest women workers. Sylvia later became one of the founding members of the British Communist Party. It would be more accurate to say that the Suffragettes campaigned for votes for ladies; for property-owners;  rather than for women as such.
   It is very doubtful if the militant Suffragettes' campaign of vandalism and arson actually gained them any support, though it undoubtedly won them many heroic martyrs and severely embarrassed the Liberal government. But when war broke out in summer 1914 they immediately called off their campaign and became ultra-patriotic, leading rallies calling for military conscription. Mrs Pankhurst ended her life as a prospective Parliamentary candidate for the Conservative party.  Meanwhile the economic demands of the war caused more and more women to take up full-time employment, and Lloyd George persuaded the Trades Unions to accept women into jobs from which they had previously been excluded, like engineering.
   Lloyd George, Prime Minister from December 1916, was sympathetic to the cause of women's suffrage (despite being the most openly philandering Prime Minister of the 20th century!), and in February 1918 pushed through the Representation of the People Act. (It is worth noting that, at this time, there was absolutely no reason to believe that the war would be won by the end of the year). The Act gave the vote to all men above the age of 21, but only to women of the property-owning middle class who were above the age of 30. The Suffragette leaders had been campaigning for no more than this. It was to be another decade before women were given the vote on the same terms as men. It is unlikely that many of the young working-class women who had been so crucial to the war effort by labouring in extremely dangerous conditions in the munitions factories were rewarded with the vote in 1918.
  A general election was called immediately following the Armistice in November, and women (or some of them) were able to vote for the first time. The first woman to be elected to Parliament was a true aristocrat. She was Countess Markievcz, formerly Constance Gore-Booth, whose youthful beauty had been much admired by the poet W. B. Yeats; but as an ardent Sinn Feiner who had been active in the 1916 rising, she refused to take up her seat. The first woman actually to do so was another aristocrat: Lady Astor. Inevitably, she was a Conservative. 

(The classic account of the Suffragette campaign, and the problems it caused to the government, can be found in "The Strange Death of Liberal England", by George Dangerfield).

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