Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Monday 11 June 2018

Women’s Suffrage

This year marks the centenary of women being given the vote… And I say ‘being given’ very deliberately.

Of course we should celebrate all the women who fought for our right to vote, and of course we owe them a debt of gratitude. Part of that debt is about their strength and fearlessness; the very same kind was demonstrated by the women of Ireland over the past months, years, and in some cases decades. Some fights are simply worth fighting, and the wins worth celebrating.

Let’s not pretend extending the right to vote to women in 1918 wasn’t a very deliberate move by the Patriarchy, taken when it needed balance, and not because women were fighting for their rights.

Let me take you back.

Women had historically been able to vote in the UK. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution was well underway that women were actually disenfranchised. We were all taught about the importance of the 1832 Reform Act, but, despite being a student in an all-girls school, I wasn’t taught that the Act deprived women of the vote. Prior to 1832 women of property could vote. Nearly four decades later, that right was restored, at the local level, at least. Single women ratepayers, as rare as they were, had the vote in 1869 under the Municipal Franchise Act. in 1894 the Local Government Act extended the law to include some married women. In 1900 close to a million single, propertied women were registered to vote at the local level.

One woman voted in a general election between 1832 and 1918. Lilly Maxwell was a ratepayer who would have been eligible to vote had she been male. Her name was added to the electoral roll in error, and she did, indeed vote. Her vote was subsequently declared illegal.

The Chartists planned to campaign for women’s suffrage in the 1840s, but dropped the cause, fearful that it would hold up their political progress, and universal male suffrage became the goal.

Women’s suffrage movements began to emerge around 1865, mostly locally and in the cities. The Women’s Liberal Federation was one of the early national organisations to promote women’s suffrage. It began in 1881, almost forty years before any women could vote in national elections.

We all know about the Suffragettes, of course, and our focus is often drawn to them when we remember the women who fought so hard for the right to vote. The Suffragettes, the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded in 1903, fifteen years before the national vote was extended to women, and twenty-five years before women had equal voting rights with men.

So, why did it all take so long? 

Women had been denied the right to vote in national elections in 1832, under the Reform Act, and, less than thirty years later, they were forming organisations to fight for suffrage. It was almost seventy years before they would get it on an equal footing with men.

So, what was special about 1918?

Well, lots of things were special about 1918, but the most obvious is the end of the First World War. 

About six million British men went to war between 1914 and 1918, and a little over five million returned home. During the war a great many women were recruited to do the work that had previously fallen to the men who were conscripted. Time was ripe for political change, and part of that included suffrage, not least, universal suffrage for men… For Men!

More than five million working class men who had not been eligible to vote previously, were given the vote in 1918. It was a massive threat to the establishment. Many of these men had been to war, and some had become politicised. Of course, with the loss of around a million men to the war, women outnumbered men in the British population.

All men over 21 got the vote in 1918, and men over 19 who had served were also eligible.

Of course, some women were eligible to vote, but they had to be over 30, and there were several other restrictions. Women voters had to be householders or married to householders, or had to occupy properties at a rent over £5 per annum. Women graduates of British universities were also eligible.

In the final analysis, 5.6 million men were newly able to vote, almost exclusively from the working classes. 8.4 million women were eligible to vote, but they were older, married, educated and/or wealthy. Many or most of those women might be expected to vote in opposition to many or most of the working class men also able to vote. Married women might be expected to be influenced by their husbands’ political opinions, and wealthy, educated women by family loyalties.

It was, essentially, a wash.

Women didn’t win the suffrage battle. I believe that they were used to balance the new voting rights of working class men.

In some ways, this might seem like a simplistic view, and that’s OK, in some ways it is.

I’m just trying to demonstrate that the Patriarchy has a long history of doing what is good for the establishment, not for the people, and certainly not for women.

Some very politically aware, often courageous women fought long and hard for the right to vote. They didn’t win a battle, there was simple expediency in giving some women the vote in 1918 to offset the influx to the polling stations of so many working class men.

I take nothing away from the Suffragettes. They were fierce! I also suspect that they understood precisely what was happening.

It wasn’t until 1928 that all persons over 21 years old were eligible to vote. One Conservative claimed that the issue could divide his party for years to come. I guess nothing much has changed.
Yes, this is me...
photographed by James K Barnett

Not for nothing, I have voted in every election, local and national, for which I was eligible. I have never voted for the candidate who won, although I have voted for the winning party nationally. I hope that will happen more often in the future. I am unlikely ever to vote for my local winning candidate, given the historic political biases in my constituency, but I hope that will change, too.