Women in politics

Women in politics

It took years of campaigning for women to get the vote and have a say in the running of the country.

Gwenllian Morgan became Wales' first female mayor in 1910, in Brecon. Although a first for its time, this was local politics - Westminster and the right to vote were completely barred to women.

Until 1918, only British males over the age of 21 were allowed to vote in elections, or to stand for election to Parliament. It was thought that women weren't educated and informed, and lacked enough understanding of politics to be able to vote.

The Suffragettes set out to challenge this. The name 'suffragettes' comes from the word 'suffrage' - the right to vote. In the early 20th century, there were over 50 organisations in Britain campaigning for votes for women. Most of them protested peacefully, but it was the activities of the small militant group led by Emmeline Pankhurst, that caught the headlines.

The leading Welsh suffragette was Margaret Haig Mackworth (née Thomas). She later became Lady Rhondda and was a successful business woman and journalist. As a suffragette, she blew up a post box in Risca Road, Newport, to show how strongly she felt about votes for women. This earned her a sentence in prison, but she went on hunger strike and was released after five days.

When Margaret's father, the Liberal MP Viscount Rhondda, died in 1918, she attempted to inherit his seat in the House of Lords - an honour traditionally passed down through the male line of a family. She didn't succeed, but the playwright and political activist George Bernard Shaw remarked that her attempt highlighted "such a show-up of the general business ignorance and imbecility of the male sex as never was before."

The nation-wide Women's Freedom League was established in Swansea in 1909, and was formed as a non-violent campaigning body for women's votes.

The league supported peaceful methods of campaigning. The first annual report stated its objectives as being: "To secure for Women the Parliamentary Vote on the same terms as it is or may be granted to men; to use the power thus obtained to establish equality of rights and opportunities between the sexes; and to promote the social and industrial well-being of the community."

There was a big following for votes for women within Wales. The Cardiff branch of the National Women's Union of Suffrage Societies was the biggest outside London. It took an outbreak of war in 1914 to overshadow the debate, but the impact of the conflict led to huge social upheaval.

After years of campaigning and protesting, women over 30 were granted the vote in 1918. But many of the women who had worked in the fields and in munitions factories during the war were below that age. Some politicians believed that younger women wouldn't understand the complexities of politics, or that they were more likely to support radical parties and ideas.

Women under 30 didn't get the right to vote until 1928 when the voting age was brought into line with that for men - 21. It had taken years to achieve change, but even these reforms may not have happened so soon if the war hadn't provided a catalyst for social change.

The general election of 1929 was the first in which all women above the voting age of 21 could cast their vote. Women could now stand for election to Parliament, and out of the three who stood in Wales, the one who succeeded in being elected was Megan Lloyd George.

Daughter of the former prime minister, David, she was elected Liberal MP for Anglesey. She could speak many languages, was a keen advocate of the Welsh language and a persuasive public speaker, and was keen to fight for women's rights. Megan won Anglesey for the Liberal Party another three times.


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