Female suffrage: Victory at last!

This year marks the centenary of the moment that millions of British women won the right to vote. Here, Diane Atkinson takes the pulse of the nation in 1918 when women went to the polls

A woman casts her vote, accompanied by her children, in December 1918. Women weren't as "timid and uncertain at the polling stations as had generally been anticipated", reported 'The Times'. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the February 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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It was “almost the happiest moment of my life”, remembered the novelist Evelyn Sharp, a leading suffragette and member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), as she walked down Whitehall with her friends Henry Nevinson and Bertha Brewster on 6 February 1918. “To live to see the triumph of a ‘lost’ cause for which we have suffered much and would have sacrificed everything, must be almost the greatest of human delights.”

Her joy stemmed from the Representation of the People Act, which passed into law that day, giving all men over the age of 21, and certain women over the age of 30, the vote.

Savouring the moment, Sharp remembered “friends lost by the way and friends gained in the struggle of horrid disillusionment and transfiguring revelation; memories that hurt so much they had to be buried out of sight, and memories so illumined by fine behaviour and delicious humour that they would remain a precious possession until the end of life”.

The act was the culmination of a prolonged and sometimes dangerous campaign to secure women’s suffrage, but it was also a response to the First World War. When war broke out on 4 August 1914, suffrage campaigners were quick to react: the moderate suffragists of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Mrs Millicent Fawcett, continued to campaign for the vote, and took up war work (although some were unhappy about appearing to support the conflict). Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, leading figures in the militant WSPU, also urged all women to support the war effort but suspended their struggle.

Absent without votes

In 1916, it became clear that thousands of men who had volunteered to fight had lost the right to vote by default, since the law stated that those absent from their homes were to be disenfranchised. This was potentially embarrassing to the government, so plans were made not just to re-enfranchise male voters but to extend the vote to all men (40 per cent of men did not have the vote at this time). With many opponents of women’s suffrage in the prewar years having now left the political landscape, the government also decided to reward British women for their vital war work by giving some of them the vote.

Two weeks before the act became law, a cartoon titled ‘At Last!’ had appeared in Punch magazine (no friend to the women’s suffrage movement), depicting Joan of Arc, who was the patron saint of the WSPU. Bare-headed Joan plants her boots on a bleak landscape, her uniform tattered by years of battle, her right hand holding a ‘Woman’s Franchise’ flag, a burst of light behind her suggesting that women’s freedom was dawning. The cartoon (shown below) described the sense of relief that the vote had finally been won.

The victory was not complete, however. Women could only vote if they were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, or graduates of British universities, or similarly qualified. And, of course, they weren’t granted the franchise until they were 30.

The official reason that women had to wait nine years longer than men was that they were said to be too immature to vote. The truth was somewhat different: if enfranchised on equal terms with men, women would have outnumbered male voters in the electorate – a bewildering proposition to many people.

Too sorrowful to celebrate

There were no public celebrations to mark this historic moment. Britain was still at war, the outcome by no means certain. Daily casualty figures of the dead, missing and wounded filled the newspapers. Triumphalism was thought unseemly. Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, a pacifist and socialist, encapsulated the mood: “The fight for womanhood suffrage had been won,” but “the pageantry and rejoicing, the flaming ardour, which in prewar days would have greeted the victory, were absent when it [the vote] came. The sorrows of the world conflict precluded jubilations.”

“When we got the vote, it was a sort of an anti-climax actually,” said suffragette Mary Phillips, who had served five months in prison, during which she had been force-fed. “It came in such a sneaky way. You couldn’t rejoice as you would have done if it had come at a time of militancy. But still it was very good to feel that it was finished and that we had been contributors towards it.”

Lilian Lenton, a suffragette arsonist, was 27 years old in 1918 and so ineligible to vote: “I was extremely pleased we got the vote but very disgusted at the curious terms on which we got it… I didn’t vote for a very long time because I hadn’t either a husband or furniture.”

Conversely, Jessie Stephenson, disowned by her family for campaigning for the vote, was optimistic about the future: “Woman now has in her hands the key to get repealed the scandalous laws made against her in the past… we surviving warriors, battered, mauled and mostly worn-out, look confi-dently to her… and hand the key to the coming generation to unlock the door to Freedom and Equal Opportunity.”

It was clear that women’s suffrage was not universally applauded and often there was unpleasantness when eligible women went to register their vote in readiness for the next general election. A niece of suffragist Maud Arncliffe Sennett told her aunt that she and her friend had “spent all morning trying to find the place without success. Everyone we asked was so nasty. I can quite understand how beastly it must have been to have had that wall of insulting prejudice against one in every turn, if they are like this now that it is won!”

Despite such obstacles, the campaign for equality continued apace. In March 1918 the NUWSS vowed to campaign for women to have the vote at 21 and obtain “reforms, economic, legislative, and social, as are necessary to secure a real equality of liberties, status, and opportunities between men and women”.

One significant victory in this campaign arrived on 21 November 1918 with the passing of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, which allowed women to stand as candidates to become members of parliament.

In the thick of the dangerous and daring suffragette campaign, few would have imagined that 8.4 million women would soon be legally entitled to vote. Fewer still would have anticipated that some of them would be able to cast that vote for a female candidate.

But that’s exactly what many of them did when, on 14 December 1918, women went to the polls for the first time in British parliamentary history. Media interest at the prospect of women voting for the first time was feverish. Because several million men were away in theatres of war around the world (the Armistice to end the conflict had only been signed on 11 November), the count was not held until 28 December.

With so many soldiers still abroad, in many parts of London female voters outnumbered men by 20 to 1. Women “gave much less trouble at the polling stations than was feared by pessimists,” reported The Times. Many were determined that “their household cares should not be an obstacle to their exercise of the franchise. Nor were they so timid and uncertain at the polling stations as had generally been anticipated.” The fact that many of the polling clerks were young women “ready to give advice and assistance” put the “women voters more at ease”. The Times‘ impression was that more women voted in constituencies with a female candidate.

The reporters learned that female candidates in London had organised “bands of women helpers to mind the homes and look after the baby, and even cook the mid-day meal, while the wives went to vote”. Many mothers took their older children with them to the polling station, and in the evening wives and husbands went to vote together. The elderly and infirm were frequently taken in cars arranged by the female candidates. (The eldest female voter was a Mrs Lambert of Edmonton, aged 105. She told a reporter she would vote for the man who would “have that beast of a kaiser shot”.)

The Daily News reported that supporters of one candidate, Emily Frost Phipps, had installed a polling booth in her committee rooms in the King’s Road, Chelsea, so that women could practise voting. A woman helped Mary Macarthur’s candidacy in Stourbridge by looking after 60 babies while their mothers went to the polls.

The leading lights

The consensus was that, of the 17 women to stand for election, Christabel Pankhurst, the feminist campaigner Ray (Rachel) Strachey, women’s trade unionist Mary Macarthur, and Violet Markham, formerly a leading light of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, were the most likely to be returned to parliament.

The 17 female candidates won a total of 58,978 votes. Christabel Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Party (formerly the WSPU), polled the most of these (8,614 votes in Smethwick) but was bitterly disappointed to lose by 775 votes. Although the subsequent Sexual Disqualification Removal Act (1919) would allow women to enter many professions – though not the church – Christabel did not then go on to use her first-class law degree. Instead she devoted the rest of her life to Seventh Day Adventism, travelling around America evangelising for the second coming of Jesus.

Violet Markham’s bid to be an MP was curious: her hostile views had mellowed when confronted by the great inequality women suffered during the war, and she became a feminist campaigner. Somewhat half-heart edly, she stood for her brother Arthur’s seat, which he had held from 1900 until his death from a heart attack in 1916. She polled 4,000 votes as an independent liberal in Mansfield, losing out to Labour’s William Carter, who won almost 9,000 votes.

Alice Lucas, a widow, represented the Conservatives in her late husband’s Kennington constituency, following his death three days before the election. Like many candidates – male and female – Lucas’s manifesto was trenchantly anti-German and anti-pacifist. If elected, she said she would make sure the Germans paid the full price of the war, the kaiser and all “guilty Huns” would be brought to trial, and conscientious objectors would remain in prison “until it is impossible for them to snatch the jobs which are rightfully the reward of our returning heroes”. Lucas won 3,573 votes, just over 1,000 fewer than the Liberal party’s Henry Purchase.

In fact, the only woman to win a seat in the historic December 1918 election was one who had recently earned a reprieve from the death sentence. Constance Markiewicz, whose name was put forward to represent Sinn Féin in the constituency of St Patrick’s in Dublin, polled 7,835 votes, and duly became the first woman to be elected to the British parliament. Markiewicz was in Holloway prison (having earlier been jailed for her part in the Easter Rising of 1916) when her victory was announced. She would refuse to take her seat when she was released.

It would be another year before a female MP would finally enter parliament – and, like Constance Markiewicz, that woman was not a leading light of the suffrage campaign. Nancy Astor had never agitated for votes for women. In fact, if her husband, Waldorf Astor, MP for Plymouth Sutton, hadn’t quit the Commons to take his dead father’s seat in the House of Lords, she would never have stood for parliament at all. But, wishing to keep the seat warm for her eldest son Bill, that’s exactly what she did. And, on 28 November 1919, she won the seat with a majority of 5,000, polling 51 per cent of the vote.

The day after Astor’s victory, a large crowd congregated at Paddington station to catch sight of this unlikely pioneer of women’s suffrage as she changed trains en route to the family estate at Cliveden. When Astor emerged from her carriage, a group of suffragettes, some of whom had been force-fed, pushed their way to the front. One presented the new MP with a badge, saying: “It is the beginning of our era. I am glad I have suffered for this.”

Bathroom outrage

Women had won the right to vote and to stand for election to the House of Commons – but now they wanted more. The same year as Astor’s political triumph, the NUWSS elected Eleanor Rathbone as its leader, and changed its name to the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC). They campaigned for the vote for women at 21, for equal pay for equal work (still not fully achieved), reform of the divorce law, and widows’ pensions, equal rights of guardianship of children, and access of women to the legal profession.

The momentum appeared to be with them. But that did not mean that all politicians approved of such progress. Winston Churchill, who was one of the suffragettes’ most implacable enemies in the prewar years, was appalled at the arrival of Lady Nancy Astor in the House: “I find a woman’s intrusion into the House of Commons as embarrassing as if she burst into my bathroom when I had nothing with which to defend myself, not even a sponge,” he declared.

Years later, Nancy Astor recalled that much of the hostility directed towards her came, not from her political enemies, but from “men whom I had known for years [who] would not speak to me if they passed me in the corridor”.

Despite such antipathy, Astor would still be walking those corridors a quarter of a century later. Twenty-four female MPs were elected to parliament in the general election of 1945, the year that Astor finally quit her seat. By 2017’s general election, that number had risen to 208. Women may still account for fewer than one in three MPs but, to the campaigners who sacrificed so much in the fraught years leading to the historic 1918 election, that figure would surely have offered some cause for celebration.

Diane Atkinson is a historian and author. Her latest book is Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes (Bloomsbury, 2018). She was a consultant on the 2015 film Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan

Book: The Suffragettes in Pictures by Diane Atkinson (History Press, 2010)

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Radio: BBC Radio 4’s documentary Sylvia Pankhurst: the Honorary Ethiopian airs on 5 February