Women, the War and the Vote

Suffragette postcard. Image: Queensferry History Group

The Suffrage Movement, Women and the War Effort, Peoples Reform Act 1918

World War I was to bring about many social changes for both men and women.

The Suffrage Movement

The first of 16,000 petitions was presented to Parliament in 1866 containing over 3 million signatures petitioning for women to have the same voting rights as men. Between 1867 and 1876, 2 million signatures were collected in Scotland alone. The failure of these in Parliament led to the formation in 1887 of the peaceful National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

West Lothian’s first Suffragette meeting was in 1909 and by 1914 there were Suffragette meetings being held in most of West Lothian (Queensferry was a Royal Burgh of West Lothian until 1975 when it became part of Edinburgh).

In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union in Manchester. This was the start of the militant Suffragette movement. The first Scottish militant demonstration took place in Glasgow in 1909 where women forced their way into a political meeting for the publicity and to encourage more women to join the cause.

© IMW (Q 81488) – Christabel Pankhurst speaking at a rally, Trafalgar Square, London, 1908.

In March 1912, many Scots women marched from Edinburgh to London to participate in a three-day window smashing raid resulting in over 200 arrests and imprisonments in Holloway, subsequently going on hunger strike in protest and in some cases being force fed.

Glass Smashing For Votes Suffragettes As Window Breakers Magazine Original Photo Article – Source – The Illustrated London News ( Weekly Publication / Magazine) Date – March 1912
Postcard (private collection) – Suffragette Paint vandalism.
Postcard from private collection, Suffragette being force-fed.

In 1913 in Scotland, acid attacks on pillar boxes began, destroying letters. The attacks escalated to arson on important buildings. Scotland’s first case of force feeding was in 1914 in Carlton Jail, Edinburgh.

The onset of World War 1 saw an end to the militant activities of the WSPU, (to be started up again after the war), women took up the work of the men who enlisted and they threw themselves into supporting Britain.

Women undertook various non-combat roles at home and abroad in the theatres of War in France, Flanders, Greece & Italy. Many uniformed groups were formed from 1917 onwards such as the Women’s Land Army in 1917-1919, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the Women’s Royal Air Force.

Women and the War Effort

Among the work at home, women were employed as mechanics, chimney sweeps, road sweepers, funeral directors, bricklayers, coal heavers and worked in steelyards, breweries and munitions factories to mane but a few. By 1918 women could be found doing labour intensive work in all areas of shipyards.

Women were expected to do the same hours and work as men, for half the pay, even though many were the sole breadwinners of families deprived of fathers by war, and frequently they were castigated for being unwomanly.

© IWM (Q 3392) Two British women ambulance drivers who were decorated with the Belgian and French Croix de Guerre seen by their ambulance, Brussels,1918
© IWM (Q 27255) Air Mechanics of the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) working on the fuselage of an Avro 504 aircraft during early 1919.

Peoples Reform Act 1918

Representation of the People Act 1918 (Fourth Reform Act)

With a general Election looming and so many men away serving their King and Country, changes had to be made in Parliament. Only men who were leaseholders and had been resident in the country for 12 months prior to a general election were entitled to vote, which was 58% of the adult male population. This effectively disqualified returning troops who had been serving overseas in the war.

With a general election imminent, the Representation of the People Act, February 1918, abolished all restrictions for men over the age of 21. Additionally, men in the armed forces could vote from the age of 19. In recognition of the Suffrage Movement and the work women undertook for the war effort, women over the age of 30, who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or graduates of British universities, were granted voting rights. 8.5 million met this criteria, representing 40% of the population of women in the UK.

The age 30 requirement was to ensure women did not become the majority of the electorate. If women had been enfranchised based upon the same requirements as men, they would have been in the majority, due to the loss of men in the war.

The Act also instituted the present system of holding general elections on one day; and brought in the annual electoral register.

These changes saw the size of the electorate triple from 7.7 million to 21.4 million. Women now accounted for about 43% of the electorate but there was still huge inequality between women and men.

The General Election was held on 14th December 1918 with a 57.2% turn out. It was a landslide victory for the coalition government of David Lloyd George.

Other Acts followed:

The Parliament (Qualification of Women Act) 1918 gave women over 21 the right to stand for election as an MP, (although once elected, their treatment by the men was appalling). It did not alter the minimum age for a woman to vote in an election.

Equal Franchise Act 1928 gave women over 21 the right to vote finally achieving the same voting rights as men. This act increased the number of women eligible to vote to 15 million. There have been many changes since then and the fight for women’s equality still continues to this day!

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