Woman’s suffrage in the UK was literally a hard-fought battle. It took a century of persuasion, decades of protest and even the horrors of the First World War for it to happen, but finally – on 6 February 1918 – David Lloyd-George’s government enfranchised 8 million British women over 30.
As Time Magazine would comment 80 years later, this move,
“shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back”.
In the early 19th century, Britain had been the birthplace of some of the world’s first gender equality movements as writers like Mary Wollstonecraft began to question the role of women in society.
It was a question that was given increasing thought by liberal male thinkers too as the century wore on, most famously John Stuart Mill, who wrote an essay called The Subjugation of Women in 1869.
When elected to parliament Mill campaigned to a change in the franchise laws, but met with a largely stony response from an all-male parliament.
As a result, despite increasing attention and support for their bid to gain voting rights, women’s concrete political position had changed little by the turn of the century.
Two major events changed this:
1. The rise of Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragette movement
Before Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (the WSPU) protest had largely been confined to intellectual debate, letters to MPs and pamphlets, but the charismatic woman from Manchester mobilised larger numbers and new more headline-grabbing tactics in the first decade of the new century.
Though not always clever (they attempted to burn down David Lloyd-George’s house despite him supporting women’s suffrage) or dignified, their new shock tactics won the WSPU (or suffragettes as they were now known) greatly increased press coverage and awareness to their cause.
Their cause was taken up by many people of both genders once they’d seen the lengths that these women were willing to go to.
The ultimate symbolic moment was the death of Emily Davidson in 1913 after she was trampled while trying to interfere with the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby.
As these public protests and marches grew ever more dramatic, the government knew that something would eventually have to be done. The following year, however, the issue was dwarfed by World War One.
2. World War One
During the fighting, the suffragettes recognised both the gravity of the situation and the opportunity that it presented to women, and agreed to work with the government.
As the war dragged on, more and more men disappeared to the front and industrial production came to increasingly dominate domestic issues, women became heavily involved in the factories and other jobs that were now open to them.
Far from slowing things down as some managers may have feared, this proved to be an immense success, and eased the burden on a country where young men were in short supply by 1918.
Having worked with the government and made a large contribution to the effort, Lloyd-George – who was now Liberal Prime Minister – knew that he had good grounds for finally changing the law.
The Representation of the People Act 1918
The war was far from over when women over 30 who met certain property rights were historically given the vote on 6 February 1918, but it was the first sign of the new Britain that would emerge from it.
With all the complacency of Imperial hegemony shaken terribly, nothing would ever be the same again.
The qualifications on age and property were based on the concerns that many MPs had that due to the serious manpower shortage in the country, universal female suffrage would mean that their share of the vote would go from 0 to an overwhelming majority overnight, and so complete equality would take another ten years.
Britain elected its first female Prime Minister – Margaret Thatcher – in 1979.