One hundred years ago, the efforts of countless women over generations to win their democratic rights as citizens of the United Kingdom came to fruition with the passing of two Acts of Parliament.
February 2018 sees the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act, which finally gave women the vote. Similarly, in November of 1918 the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act allowed women to stand as Members of Parliament for the first time. These new rights were first used on 14th December 1918 when 8.5 million women became eligible to vote.
Decades of hard labour in Victorian mills and mines as well as the munitions factories of the First World War gave women a vital economic standpoint from which to argue that they should be able to vote. However, despite women proving themselves time and again to be responsible and steadfast citizens, it wasn’t until the launch of a spirited and relentless political campaign that their democratic rights were finally achieved. The campaign was led by the twin movements of the Suffragettes and Suffragists. Although these groups used different methods to achieve their aims, there is no doubt that together their campaigns provided a powerful voice for many women.
The Suffragettes - led by Emmeline Pankhurst - focused on direct actions such as chaining themselves to the railings of the Houses of Parliament. These tactics would later be replicated by other women's political movements such as the protest at Greenham Common. The Suffragists, by contrast, adopted a more traditional approach by utilising tactics such as petitioning and lobbying Members of Parliament. Nonetheless both groups were united by a common sentiment best expressed by Pankhurst’s rallying cry: ‘I would rather be a rebel than a slave’.
Whilst we should celebrate the achievements of these women, it must be remembered that the legislation passed in 1918 only ‘gave’ the vote to women over the age of 30, and only then if they or their husbands met the property qualifications stipulated. Women had to wait another 10 years to achieve the vote on an equal basis with men.
Women’s suffrage was not a new or unusual phenomenon. Mary Wollstonecraft had argued for equal rights in her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, and all through the 19th century women were active in campaigning for parliamentary reform, most notably as part of the great Chartist actions of the 1840s. This grass roots activism kept the issue of female suffrage alive despite the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884 rejecting the proposal.
It wasn’t until the United Kingdom’s male-dominated political establishment was challenged by the creation of the Labour Party in 1900 that the issue of female suffrage became much more urgent. The Labour Party was in favour of women’s suffrage from its beginning, with both Keir Hardie and George Lansbury being strong supporters.
At the turn of the century, the campaign to win the vote for women was launched with passion, capitalising on the changes then occurring in society. The issue of female emancipation was rarely out of the public eye - especially when many countries had already given women the vote, starting with New Zealand in 1893.
Faced with opposition from powerful figures in the UK government, a private members’ bill to give women the vote was heavily defeated in 1907. This proved that however logical the case for female suffrage, a far more dramatic change of thought was required within the dominant political parties of the time to get such a bill passed. It would take the sacrifice of many, both on and off the battlefield, to alter a nation’s views.
In 1918, the newly formed Cheltenham Labour Party elected five women to senior positions on its new working committee. Well before the era of women-only short lists, the Cheltenham Labour Party supported women to become parliamentary candidates. Prominent among these were Florence Widdowson (its very first candidate in 1928) and Elizabeth Pakenham. This trend has continued throughout the party’s 100-year history with five women candidates standing for the town.
We should be rightly proud of these achievements in the realm of women’s suffrage, and celebrate those who helped build the more egalitarian society we have today.