1918 Qualification of Women Act

In January, 1917, the House of Commons began discussing the possibility of granting women the vote in parliamentary elections. Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister during the militant suffrage campaign, had always been totally against women having the vote. However, during the debate he confessed he had changed his mind and now supported the claims of the NUWSS, WSPU and the Women's Freedom League.

On 28th March, 1917, the House of Commons voted 341 to 62 that 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. MPs rejected the idea of granting the vote to women on the same terms as men. Lilian Lenton, who had played an important role in the militant campaign later recalled: "Personally, I didn't vote for a long time, because I hadn't either a husband or furniture, although I was over 30."

Soon afterwards Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst established the The Women's Party. Its twelve-point programme included: (1) A fight to the finish with Germany. (2) More vigorous war measures to include drastic food rationing, more communal kitchens to reduce waste, and the closing down of nonessential industries to release labour for work on the land and in the factories. (3) A clean sweep of all officials of enemy blood or connections from Government departments. Stringent peace terms to include the dismemberment of the Hapsburg Empire." The party also supported: "equal pay for equal work, equal marriage and divorce laws, the same rights over children for both parents, equality of rights and opportunities in public service, and a system of maternity benefits." Christabel and Emmeline had now completely abandoned their earlier socialist beliefs and advocated policies such as the abolition of the trade unions.

After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act the first opportunity for women to vote was in the General Election in December, 1918. Seventeen women candidates that stood in the post-war election. Christabel Pankhurst represented the The Women's Party in Smethwick. Despite the fact that the Conservative Party candidate agreed to stand down, she lost a straight fight with the representative of the Labour Party by 775 votes. Only one woman, Constance Markiewicz, standing for Sinn Fein, was elected. However, as a member of Sinn Fein, she refused to take her seat in the House of Commons.

Nancy Astor beat the Liberal Party candidate, Isaac Foot, and on 1st December 1919 became the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. Constance Markievicz, like many feminists, was highly critical that a woman who had not been part of the suffrage campaign had been elected to parliament. She accused her being a member of the "upper classes" and "out of touch" with the needs of ordinary people. Norah Dacre Fox, one of the leaders of the Women's Social and Political Union pointed out: "the first woman to be elected for an English constituency was an American born citizen, who had no credentials to represent British women in their own parliament save that she had married a British subject."

Primary Sources

(1) In her book Memories of a Militant, Annie Kenney described the proposals to give women the vote.

In 1917 the question of granting the vote to women was discussed in Parliament. It was admitted by friend and foe that British women had played and were playing a unique part in the war… There was great rejoicing among all sections of women. What a relief to think that once peace was declared abroad peace on a modest scale would be declared at home. The agitation was at last drawing to a close…On February 6th, 1918, Royal assent was given to the "Representation of the People Act." Women were voters. And so my Suffrage pilgrimage was ended… I left the Movement, financially, as I joined it, penniless. Though I had no money I had reaped a rich harvest of joy, laughter, romance, companionship, and experience that no money can buy.

(2) Manchester Guardian (7th February, 1918)

The Representation of the People Bill, which doubles the electorate, giving the Parliamentary vote to about six million women and placing soldiers and sailors over 19 on the register (with a proxy vote for those on service abroad), simplifies the registration system, greatly reduces the cost of elections, and provides that they shall all take place on one day, and by a redistribution of seats tends to give a vote the same value everywhere, passed both Houses yesterday and received the Royal assent.

(3) In March 1918, Isabella Ford celebrated women over the age of thirty being granted the vote.

It is indeed wonderful when one wakes up in the morning to remember that now, at last, one is considered to be a real, complete human being! After thirty years of endeavor to make men understand they were only half the world… the price we have paid for our enfranchisement is too heavy, some of us find, to allow us to rejoice in the light-hearted, happy fashion we used to picture in old days, but we are filled with a deep and earnest thankfulness.

(4) Norah Elam, Fascist Quarterly (1935)

I preferred to stand as an Independent, going down with all the other women candidates on this occasion, save one. The exception was the Sinn Fein Countess Markievicz, who though a notorious and avowed enemy of Britain, found it a perfectly simple matter under the democratic system to secure election to the Parliament of the country which she had openly boasted that she would destroy, disintegrate and discredit. She was if I remember rightly, returned unopposed. The next example was hardly more encouraging, for the first woman to be elected for an English constituency was an American born citizen, who had no credentials to represent British women in their own parliament save that she had married a British subject.

(5) Constance Lytton, letter to Major Neville Lytton, January 13th, 1918.

The women who fought for it - some giving their lives, others mutilated for life, others coming through after much suffering, all greater than mine - have won the victory now for women in Great Britain, and very soon in the four corners of the earth - in America, Canada, South Africa, in the other countries of Europe, in India (though very slowly, I fear, there), in China."

(6) In 1919 the Women's Freedom League held a public meeting to celebrate women over thirty obtaining the vote. One of the speeches was made by eighty-three year old Charlotte Despard.

I have seen great days, but this is the greatest. I remember when we started twenty-one years ago, with empty coffers… I never believed that equal votes would come in my lifetime. But when an impossible dream comes true, we must go on to another. The true unity of men and women is one such dream. The end of war, of famine - they are all impossible dreams, but the dream must be dreamed until it takes a spiritual hold.

(7) Margery Corbett Ashby stood as the Liberal candidate for Ladywood in Birmingham. She explained what happened in her Memoirs.

I hoped to get the women's vote and that of the new and inexperienced voters. The women were the most sympathetic to me. The result of the election was a resounding victory for Lloyd George and the coalition government, but I had the satisfaction of polling as many votes as did the nine Liberal candidates in neighbouring constituencies. Being a woman was neither an advantage or disadvantage.

(8) Olive Schreiner, speech to meeting in commemoration of John Stuart Mill (July, 1918)

We are meeting today to commemorate a man whom I believe to be the noblest of those whom the English-speaking race has produced in the last hundred years. John Stuart Mill laboured for the freedom of women. But he did more. He laboured for human freedom. Women can best show their gratitude to him by studying his writings.

Many women have now the vote, and are part of the governing power of their nation - all will have it soon. If we wish to use our power to its noblest end, we shall have to learn the lesson Mill taught - that the freedom of all human creatures are essential to the full development of human life on earth. We shall have to labour, not merely for a larger freedom for ourselves, but for every subject race and class, and for all suppressed individuals. To do this is to lay the best tribute we can at the feet if John Stuart Mill.

(9) Evelyn Sharp, Unfinished Adventure (1933)

When militants and non-militants alike hastened to offer war service to the Government, no doubt many of them felt, if they thought about it at all, that this was the best way of helping their own cause. Certainly, by their four years' war work, they did prove the fallacy of the anti-suffragist' favourite argument, that women had no right to a voice in questions of peace and war because they took no part in it.

Personally, holding as I do the enfranchisement of women involved greater issues than could be involved in any war, even supposing that the objects of the Great War were those alleged, I cannot help regretting that any justification was given for the popular error which still sometimes ascribes the victory of the suffrage cause, in 1918, to women's war service. This assumption is true only in so far as gratitude to women offered an excuse to the anti-suffragists in the Cabinet and elsewhere to climb down with some dignity from a position that had become untenable before the war. I sometimes think that the art of politics consists in the provision of ladders to enable politicians to climb down from untenable positions.

(10) Norah Elam, The Blackshirt (22nd February, 1935)

What woman is there amongst us who made that fight, who does not today feel disillusioned? Where are the great leaders of those days? Look through the names of the women who climbed to Parliament on the efforts of the suffragettes, and see that not one leading women of that day has ever sat in the House of Commons. Democracy had killed them politically, and today they are forgotten as though they had never been.

What happened was that by the time women were given the vote, the democratic system was crumbling and falling into decay.... Turning to various political parties, full of vigour and enthusiasm to play their part in the new world as liberated citizens, they found themselves bound and fettered by the party caucus and chained to the party system...

No woman who loves her country, her sex or her liberty, need fear the coming victory of Fascism. Rather she will find that what the suffragettes dreamt about twenty odd years ago is now becoming a possibility, and women will buckle on her armour for the last phase of the greatest struggle, for the liberation of the human race, which the world has yet seen.