What was the 1918 Representation of the People Act?

This month marks 100 years since the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which tripled the electorate and for the first time granted the vote to (some) women in Great Britain and Ireland. Here we bring you the facts…

A woman votes for the first time in 1918 Britain

What did the act achieve?

The 1918 Representation of the People Act was a parliamentary act passed in the final year of the First World War that tripled suffrage in Britain and Ireland and expanded the franchise to include some women. It entitled all men over the age of 21 to the vote and granted suffrage to women over 30 – as long as they were either owners of property, or married to owners of property.

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In June 1917, the Representation of the People Bill had been passed by a large majority in the House of Commons, with 385 votes for to 55 against. The act became law after receiving Royal Assent on 6 February 1918 and saw the size of the electorate triple from 7.7 million to 21.4 million. It served to add 9.2 million new female voters and 4.5 million new male voters.

The act also stipulated that women were for the first time allowed to sit in the House of Commons. While Irish republican Countess Constance Markievicz was the first woman to be elected to the Commons in December 1918, as a member of Sinn Féin she did not take her seat. It wasn’t until December 1919 that Nancy Astor was successfully elected as the MP for Plymouth Sutton and became the first woman to ever sit in the House of Commons.

Lady Nancy Astor
Lady Nancy Astor photographed in Plymouth during a 1919 election. (Photo by Gill/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Why was the act passed in 1918?

In 1914, at the beginning of the First World War, approximately 60 per cent of adult men were entitled to the vote. As the war progressed, it was clear that electoral reform would be needed to address the fact that many men returning from the war would not be able to vote, as they did not meet existing property qualifications. The 1867 Parliamentary Reform Act had notably granted the vote to occupiers in the boroughs (people who rented properties rather than owning them) as well as lodgers who paid rent of £10 a year or more and in 1884, a Third Reform Act extended these voting rights to the counties. Following the 1884 act, approximately two in three men now had the vote.

Prior to 1914 there had also been significant campaigns demanding suffrage for women. Organised suffrage groups had been active from as early as the 1860s, and in 1897 many local groups came together under the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). At its peak the NUWSS had more than 50,000 members. They were led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett and were often known as suffragists.

In 1903, the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was established by Emmeline Pankhurst. Better known as ‘the suffragettes’, the WSPU became known for its motto “deeds not words”. Disenchanted by the lack of progress with women’s suffrage and convinced that agitation was necessary to promote the cause, the suffragettes caused unrest through visible protest, vandalism and violence, including breaking windows, disrupting political meetings and chaining themselves to railings of 10 Downing Street and other political buildings.

When war arrived in August 1914, campaigners’ activities were largely halted. As many men left home and work to fight in the conflict, women were required to step into roles that had previously been considered outside of their sphere, such as munitions work or farm labour. The contribution by women to the war effort is often seen as instrumental in the fight for women’s suffrage.

Women and boys work a brass-finishing workshop in Westminster, London, during the First World War
Women and boys work a brass-finishing workshop in Westminster, London, during the First World War. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

However, others including social historian Jane Robinson argue that women would have not been allowed to assume these wartime roles had it not been for the progress that had already been made by the suffrage campaigners. Robinson says that the activity of the suffrage campaigners “went a long way to proving that women were responsible and that they had the intelligence and application and articulacy to carry out the new responsibilities that they were given in the First World War, which in turn helped with getting the vote at the end of the war.”

When did all women receive the vote in Britain?

While the 1918 Representation of the People Act notably widened the franchise and paved the way for future reform, it would be another 10 years before all women in Britain would receive the vote. In July 1928, the Equal Franchise Act gave the vote to women on the same terms as men, and stipulated that all adults over the age of 21 could vote.

Women were allowed to sit in the House of Lords as life peers (who are unable to pass their title on to their children) from 1958, but they could not sit as hereditary peers (those who had inherited their titles) until 1963.

A woman votes in 1922
A woman records her vote at the ballot box, c1922. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Was Britain the first country to enfranchise women?

New Zealand was the first nation to explicitly grant women the right to vote, in 1893 – some 25 years before Britain and Ireland. Australia followed suit in 1902, though suffrage was still restricted for indigenous Australians. Finland granted women the right to vote in 1906 and Norway in 1913.

Elsewhere, the campaign for women’s suffrage and other social rights continued after 1918. In the USA, the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified on 18 August 1920, granted all American women the right to vote for the first time. For French campaigners, the female vote wouldn’t come until April 1945, in the first election to be held after the country was liberated from Nazi occupation.

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As part of this year’s commemoration of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, a major exhibition ‘Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament’ will be held in Westminster Hall during the summer of 2018.