The 1918 Representation of the People Act of 6 February 1918 is one of the cornerstones of our parliamentary democracy. It set the foundations of the principle of ‘one person, one vote’ and established the current, though often disputed, ‘first past the post’ system of deciding which party has the right to form the government. It is best remembered, however, for awarding the right to vote to women in national elections for the first time. After decades of struggle in the suffrage movement, women over the age of 30 and who met established property-holding and similar restrictive criteria were now given the franchise. As a result, women constituted around 43% of the eligible electorate. This was a big step forward, but the terms on which both women and men could vote were not equalised until 1928, after which women constituted almost 53% of those on the electoral roll (largely because the population was still suffering the effects of the demographic imbalance caused by the loss of men’s lives in the First World War).
The 1918 Act was the outcome of a long struggle, and there is a great deal of historiographical controversy about its timing and contents. There were always those who opposed the right of women to vote altogether, and that was especially the case for married women for whom it was assumed their husband would vote on their behalf, or granting them the vote would encourage marital disharmony. Some argued that women’s right to vote in local elections, granted in 1869, was more than enough, and there was no need to extend their franchise entitlements to parliamentary elections.
It is well known that the suffrage movement itself was extremely divided between the more pacifist, parliamentary route ‘Suffragists’ and the more militant ‘Suffragettes’, and there were also splits between more liberal and more conservative-leaning wings on each side of the movement. Many women were willing to suffer for the cause and some gave their lives for it. We should, then, never take our rights to vote lightly.
There are on-going debates amongst historians about whether the activities and assertive speeches of the suffragettes aided or hindered the cause for women’s right to vote. There are also those who suggest that, rather than being an appropriate reward for women’s contributions to the war effort after 1914, the vote would have been granted sooner if Britain had not gone to war.
On 6 February 2018, show your support for women’s suffrage by wearing the colours of the ‘Give Women the Vote’ movement – Green, White and Violet.
This important milestone in our parliamentary democracy is marked by the release of a special 50p coin.