Why did the wartime government conclude that women should be given the vote? There are five main reasons why this took place.
- Women’s suffrage slipped off the political agenda on the outbreak of war, but it reappeared as a bi-product of concern over the male electorate. The war obliged millions of people to leave their homes to join the armed forces or for employment. Existing rules meant that voters had to be resident for a year. As a result, many serving soldiers became ineligible to vote. This mattered to politicians because the life of the existing parliament ran out in December 1915 and they anticipated that a general election would be held during the war. The need to restore male voters to the electoral registers re-opened the pre-war debate about electoral reform.
- The balance in Parliament swung towards female suffrage. The end of Asquith’s premiership in December 1916 brought in the supportive Lloyd George. The resultant Coalition government may be regarded as useful in breaking the deadlock and promoting a compromise solution. Certainly, it brought into office suffragists such as Arthur Henderson (Labour) and Lord Robert Cecil (Conservative) to reinforce Liberals such as Sir John Simon.
- The suspension of the suffrage campaigns and women’s contribution to the war effort made it easier for anti-suffragists like Asquith to retreat from their entrenched position without loss of face. In broad terms people lost interest in women’s suffrage and this was recognised by both militant and non-militant suffragists. The attitude of politicians towards women’s work and the expressions of sympathy that occurred can be seen in a rather more cynical than altruistic light. It was clear that government expected women to give way to men in relation to employment. Despite abandoning their anti-suffragism men like Asquith privately continued to see women in politics in a very negative light. MPs recognised that women were going to acquire the vote if not immediately after the war then very soon after. They were not prepared to alienate potential supporters. Few anti-suffragists were prepared to die in the last ditch in defence of their views. Pragmatism prevailed.
- The setting up of the coalition government in 1915 meant that there was less division within parties, allowing an all-party agreement to be made and removed fears that one particular party would benefit from the measure.
- There was an international trend towards women’s suffrage and this put pressure on the government to act. Women’s suffrage was not implemented on a federal basis in the United States until 1920 though it had been adopted in a growing number of states since 1869. New Zealand had given women the vote in 1893 and Australia followed suit in 1902.
The issue of female suffrage remained in the background until August 1916 when the question of a new voting register was raised. All agreed on the need for a new register. The NUWSS, while insisting that it did not which to dissipate the government’s energies by a controversial argument stated that it would not stand by and allow voting rights to be extended to thousands of serving men while nothing was done for serving women. For the first time, Asquith agreed. ‘Votes for women’ became a subject of open debate and this time, it had clear support from the public, politicians and the press.
Manhood suffrage and limited women’s suffrage were introduced and carried as part of the domestic reconstruction that began to be an important concern for government in 1916. An Act of 1915 extended the life of the existing Parliament from five to six years and postponed the revision of the electoral register on the ground that one composed in wartime would be unreliable. The Parliament and Local Elections Act of 1916 extended the existing Parliament again for a further eight months and another Act of that year provided for a new electoral register to be drawn up. A growing number of MPs believed that there should also be an extension of the franchise and a redistribution of seats arrived at by inter-party agreement. On 14th August 1916, Asquith, in a speech to the Commons on the Parliament and Local Election Bill, implied that he was now turning from habitual opposition to support for women’s suffrage. Walter Long, Conservative President of the Local Government Board, soon after also declared his conversion of the female vote. Nevertheless, Asquith ruled out the prospect of a bill for women’s suffrage during the war. However, by October 1916, the Cabinet had (on the suggestion of Walter Long) placed the whole question of the franchise, registration and constituency reform in the hands of an inter-party conference.
The gathering was known as the Speaker’s Conference, as it was chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons, James Lowther. An opponent of women’s suffrage when he had ruled against amendments to the Franchise and Registration Bill in 1913, Lowther was now more conciliatory largely because he did not want a return to the militancy of the pre-war years. Apart from the chairman, there were 34 other members of the conference: 13 Conservative (11 MPs and 2 peers), 13 Liberal (10 MPs and 3 peers), four Irish Home Rulers and four representing the Labour Party. It began work in 12th October 1916 meeting twenty-six times and produced a comprehensive set of proposals on 26th January 1917. Towards the end of their work, the committee members addressed the issue of women’s suffrage and voted (15 to 6) in favour of making some sort of concession. They narrowly rejected (12 to 10) equal franchise with men and in order to avoid creating a female majority among voters recommended that women over the age of either thirty or thirty-five and on the local government electoral register (or whose husbands were on the electoral register) should be given the vote.
The Speaker’s Report was in Lloyd George’s hands by 27th January 1917 but it was two months later, on 26th March that the Cabinet decided to support the introduction of a bill embodying the recommendations. The Speaker’s Conference presented women’s organisations with a fait accompli. It took place behind closed doors and all Millicent Fawcett could do was to lead a deputation representing 22 suffrage societies to meet the minister responsible. On 28th March 1917, Asquith opened the Commons debate on the Speaker’s Report by moving that a bill be introduced in accordance with its recommendations. His clear public support for the reform was significant coming from one who had been a noted opponent of it. The reasons he gave for his advocacy included women’s war war-work, the right of women to participate directly in matters of post-war reconstruction that would affect them and the absence during the war of “that detestable campaign that disfigured the annals of political agitation in this country”. The Commons approved the introduction of the bill by 341 votes to 62. The Labour Party and the suffrage societies opposed the limited concessions recommended by the Speaker’s Conference but agreed to support a Bill if the age limit for women was lowered to 30. This concession was granted. After the first reading of the bill in the Commons on 16th May, the second reading passed on 23rd May by 329 votes to 40. On a free vote on 19th June 1917, the Commons approved the women’s clause by 387 to 57 votes. This incorporated over eight million, largely married women. This allayed Liberal and Labour fears and the Conservatives found it easier to accept the women’s vote as part of a broader package. The remaining parliamentary hurdles were crossed (the expected opposition in the House of Lords did not materialise) and the Bill became law on 5th February 1918.
The Representation of the People Act (the ‘fourth’ Reform Act) gave the vote to women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or graduates of British universities. MPs rejected the idea of granting the vote to women on the same terms as men. This obviously was a breakthrough, but critics of the Act have pointed to the fact that many women who contributed to the war effort were under 30 and from the working class. Why had they not received the vote? In the words of Martin Pugh, it was an ‘unspectacular victory’. It was not until 1928 that the vote was extended to women on the same ground as men. Women had their first opportunity to vote in a General Election in December 1918. Several of the women involved in the suffrage campaign stood for Parliament. Only one, Constance Markiewicz, standing for Sinn Fein, was elected. However, as an Irish Nationalist, she refused to take her seat in the House of Commons.
The politicians created a female electorate in 1918 dominated by married women and mothers upwards of thirty years of age. Once the new system had settled down it emerged that women comprised 42-43 per cent of all British voters. The reforms of 1918 scarcely amounted to a revolution but they did result in some significant adjustments in the British political system. Women were allowed to serve, as MPs and seventeen women stood, none successfully, for election in 1918. Soon each party had its own women’s branches, annual women’s conferences and a hierarchy of professional women organisers. By 1929, the Conservatives claimed to have over a million female members and the Labour party 250,000 to 300,000.
After the passing of the 1918 Act, the NUWSS and WSPU disbanded. A new organisation called the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship was established. As well as advocating the same voting rights as men, the organisation also campaigned for equal pay, fairer divorce laws and an end to the discrimination against women in the professions.
In 1919, Parliament passed the Sex Disqualification Removal Act, which made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their sex. Women could now become solicitors, barristers and magistrates. Later that year, Nancy Astor became the first woman in England to become a MP when she won Plymouth in a by-election. Other women were also elected over the next few years. In 1923, Margaret Bondfield was elected as Labour MP for Northampton. When Ramsay McDonald became Prime Minister in 1924, he appointed Bondfield as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour. Five years later, she became the first woman in history to gain a place in the British Cabinet.
A bill was introduced in March 1928 to give women the vote on the same terms as men. There was little opposition in Parliament to the bill and it became law on 2nd July 1928. As a result, all women over the age of 21 could now vote in elections. Many of the women who had fought for this right were now dead including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy, Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pankhurst. Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the NUWSS during the campaign for the vote, was still alive and had the pleasure of attending Parliament to see the vote take place. That night she wrote in her diary: “It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20th 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning.”