Deeds, Not Words: Women’s Right to Vote in the UK

By Eloise O’Carroll
Social Connectedness Fellow 2018

This February marked the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918 in Great Britain and Ireland. This Fourth Act enfranchised 8.4 million women after the Great War. However, women at this time were still not political equals to men. In order to vote, they needed to be over 30 and own property, have husbands who did, or be university graduates.

Given this year’s International Women’s Day theme, #PressforProgress, it is important to highlight how women have and continue to fight for gender inclusivity, just as women in the United Kingdom campaigned for the right to vote in parliamentary elections for over 50 years. During the First World War, women played a crucial role, replacing men in the workforce in transport, farming, and arming industries. Furthermore, the Representation of the People Act, in addition to enfranchising 8.4 million women, enfranchised 5.6 million men. These men had fought in WW1, but were previously unable to vote in general elections for they either had not registered or did not meet residency requirements. Consequently, the 1918 general election featured an electorate three times as large as the previous one.

100 Banners Project – Digital Drama

Following this victory, the ban on women running for Parliament was removed and the first female MP was elected that year.  However, after the February 1918 Act, 60% of women still could not vote. It was not until 1928 that universal suffrage was granted through the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act. In 1929, women made up the majority of the electorate for the first time.

In terms of equal suffrage, how did the UK fare in comparison with other countries?

  • 1893: New Zealand
  • 1902: Australia
  • 1917-1919 for most of Canada (Prince Edward Island in 1922, Newfoundland in 1925 and Quebec in 1940).
  • 1918: Germany
  • 1918 (partial) and 1922 (full): Ireland
  • 1920: USA
  • 1944: France
  • 1971 (for national elections): Switzerland

Universal suffrage was just one achievement for women, alongside maternity leave, equal pay, and domestic violence legislation; but there is still quite a way to go to achieve true gender parity. Today, Britain still lacks equality in its political representation: while women make up more than half of the population, less than a third of MPs are women.

To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People’s Act of 1918, and the continuous work being done towards gender parity, Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness Founder Kim Samuel and I attended a gala fundraiser dinner in support of the wonderful grassroots federation, Women’s Aid, in London. It was a remarkable 1920s-themed event, held at the historic Institute of Directors. In addition to attending this event, I had the opportunity to speak with the organizer, Elizabeth Squire, to find out more about Women’s Aid and what they are striving to accomplish.

Photo by: Women’s Aid

1) Can you please tell me a little about your background?

I am a single mum of two daughters and someone who believes strongly in equality.  I was brought up to believe I could do anything I wanted to do and I think that is how everyone should be brought up. I can’t imagine being constrained into the stereotype of what a woman should and shouldn’t do and not being allowed to vote and not having female politicians to represent the views of over 50% of the populace.  I learnt to fly and then joined the navy and have had an interesting career so far; I have never really felt that I could not do something just because I am a woman.  

2) Why was it important for you to organise this event? 

I have organised a lot of charity events, I started doing charity dinners in 2009 and have done a few events solo as well as many others as part of a committee, I have run or been involved in over 14 fairly large events. Dates are important and although the world is increasingly embracing equality, it is a slow journey and we should remember and celebrate the important milestones along the way.  The Representation of the People Act of 1918 gave 40% of the women in the UK the vote for the first time, but it also gave all men over the age of 21 the vote and this was very important as the government was conscripting men over the age of 18 to fight in WW1 and to be conscripted by a government you didn’t vote for just seems wrong.

Elizabeth Squire – photo by Women’s Aid

3) How did you become to support the work of Women’s Aid?

I wanted to choose a charity that worked for women who needed help and Women’s Aid does that by working with Refuge to run the free helpline for battered women. It also supports survivors and their children as they recover from their experiences. As this was a political anniversary it seemed right to choose a charity that also believes in educating young people about what a part of a proper relationship looks like, i.e. one where there is not abuse. I contacted Women’s Aid and from the first phone call they were very willing to be involved and were a huge help in organising and running the dinner. Especially Charlie Dunlavey who was fantastic.

4) March 8th marked International Women’s Day. Who is your woman role model and why? 

On 8 March I held my final charity dinner committee meeting, to discuss what we did right and how we can improve for future events, it seemed an appropriate day to hold it. It’s hard to name just one female role model as there have been so many strong women who have inspired me, from Elizabeth I, Emily Davies for setting up Girton College at the University of Cambridge in 1869, Nancy Astor (the first female to take her seat in parliament in the UK in 1919), Amelia Earhart for her flying exploits, Margret Thatcher for being the first female political leader of a European country and I haven’t even started on scientists, artists, engineers, mathematicians, athletes, musicians etc!  We take a little inspiration from almost everyone we meet but I have to say a special thank you to my late mum for teaching me not to fear boundaries.

Dame Julie Walters & guest – photo by Digital Drama

As we all continue to #PressforProgress, there are a number of initiatives in the UK in which you can get involved. The British Parliament’s Vote 100 program is a year-long series of events that includes free talks focusing on women’s suffrage and women in parliament. EqualiTeas tea parties offer the chance to learn and celebrate women’s suffrage. In addition, Royal Holloway at the University of London has produced a massive open online course called Beyond the Ballot: Women’s Rights and Suffrage from 1866 to Today that is open to the public. Elsewhere, the Museum of London is hosting a “Votes for Women” exhibition and Westminster Halls is covering the Women’s Place in Parliament in their exhibition. Finally, you can read Helena Pankhurt’s book, Deeds not Words, on the evolution of women’s rights in the UK. She is the great-granddaughter of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, who in 1903 founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, an all-women suffrage advocacy organization dedicated to “deeds, not words.”

With women’s rights issues increasingly coming to the fore globally, it is important that we never stop pressing for progress. Gender Parity is not a one-day concern but something women and men have been continuously fighting for over time. How will you #PressforProgress?