February 6th, 2018 marks the 100 year anniversary of the Representation of the People Act; a law passed by the UK government which reformed the electoral system, giving women in Great Britain and Ireland the vote for the first time.
The reform, following decades of initially peaceful and then militant campaigning, permitted property-owning women over the age of 30, as well as graduates from British universities, to vote. This represented 40% of the total population of women in the UK and it was not until 1928 that women were given the vote on equal terms with men.
Many factors contributed to the passing of the act, including the vital role played by women during World War I and most notably the women’s suffrage movement.
Millicent Fawcett's National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), founded in 1897 and composed of local suffragist groups, used peaceful tactics and lobbied the government for the vote for property owning middle class women. Emmeline Pankhurst, along with other members of the NUWSS, demanded the inclusion of working class women and also believed that these traditional political methods would not gain results. They instead broke from the union in 1903 and formed The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), whose motto, Deeds not Words underlined the difference in approaches of the groups.
The WSPU were more militant in their methods, setting fire to buildings, marching, disrupting political meetings, chaining themselves to railings of Buckingham Palace and going on hunger strike when they were sent to prison. One of their most notorious acts took place at the Epsom Derby in 1913 when Emily Wilding Davison, a veteran of many previous campaigns, threw herself at the king’s horse, sustaining injuries that resulted in her death.
Davison’s death was seen as a turning point for the movement and a defining moment in British political history. The following year saw the outbreak of World War I when the WSPU suspended their activities, the government declared an amnesty and all of the imprisoned hunger strikers were released. Emmeline Pankhurst instead helped the government to recruit women into war work.
Support and sympathy from the Edwardian public had also increased during these years, as well as growing cross party support from many members of parliament who believed that women deserved the vote due to their conduct during the war. The involvement of women in the war effort had served to pave the way for changing perceptions of the role of women in British society. They had undertaken jobs ordinarily carried out by men and proved that they could do the work just as well.
You can learn more about the history of the women’s vote by signing up to Royal Holloway’s free online course, ‘Beyond the Ballot: Women’s Rights and Suffrage from 1866 to today’. This free online course explores the campaign for votes for women and its impact on women’s rights and equality to the present day.