The following is a guest post by Clare Feikert-Ahalt, foreign law specialist for the United Kingdom at the Law Library of Congress. This is the second post in a two part series. To read the first post, click here.
Parliamentary Actions and Activities
A Parliamentary Committee for Women’s Suffrage was established in December 1893 as a non-party organization to provide women with the vote and worked to promote all bills and amendments that would help this cause. By 1897 the Committee had 31 members and at this time it became a Conservative Party committee.
In the years 1910-1912, the government considered various Conciliation Bills, which were introduced by backbench members of Parliament and would have provided some women who owned property with the right to vote, but none were enacted. In 1913, the Women’s Suffrage Bill was introduced as a private members bill, but did not make it past the second reading, when it was defeated by 269 votes to 221.
World War I
While there was some support for women’s suffrage in Parliament, the majority continued to oppose extending the vote to women, and this opposition continued until World War I. The outbreak of war in 1914 led many suffragette activities, particularly militant acts, to come to an abrupt halt, with many organizations suspending their work. At this time, the government granted amnesty to women’s suffrage prisoners. As part of the amnesty, the Home Office compiled a list of the names and addresses of all the people arrested from 1906-1914 for activities related to women’s suffrage, along with the places and number of times they were arrested. The list covered over 1,300 arrests of over 900 female and male suffrage campaigners.
In 1916, during the midst of the war, the government had a fragile coalition and, while an election was not immediately necessary, one was needed. Attention was turned toward electoral law as during the war, the electoral register had not been updated. It became readily apparent that if a new register was prepared a significant number of electors would be unable to register. Some estimates showed that only 50% of the electorate would have been able to register, as the law provided that only men resident in their constituencies for 12 months or more prior to the election could vote. The Prime Minister noted that any Parliament elected using that register “would command no moral authority either in this country or in Europe.” With the prospect of a general election looming and a significant number of the electorate disenfranchised, the government faced significant pressure to ensure that soldiers who had fought overseas during the war and others who were absent from their homes due to the war effort were not ineligible to vote upon their return.
The Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform
The government initially sought to create a select committee to consider electoral issues but faced significant opposition due to concerns that such committees did not have any power to make binding recommendations. The government instead followed a suggestion that a conference be established instead. The Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform on 1916-17 was subsequently created to consider electoral reforms:
with regard to the Parliament which is going to undertake the work of reconstruction after the War, it is eminently desirable that you should provide an electoral basis which will make that Parliament reflective and representative of the general opinion of the country, and give to its decisions a moral authority which you cannot obtain from what I may call a scratch, improvised and makeshift electorate. Let us by all means use the time—those of us who are not absolutely absorbed in the conduct of the War—in those months to see if we cannot work out by general agreement some scheme under which, both as regards the electorate and the distribution of electoral power, a Parliament can be created at the end of the War capable and adequate for discharging these tasks, and commanding the confidence of the country.
The Conference brought MPs and peers who represented opposing viewpoints together to “find a solution which may be a lasting settlement of a very old and difficult problem” that Parliament would find acceptable.
The Speaker’s Conference issued a report in the form of a letter to the Prime Minister in 1917. The document was short and concise at only nine pages. It contained a number of recommendations that covered the reduction of the qualifying period for registration from 12 to six months, reformation of the franchise for male voters, and the redistribution of parliamentary seats and votes for soldiers and sailors. Towards the end of the document, two short paragraphs were included with a sentence that simply stated “[t]he Conference decided by a majority that some measure of woman [sic] suffrage should be conferred.”
The Representation of the People Bill was subsequently introduced, using the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference as “a blueprint for what was politically possible.” The government noted that women’s suffrage leader Ms. Fawcett had informed Walter Long that the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and a further 22 organizations under its umbrella, would accept the main recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference “as a reasonable compromise” if they were put forward in a bill. Long considered this an important step as he considered the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference contained limited concessions that could be accepted by those who, like himself, were strongly opposed to women’s suffrage.
Votes for Women
The Representation of the People Act 1918 was enacted and provided limited voting rights to women. Section 4 of this Act provided that a woman was entitled to vote if:
• she was over the age of 30 years;
• she was not subject to any legal incapacity; and
• either she, or her husband, was entitled to register to vote in a local government election, which were based on the property qualifications of occupying a home or owning land or premises with an annual value of a minimum of £5 (approximately US$6.50) in the constituency; or
• she was eligible to vote in a university constituency if she had graduated or passed the qualifications for graduation at a British university.
The first draft of the bill only provided the vote to women who had graduated from university. At the time, some universities would not award degrees to women, even if they had successfully completed the required course of study. This provision was removed prior to the passage of the bill, enabling anyone who held a degree, or who had carried out a course of study that could be awarded a degree, to vote. The act also removed the prohibition originally presented in the bill that prevented women from voting in local government elections if their husbands could vote in this election on the basis of owning or inhabiting the same property.
While the act was progressive by the standards of the day, universal suffrage for women was not considered at the time, as it would have resulted in more women than men having the vote. Thus women’s right to vote was more restricted than that of men. The requirement that women be aged 30 or older to be eligible to vote while men could vote at age 21 was an attempt to balance the views of all MPs and peers in order to ensure the passage of the bill through Parliament. The bill also effectively served to disenfranchise 22% of women over the age of 30 from voting due to the requirement that to be eligible women must be qualified to vote in local council elections.
While the act will primarily be remembered by many as introducing the vote to women, it also served to introduce near universal suffrage to men. Prior to the act, around 58% of men could vote; the remaining 42% were ineligible due to residency restrictions or other issues. The act abolished the property and other restrictions for men and allowed almost all men over the age of 21 and those serving in the armed forces from the age of 19 to vote, adding almost two million men to the electorate.
The government’s change in attitude towards women and the vote may, in part, be attributable to women who had promoted suffrage and stepped down from that platform to aid the war efforts, which was still underway during debates on the bill. Others have seen the bill as rewarding women for their efforts during World War I, when over two million women assumed jobs that were traditionally filled only by men. These roles, however, were primarily filled by women who remained disenfranchised. As can be seen above, many other factors also influenced the legislation, including the significant groundwork that occurred before the war, a wish from both sides not to return to the militant methods of the suffragettes, and a general shift in social attitudes.
Result of the Representation of the People Act 1918
The Representation of the People Act 1918 enfranchised approximately 8.5 million women for the first time. This comprised around 40% of women across the UK, who were eligible to vote for the first time in the “Victory” general election on December 14, 1918. The result of the act in the government was uncertainty caused by concern not only over how the first women to vote would do so, but also over logistical issues, such as updating the electoral register and how to store the large volume of extra ballot papers. Despite the tireless work over the previous century by women’s suffrage organizations to ensure that women could vote, the election saw the lowest turnout ever recorded. While the 1918 Act was welcomed by many, a significant number of women were still unable to vote and continued to press the government for change, which happened over the following decade.