Votes for women

The First World War provided the first opportunity for women to take on traditional male jobs so it isn't surprising that in 1918 women over 30 were given the same political rights as men. But this change was not just a result of war - women had been campaigning for decades to be given the right to vote.

The campaign - the basics

Votes for women was part of a gradual improvement in women's rights that had been going on throughout the 19th century. The movement also campaigned for the right to divorce a husband, the right to education, and the right to have a job such as a doctor. Many women, however, saw the vote as the vital achievement that would give them a say in the laws affecting their lives.

The National Union of Women's Suffrage [Suffrage: The right to vote in political elections. ] Societies - the Suffragists [Suffragists: a member of the NUWSS who wished to obtain the vote through peaceful means - led by Millicent Fawcett ] - was formed in 1897 and led by Millicent Fawcett. The group was made up of mainly middle-class women and campaigned peacefully. The organisation built up supporters in Parliament, but private members' bills to give women the vote all failed.

The Women's Social and Political Union - the Suffragettes [Suffragettes: Members of the women's suffrage movement, which fought to win British women the right to vote. ] - was formed in 1903 and led by Emmeline Pankhurst. Although this group was also middle class, it heckled politicians, held marches, members chained themselves to railings, attacked policemen, broke windows, slashed paintings, set fire to buildings, threw bombs and went on hunger strike when they were sent to prison. One suffragette, Emily Davison, ran out in front of the king's horse during the Derby of 1913 and was killed.

The East London Federation of Suffragettes - formed in 1914 by Sylvia Pankhurst - was made up of working-class women. This group concentrated on social reform, and rejected the violence of the WSPU.

A Suffragist rally

A Suffragist rally in Hyde Park

The NUWSS campaigned peacefully - here Mrs Fawcett is addressing a rally

Women were not given the vote before the war. At the end of the war, in 1918, however, the Representation of the People Act gave women over 30 the vote, and in 1928 this was extended to all women over the age of 21.

Votes for women - for and against

It is important to realise that these arguments are not necessarily true, or what we would say today - they are what people said at the time.

The arguments for and against women's suffrage

Women are equal before God.A woman's place is in the home; going out into the rough world of politics will change her caring nature.
Women already have the vote in local elections.Many women do not want the vote, and would not use it if they got it.
Women pay taxes.Women do not fight in wars.
Some women (eg doctors and mayors) are far better than some men (eg convicts and lunatics) who have the vote.The vast mass of women are too ignorant of politics to be able to use their vote properly.
Other countries have given women the vote.If women are given the vote, it will not be the gentle intelligent women who will stand for Parliament, but the violent Suffragettes. Parliament will be ruined.

Why did women get the vote?

The Suffragettes

At the time, the Suffragettes caused a lot of anger and it has been argued that they lost support for the cause. Certainly, women had not been given the vote by 1914, even after a lot of Suffragette violence. However, some historians argue that, although they could not be seen to give in to Suffragette violence, politicians could not face a return to Suffragette violence after the war, and that is why they gave women the vote.

The War

During the war, women served the nation and did men's work in many ways. When they were given the vote in 1918, almost every person who supported the motion in Parliament said that they deserved it because of their conduct during the war - they had proved that they could go to war' with the men. The problem with this argument is that only women who were householders over the age of 30 (6 million women) got the vote in 1918; women over 21 did not get the vote until 1928. Yet the 1918 Representation of the People Act gave the vote to all men over the age of 21 so the war did not bring women equality.

Sylvia Pankhurst

In June 1914, she famously took a delegation of working class women to lobby Prime Minister Asquith who did not think that working class women were intelligent enough to have the vote. This proved to Asquith that working class women were intelligent enough to vote.

The Suffragists

Some historians argue that the long-term persuasion of the Suffragists won the vote. In 1916, Lloyd George, who supported women's suffrage, replaced Asquith as prime minister, and many pro-suffrage MPs who had been young men before 1914 now held influential places in the government. So the women won by patient persuasion, after all.

Revision tip and answer preparation

Revision tip

Go through the information in this Revision Bite to make lists of facts about the Suffragettes, the Suffragists and Sylvia Pankhurst. When you have finished, consider the list and weigh the facts to form an opinion about what you think was most important in winning women the vote.

Answer preparation

As part of your revision, think about the arguments and facts you would use to explain:

  1. What the arguments were for and against female suffrage.
  2. How effective the activities of the suffragists and the suffragettes were.
  3. Why some women were given the vote in 1918.

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