The 1918 Representation of the People Act was the start of female suffrage in Great Britain. The bill was
passed by an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons (385 for to 55 against) – an element of
support that surprised the Suffragettes and other suffragist movements. The 1918 Representation of the
People Act gave women of property over the age of 30 the right to vote – not all women, therefore, could
vote – but it was a major start.
Why did the House of Commons give such overwhelming support to the bill when just four years earlier it
had been apparently so hostile to female suffrage?
A general assumption is that the act was a ‘reward’ for the vital work done by women during World War
One. Before the war, society had been suitably angered and horrified by the acts of the Suffragettes –
arson, vandalism, attacking politicians, the Derby of 1913 etc. Parliament rationalised on the following:
how could women be given such a right when they could not be trusted to act decently? During the war,
Britain had experienced a potentially disastrous munitions shortage and this was only solved by the work
done by women in munitions factories. Women had also driven buses, worked on surface jobs in coal
mines etc. Vital work was also done on farms to keep Britain well stocked with food.
This assumption has now been challenged as not being as accurate as was once thought. Women in
France did equally as important work in World War One but did not receive the right to vote after the war.
Why? One of the reasons put forward for this is that there was no pre-war suffragist movement in France
- and certainly not the militancy of the Suffragettes. An argument put forward for the inclusion of a female
suffrage section in the 1918 Representation of the People Act is that the work of the Suffragettes and the
suffragist movements pre-1914 had been important. While the Suffragettes had shocked society (both
male and female), no-one was keen to return to the violence of pre-1914 Britain, a nation exhausted by
war. Therefore, the role of the Suffragettes may have been far more important than was originally
Britain was shocked by the violence of the Russian Revolution – could it risk such social disorder here? If
the Suffragettes re-started their campaign, where would it end? Could the government risk taking such a
gamble? Many women who had done such valuable work during the war, had now by 1918 been made
redundant or were being pressurised into returning to their old employment – invariably domestic work.
How could the government gamble that these women would not join the Suffragettes, thus strengthening
their numbers and engage in violent activities (even more violent that pre-1914)? Once society went into
a spiral of violence, how could it be contained?
So why did the bill pass with such a huge majority? Did men in the House of Commons suddenly convert
to the cause of the suffragist movement?
Many MP’s did believe that some reform was inevitable and that by passing the female suffrage section of
the 1918 Representation of the People Act, it would keep the suffragists happy but also delay more
radical reform – such as full and equal voting rights for men and women. A general view was that such
equality could be delayed by up to thirty years if the 1918 bill was passed with a limited female suffrage
section in.
The bill received support from the Conservative Party because their research had shown that in 142
constituencies, 98 supported women getting the right to vote and only 44 were against the principal. If this
support was true over the whole of the country’s constituencies, then the party had to support female
suffrage or potentially face the consequences at the general election.
While the suffragist movement welcomed the 1918 Representation of the People Act, it was, in fact, a
remarkably conservative measure. Therefore, when the ‘small print’ was read, Conservative MP’s and
those in other parties that opposed the issue of female suffrage, may well have seen the act as a success
in that it could have gone a lot further.
The act only enfranchised women over 30. Many of the women who had worked in the fields and in
munition factories were under 30 and therefore did not get the right to vote. There was a belief among
politicians that women over 30 were more able to understand the intricacies of politics and that they
would be less likely to support radical ideas. It was also reckoned that women over thirty would be more
likely to be married with children – also making them less likely to belong to radical movements with
radical ideas.
Ironically, those who had been the main supporters of the Suffragettes pre-1914 were also excluded.
Educated middle-class women had gone into white-collar work after 1920 and many lived in rented
property away from their parents as a sign of their independence. Therefore they were not property
owners and did not qualify to vote in general elections
The bill passed the House of Lords with similar ease despite its reputation for being anti-female suffrage.
The prominent lord, Lord Curzon, was president of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.
He was expected to lead the campaign in the Lords to defeat the female suffrage section in the 1918
Representation of the People Act. In fact, Curzon had made it plain that he did not want to have a clash
with the Commons and he stated that he would not oppose the bill. Other members of the Lords seemed
to lose heart over his decision not to act as their spokesman and the Lords voted for the bill by 134 votes
for to 71 against.
After being passed by both Commons and Lords, the bill only needed the Royal Ascent from George V.
This it received as a failure to give it would have led to a huge constitutional crisis. It is also possible that
advisors to George V made it clear that the bill only had a limited impact where female suffrage was
The 1918 Representation of the People Act increased the electorate to about 21 million. 8.4 million were
women. Therefore the act gave women a 40% ‘stake’ in elections. About 22% of women 30 years of age
and above were excluded from the right to vote as they were not property owners. These were women
who were invariably working class. The tendency to think that many of the newly enfranchised women
were conservative by nature and Conservative politically, seems to be true. Research on voting patterns
in the 1920’s does indicate that women did tend to vote for the Conservatives.
At the time the 1918 Representation of the People Act seemed a major victory for the suffragist
movements. Millicent Fawcett called the enactment of the act the greatest moment in her life. A victory
party was held by suffragist societies at the Queen’s Hall in March 1918. Having witnessed in one act a
jump from 0 to 8.4 million in terms of the number of women who could vote, many did see the act as a
victory. However, there were women who still saw the act as a betrayal as it still classed them as second
class citizens to men. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave all men over the age of 21 the
right to vote (and aged 19 if the men had been on active service in the armed forces). Therefore,
politically women were still not the equal to men in Britain even after the 1918 act.
Women achieved full equality regarding suffrage in 1928.
The Suffragettes
One hundred years ago women in Britain didn't have the right to vote. Because they couldn't vote it was
hard to change things. Girls didn't get as good an education as boys and most universities wouldn't
accept women. By 1910 there were about 1000 female students at Oxford and Cambridge universities
and they had to get permission to go to lectures and were not allowed to take degrees.
Women earned less money than men even if they were doing the same job. But it was hard for women to
get good jobs. They couldn't be accountants or bankers before 1910 and at that time there were no
women diplomats, barristers or judges.
One of the most famous and powerful women of the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria, had said, "let
women be what God intended, a helpmate for man, but with totally different duties and vocations". After
Queen Victoria's death these attitudes remained especially as many powerful men used these words to
stop women from getting a better deal.
By 1900 changes in the law meant that women were no longer forced to live with husbands who abused
them. They could now have custody of their children if they were separated and could actually have
control of their own property and earnings. However, most women were not able to get well-paid jobs as
these were kept for men. So most women still depended on men.
Many women knew that the only way to change things so that they got the same rights and opportunities
as men was to be able to make decisions alongside men. Men made the decisions in Parliament and men
were in all the top jobs so women had no say in the things, which affected their lives and the lives of their
children. Something big needed to change.
The Women's Social and Political Union, also known as the Suffragettes, was founded in Manchester on
10th October 1903. The leaders were Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.
The suffragettes tried very hard to get change. The fact that women weren't allowed to vote meant that
they also couldn't become Members of Parliament. Most of the men in Parliament didn't want women to
be able to vote. Some said that women were not clever enough to make decisions for themselves, some
said women weren't interested in politics and some were afraid that if women could vote they would have
to give women more rights.
The suffragettes got people in Parliament to help them. On 25th April 1906 Keir Hardie introduced a
debate about women's votes in the House of Commons. There was a separate place in the House of
Commons for women to sit. It was called the Ladies Gallery. Many suffragettes went there to listen to the
debate. But the men in Parliament just laughed and jeered so the women started to complain and
because they complained they were dragged outside by the Police.
The suffragettes wrote lots of letters to newspapers and delivered big petitions to the King, the Prime
Minister and other politicians. The petitions were ignored and many newspapers would not publish the
letters. The newspapers were controlled by men and a lot of them did not want women to get the vote.
Some newspapers did try to help the suffragettes and the suffragettes had their own newspaper, which
was called "The Suffragette".
By 1913 the people who printed "The Suffragette" were hounded by the Government and the Police. It got
so difficult that each issue of the paper had to be produced by a different printer. This caused lots of
people, even some who didn't support the suffragettes, to be worried. This is because many people
believed (as many do now) that newspapers should be free to write about different views and that the
Government should not control the newspapers.
Today, in countries where people can't vote for their governments, newspapers can only write about the
things their government says they can. This means that people might not get to know about things that
their government wants to hide or they might only get to know part of the story. At the time of the
suffragettes there was no TV, no Internet and no mobile phones. So, if you couldn't read about it in the
newspaper you wouldn't know much about what was happening in your country.
The suffragettes tried to get the vote using petitions and getting their friends in Parliament to speak up for
them. But this didn't work. So they did lots of things to get people to listen to them. They turned up at
political meetings but were shouted down when they tried to speak. They usually got thrown out, were
treated badly by the Police and often got arrested. So they started damaging property to try to make the
Members of Parliament listen to them.
Many women got arrested for damaging property and got sent to prison. In prison some went on hunger
strike. The Government thought that the women on hunger strike might die and they knew that people
would be cross about that. So they decided to force feed the hunger strikers.
The kind of forced feeding they used was very cruel. Many people thought forced feeding was really a
kind of torture. A doctor would force almost 2 feet of tubing through a woman's nostril and down her
throat. She would then be forced to lie on the bed and the doctor would stand on a chair pouring milk and
egg into the funnel at the end of the tube. This was very painful. It would often cause the woman to vomit
and, in some cases it caused lasting damage. Lady Constance Lytton never fully recovered from being
force fed.
Women were also beaten whilst in prison. After people got to know about the forced feeding and how
horrible and dangerous it was the Government knew it had to stop doing it. They brought in a law to
release hunger strikers who had got very ill, let them get a bit better, then put them in prison again. This
made many of the women very ill.
One very famous suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison, was imprisoned 7 times. She was forcibly fed 49
times but suffered this because she felt so strongly that women needed to get the vote. She thought that
if she could do something serious enough to get everybody's attention people would force the
Government to stop torturing women and give them some rights.
Whilst in prison Emily, threw herself down a stairwell. She did quite a lot of damage to her spine but did
survive. Later, after being released from prison Emily did something bold to get attention to the cause of
votes for women.
On June 4th 1913 Emily Wilding Davison was at Epson Race Course. It was the day of the Derby race.
As the King's horse, Anmer, was racing around Tattenham Corner Emily rushed on to the racecourse and
tried to grab the bridle. It was a very dangerous thing to do. She was kicked by the horse and they fell to
the ground together. Emily died from her injuries 4 days later.
After Emily Davison's death other suffragettes continued to protest about women not having the right to
vote. Women continued to be arrested, imprisoned, forcibly fed and even drugged.
War was declared on August 4th 1914 (This was World War 1). Mrs. Pankhurst announced that the
suffragettes would stop protesting and give all their efforts to defending the country. They hadn't given up
the fight for rights but believed that winning the war had to come first. During the war women did many of
the jobs that men had said they wouldn't be capable of doing.
When the war was over, in 1918, women over 30 years old, who also owned property, were allowed to
vote. At this time all men over the age of 21 were allowed to vote. The Members of Parliament accepted
that some women should be able to vote because women's work had been so important during the war.
However, it is very unlikely that women would have got any voting rights at that time if it hadn't been for
the activities of the suffragettes and although women were still not treated equally with men, it was a start.
In 1919 Nancy Astor became the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. However, it
was not until 1928 that all women over the age of 21 were given the right to vote. This gave women the
same voting rights as men. In 1969 the voting age was reduced to 18 years old and has continued at this
level. Some people now think that 16 years olds should be able to vote.
In Britain today we are very lucky. Those of us over the age of 18 can vote for the people who make our
laws, run public services and make it possible for us to live our day to day lives. If people don't like what
the Government or the Council does they can vote for somebody else at the next election. However,
many people do not use their votes. This means that they leave others to choose who will make important
decisions. But we should remember what happened when people didn't have a say in making decisions.
People died in the struggle for the right to vote. They knew how important it was for themselves and for
those of us who came after them.
In 1866 a group of women from the Kensington Society organised a petition that demanded that women
should have the same political rights as men. The women took their petition to Henry Fawcett and John
Stuart Mill, two MPs who supported universal suffrage. Mill added an amendment to the Reform Act that
would give women the same political rights as men. The amendment was defeated by 196 votes to 73.
Members of the Kensington Society were very disappointed when they heard the news and they decided
to form the London Society for Women's Suffrage. The following year, Millicent Fawcett joined the group.
Although only a moderate public speaker, Millicent was a superb organizer and soon became the leader
of the London suffragists. Similar Women's Suffrage groups were formed all over Britain. One of the most
important of these was in Manchester, where Lydia Becker emerged as a significant figure in the
In 1887 seventeen of these individual groups joined together to form the National Union of Women's
Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Lydia Becker was elected as president. Three years later, when Becker
died, Millicent Fawcett became the new leader of the organisation.
The NUWSS held public meetings, organised petitions, wrote letters to politicians, published newspapers
and distributed free literature. Millicent Fawcett believed that it was important that the NUWSS
campaigned for a wide variety of causes. This included helping Josephine Butler in her campaign against
the white slave traffic. The NUWSS also gave support to Clementina Black and her attempts to persuade
the government to help protect low paid women workers.
In 1903 a group of former members of the NUWSS in Manchester left to form a new organisation, the
Women's Social and Political Union. Led by Emmeline Pankhurst, this new organisation pointed out that it
was no longer willing to restrict itself to the constitutional methods favoured by the NUWSS.
Millicent Fawcett, like other members of the NUWSS, feared that the militant actions of the Women's
Social and Political Union (WSPU) would alienate potential supporters of women's suffrage. However,
Fawcett and other leaders of the NUWSS admired the courage of the suffragettes and at first were
unwilling to criticize members of the WSPU.
The Liberal Party won the 1905 General Election. The NUWSS believed that women would now be
granted equal rights with men. However, this did not happen and although Millicent Fawcett had always
been a Liberal, she became increasing angry at the party's unwillingness to give full support to women's
suffrage. Herbert Asquith became Prime Minister in 1908. Unlike other leading members of the Liberal
Party, Asquith was a strong opponent of votes for women. In 1912 Fawcett and the NUWSS took the
decision to support Labour Party candidates in parliamentary elections.
Even at its peak in 1914, the WSPU only had about 2,000 members. The NUWSS was a much larger
organisation and in 1914 had 500 local branches and over 100,000 members.
Two days after the British government declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, Millicent Fawcett
declared that it was suspending all political activity until the conflict was over. Although the NUWSS
supported the war effort, it did not follow the WSPU strategy of becoming involved in persuading young
men to join the armed forces.
On the resignation of Millicent Fawcett in 1919, Rathbone became president of the NUWSS. Later that
year she persuaded the organization to accept a six point reform programme. (1) Equal pay for equal
work, involving an open field for women in industry and the professions. (2) An equal standard of sex
morals as between men and women, involving a reform of the existing divorce law which condoned
adultery by the husband, as well as reform of the laws dealing with solicitation and prostitution. (3) The
introduction of legislation to provide pensions for civilian widows with dependent children. (4) The
equalization of the franchise and the return to Parliament of women candidates pledged to the equality
programme. (5) The legal recognition of mothers as equal guardians with fathers of their children. (6) The
opening of the legal profession and the magistracy to women.
In Britain, the war led to an enormous, if temporary, expansion of women's work roles. Needing men for their
armies, the government fostered positive attitudes to women's employment in a huge range of traditionally male
The War Office informed employers that no man who was eligible for war service was to be retained if he could be
replaced by a woman or a man who was ineligible for military service. This applied only for the duration of the war.
The War Office even published a list of occupations which women could perform called Women's war work.
Compiled for use by recruiting officers, military representatives and tribunals, the list covers a broad range of trades
including the chemical, clothing, food, textile, brick, pottery, glass, leather, rubber, piano, linoleum and tobacco
women.htmlOther occupations included clerical and post office work, porterage, tram and bus driving and
warehouse work. Photographs in Women's war work show women engaged in this non-traditional work:
harvesting wheat, loading coal onto trucks, barrowing coke, stoking furnaces, digging clay, rolling barrels in a
brewery, working in railway workshops and turning shells in an armaments factory. Women also worked as
butchers, bakers, piano tuners, sheet iron workers, welders, porters and postmen.
The Central Committee for National Patriotic Organizations published a pamphlet called Work women can do,
advising farmers that women could drive horse-drawn vehicles to sweep in the hay and cut the wheat; plant potatoes,
cut weeds and hoe roots. This pamphlet provides a fascinating glimpse of contemporary life and attitudes.