In 1918, the Representation of the People Act was a landmark in women’s rights. After over decades of campaigning the first step towards female voting rights were made legal.
This act allowed women who owned property (of their husbands did) and who were over thirty, could now vote. It wasn’t until 1928 that women got the same rights as men. However, 1918 was the year that women first got their foot through the door, after a long and painful campaign.
It started in the mid to late nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill put it towards parliament in 1867, that women and men should have the same voting rights, but lost the vote by 194 to 73. The Suffragists have been around roughly since this time, but the were formed in 1903.
The Suffragists were mostly middle-class women, led by Millicent Fawcett. They took a more peaceful approach to the suffragette movement, their real name was the: National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Although, their movement was mostly about supporting property-owning middle-class women. The idea behind their peaceful actions was to prove to the government, that women were more than capable of taking part in politics.
However, some of the members felt differently, and believed they should be fighting for the rights for working-class women as well. The famous Emmeline Pankhurst was a Suffragist, until she grew sick and tired of the weak and slow actions of the Suffragists. She wanted a campaign with more action then words, to go ahead, the motto of the Suffragettes was: Deeds not words. They used hunger-strikes, throwing bricks through windows, harassing government figures, and eventually even bombing important sites to get the government’s attention.
The Prime Minister at the time, Herbert Henry Asquith was dead-set against the movement. He was one of the ones who repeatedly refused the bill in parliament. When his government continually refused to give the women the right to vote. The actions of the Suffragette movement grew more serious. The government launched a slander campaign against them. In the media, they were portrayed as ugly, unnatural, and morally corrupt.
Many were arrested after demonstrations and put into prison (like the Black Friday demonstration in 1910). They deemed themselves as political prisoners, so they had hunger strikes. When this happened the government invented ways to force feed them. A Suffragette called Emily Davison became the first martyr, when she was run over by the King’s horse in 1913, during the Derby races. When the war broke out in 1914, it had to be stopped to fight another kind of enemy- the Germans.
A lot of the Suffragettes became part of a society that handed out white feathers, to every man of age, who looked healthy and was not wearing a uniform- to hand them a white feather. A white feather was a symbol of cowardice, its purpose was to shame the man to enlist. During World War One, a lot women had to take the jobs, the men had to leave behind when they went to war.
This gave women freedoms that they would’ve even imagined in the past. However, when the war ended and the surviving men came home. Most of the women had to give up the jobs they’d previously enjoyed, and had to go back to the domestic life they’d known before the war. It is a popular myth that women were given the first steps to voting equality, because of their hard work and them proving themselves during the war; the reality however is different.
The BBC bitesize website says this:
“From the turn of the nineteenth century, political parties such as the Liberals and Labour favoured extending the franchise to sections of the population that were excluded at the time. Women were one such section. Before the war started the issue had been debated in Parliament and there was growing support for granting women the vote. Political recognition of the important role women played during the war further strengthened their case”.
It took another ten years for women to have the same voting rights as men. However, in February 1918, the Representation of People Act, finally provided a step in that direction.