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Historians’ view


Can the passing of the Representation of the People Act in 1918 – which, for the rst time, gave some women the vote – be attributed to the su rage campaign, the First World War, or other factors? Julia Bush: The suffrage campaign and the First World War both contributed to the timing and specific content of the 1918 act. However, it was probably inevitable that a century of democratisation, accompanied by growing government involvement in education and social welfare reform, would eventually encompass votes for women.

Long-term, peaceful pressure from the organised suffrage campaign helped move this change slowly forward. The war, combined with prewar suffragette militancy, initially delayed suffrage legislation. But by 1917–18 it was generally accepted that serving soldiers had earned the right to vote. As a result, when legislation was passed in 1918, it enfranchised all men over the age of 21, and also gave the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification.

Older women were included less because of their war work than because politicians hoped they would provide conservative ballast within the new mass electorate, reinforcing the stability of a society threatened by war and the spectre of Bolshevism.

Jad Adams: The act was part of a wave of national enfranchisements that started in 1893 with New Zealand and which was la rgely completed by Switzerland in 1971. Britain was no pioneer. Seven countries had enfranchised women before Britain, and at least another seven enfranchised in the same year, 1918.

The most important common factor in the enfranchisements of women was the re-evaluation of national identity in the face of catastrophes such as war, revolution or independence struggles. Old ideas had to be rejected and the nation reformed. This is what happened in Britain in the wake of the sacrifices of the First World War, with the granting of universal male suffrage and a limited franchise for women.

June Purvis: Some historians claim that it was women’s war work during the First World War that won the vote, ignoring the fac t that working-class women under 30 who staffed the munitions factories were not included in the 1918 act. Others suggest that the war itself made progress possible, with minimal involvement from suffrage organisations.

Fear of a militant suffragette revival was a significant factor in the granting of the vote. The prewar suffrage campaign transformed individual self-fulfillment was often tempered, and sometimes submerged, by a strong sense of gendered responsibility.

Middle-class women hoped that the vote would strengthen their role as carers and moral guardians within their own families and throughout the wider society of Britain and its empire. For poorer women, the vote also represented a route towards the economic security that was an essential underpinning for successful family life. Working-class suffragists realised that government legislation was needed to supplement trade union efforts to improve living standards.

Christabel Pankhurst (left) with her mother, Emmeline, in 1903. The legacy of these most famous of suffragettes divides our panel

“The Pankhursts e ectively promised their followers paradise if they made su cient sacri ces”


JA: Both constitutional suffragists and militant suffragettes believed the national vote was the key which would lead to a nation in which all the moral impurities of society were legislated away.

The leading suffragette Christabel Pankhurst coined the slogan ‘votes for women and chastity for men’ and, in her book The Great Scourge and How to End It, promoted the franchise as a response to syphilis. Pankhurst believed that, if women had political power, men could be obliged to behave with the same restraint expected of Victorian ladies: having sex with only one person and then only after marriage. It was simplistic notions like this that appalled female commentators such as journalist Eliza Lynn Linton and led them to say that if women really thought they were going to impose polite drawing room manners on political life they had better not have the vote.

women’s perception of themselves and the public’s perception of women.

Fern Riddell: The act was passed partly due to the spectre of the return of suffragette violence. Having overseen the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)’s arson and bombing campaign before the war, Emmeline Pankhurst acted as a British diplomatic envoy to Russia in 1917. She persuaded the British government to send her to speak as one violent revolutionary leader to another. Russia granted female suffrage in July 1917, and it was clear that the intense violence of the WSPU, which stopped after the outbreak of the First World War, could begin again if British women did not get the vote.

What did women feel the vote could bring them, long-term? JB: Women’s aspirations varied, then as now. Most suffragists hoped that the vote would improve their lives by increasing their autonomy, whether within marriage or as single women. However, the desire for

JP: The lack of the vote was seen as the most significant symbol of women’s inferior status in society. Once the vote was won, it was felt that all kinds of inequalities that women experienced would be swept away.

Has the role of the Pankhurst family been exaggerated in the ght for women’s su rage? JP: No. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, the co-leaders of the WSPU, were charismatic and powerful speakers who, with their cry of ‘Rise up, women!’, encouraged thousands of women to demand their democratic right to the parliamentary vote in a mass movement unparalleled in British politics.

JB: The role of the Pankhurst family holds unjustified sway within most popular representations of the suffrage movement and has also been exaggerated by some historians. The Pankhursts’ iconic leadership repelled as well as attracted many contemporaries, and the escalating violence of the militant campaign made it impossible for the prewar government to ‘surrender’ to suffragist




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