6 February 2018 will be the centenary of the passing of the Representation of People Act 1918 – why is this so significant?
Before 1914 approximately 40% of the population were not eligible to vote. There had been discussions amongst Members of Parliament [MPs] how to address this issue and the grounds on which the extension of the parliamentary franchise should be extended. Some Conservative MPs had argued for a ‘soldier vote’ whilst Liberal and Labour politicians put forward a case to include other workers. In addition, and following continued pressure from women’s suffrage campaigners, the position of women also needed to be considered.
The Speaker’s Conference
With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, a reform of the electoral system was necessary as millions of men who had served their country were not eligible to vote due to existing property and residential qualifications. A cross-party Speaker’s Conference, led by James William Lowther MP was inaugurated to examine and resolve, franchise reform, the redistribution of electoral seats, electoral registration reform and the method and cost of elections. At the Conference the issue of women’s suffrage was left until the last possible moment, in order to obtain agreement on the other issues first. There was also a strategic reason for this approach. Lowther had witnessed many of the militant suffrage activities that took place from 1906 to 1914 and when three anti-suffragists left the Conference in December 1916 he took the opportunity of replacing them with pro-suffragists MPs. The matter of votes for women was finally discussed on 10 and 11 January 1917 and whilst there was broad agreement that there should be a measure of women’s suffrage, the terms on which this should be implemented was not without its problems. The Conference agreed that women should receive the vote, but not on the same terms as men; there was concern about the number of women who would be enfranchised, either being too high or low. A proposition was put forward by one of the most dedicated campaigners of women’s suffrage, Willoughby Hyett Dickinson MP. He suggested that the vote should go to householders or wives of householders and this was agreed by nine votes to eight and thus a measure of women’s suffrage had been passed. The Conference went on to recommend that women over the age of 30 who met the relevant qualifications, those who owned property or were graduates voting in a university constituency on the local government registers were now eligible to vote in parliamentary elections.
A triumph for Women’s Suffrage?
After almost seventy years of a long, hard and at times bitter campaign women now had, albeit it on limited terms, won the parliamentary franchise. Both constitutional suffragists and militant suffragettes had both made significant contributions towards the winning of Votes for Women. Two women in particular are well remembered for their dedication to the women’s movement: Millicent Fawcett, leader of the peaceful and non-violent National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union.
The Representation of the People Bill was introduced in parliament in May 1917 and it epitomised the Conference’s resolutions. The Act gave the vote to all men aged 21 years or older and to men on military or naval service from the age of 19. Women aged 30 or older who qualified for the local government franchise, or whose husbands did, were given the vote. As a result, therefore, approximately 8.4 million women were enfranchised by this act of parliament.
It would take a further ten years of dedicated campaigning by the women’s movement until the Passing of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928 granted equal voting rights to men and women.
Dr Jo Smith
Manchester Metropolitan University
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