1928 Equal Franchise Act

After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act in 1918 the WSPU disbanded. The Manchester Guardian reported: "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." (1)

Women had their first opportunity to vote in a General Election in December, 1918. Several of the women involved in the suffrage campaign stood for Parliament. Only one, 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. Later that year, Nancy Astor became the first woman in England to become a MP when she won Sutton, Plymouth in a by-election. Astor, the wife of the former Tory MP for the constituency, had not been involved in the suffrage campaign. Rachel Strachey said she was "lamentably ignorant of everything she ought to know". 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 save that she had married a British subject." (2)

In 1919 Parliament passed the Sex Disqualification Removal Act which made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their sex. Women could now become solicitors, barristers and magistrates. In the 1924 General Election several women were elected including Dorothy Jewson, Susan Lawrence, Margaret Winteringham, Katharine Stewart-Murray, Mabel Philipson, Vera Terrington and Margaret Bondfield. (3)

Seven of the eight female MPs on the terrace of the House of Commons, 1923. (L-R) Dorothy Jewson, Susan Lawrence, Nancy Astor, Margaret Winteringham, Mabel Philipson, Vera Terrington and Margaret Bondfield.
Seven of the eight female MPs on the terrace of the House of Commons, 1923.
(L-R) Dorothy Jewson, Susan Lawrence, Nancy Astor, Margaret Winteringham,
Mabel Philipson, Vera Terrington and Margaret Bondfield.

The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies became the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC) in March 1919. Eleanor Rathbone succeeded Millicent Fawcett as president of the new body. Later that year Rathbone persuaded the organization to accept a six point reform programme. (i) Equal pay for equal work, involving an open field for women in industry and the professions. (ii) An equal standard of sex morals as between men and women, involving a reform of the existing divorce law which condoned adultery by the husband, as well as reform of the laws dealing with solicitation and prostitution. (iii) The introduction of legislation to provide pensions for civilian widows with dependent children. (iv) The equalization of the franchise and the return to Parliament of women candidates pledged to the equality programme. (v) The legal recognition of mothers as equal guardians with fathers of their children. (vi) The opening of the legal profession and the magistracy to women. (4)

In the 1923 General Election, the Labour Party won 191 seats. David Marquand has pointed out that: "The new parliamentary Labour Party was a very different body from the old one. In 1918, 48 Labour M.P.s had been sponsored by trade unions, and only three by the ILP. Now about 100 members belonged to the ILP, while 32 had actually been sponsored by it, as against 85 who had been sponsored by trade unions.... In Parliament, it could present itself for the first time as the movement of opinion rather than of class." (5)

Although the Conservative Party had 258 seats, Herbert Asquith announced that the Liberal Party would not keep the Tories in office. If a Labour Government were ever to be tried in Britain, he declared, "it could hardly be tried under safer conditions". The Daily Mail warned about the dangers of a Labour government and the Daily Herald commented on the "Rothermere press as a frantic attempt to induce Mr Asquith to combine with the Tories to prevent a Labour Government assuming office". (6) John R. Clynes, the former leader of the Labour Party, argued: "Our enemies are not afraid we shall fail in relation to them. They are afraid that we shall succeed." (7)

On 22nd January, 1924 Stanley Baldwin resigned. At midday, the 57 year-old, Ramsay MacDonald agreed to head a minority government, and therefore became the first member of the party to become prime minister. He went to Buckingham Palace to be appointed prime minister. He later recalled how George V complained about the singing of the Red Flag and the La Marseilles, at the Labour Party meeting in the Albert Hall a few days before. MacDonald apologized but claimed that there would have been a riot if he had tried to stop it. (8)

MacDonald appointed Margaret Bondfield as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour, and the first woman to be given a post in government. (9) He also agreed the give all women the vote. On 29th February, 1924, Dorothy Jewson joined William Adamson in putting forward a motion to reduce the age that women could vote from 30 to 21, the same age as men. It was Jewson's first speech in the House of Commons. Estimates at the time suggested that this proposal would have meant half a million more women than men on the electoral register, and that 70% of wage earning women at the time were currently unable to vote. Jewson pointed out that the 1918 Qualification of Women Act was only a temporary measure.

"Following on the 1918 Act, which was only accepted as a compromise and a temporary measure, the Coalition Government at the General Election in 1918 declared in their election manifesto that it will be the duty of the new Government to remove all existing inequalities between men and women. I think the women of the country interpreted that as an intention on the part of the Government at least to remove the existing inequalities in the franchise. That pledge was never carried out. In 1919, 1920, 1922, 1923 Bills came before this House and were carried on Second Heading, and in some cases on Third Reading. The time has come when the House ought to consider not merely talking about this question of equal franchise, but acting on it."

Jewson pointed out: "We believe that the 1918 Act was a compromise. It was only accepted, very reluctantly, by women's organisations in the country because it was agreed that to add 7,000,000 or 8,000,000 of new electors to the register was a very big experiment. I think no hon. Member will deny that that experiment of 1918 has been amply justified. We have had six years in which to consider whether or not that experiment was justified. In that time, we have had three elections, and I think every hon. Member will agree that in those elections women have shown very great interest, and an increasing interest, in national and international affairs. Uncertainty was expressed at the time as to how women would vote. I think everyone must now admit that they have exercised their vote wisely and well. Some fears were expressed that women might combine as a sex, and it was felt that that would be dangerous, because women who would be in larger numbers than men might so exercise the vote that we might have petticoat government. Events have shown that those fears were not founded on fact. The women have shown that they differ, like men differ, in their opinions; they have divided into parties in just the same way as men, and there is really no fear that women will combine as a sex and vote against the men. In an electorate of 26,000,000, it has been estimated that if women receive the vote on the same qualification as men there will be only about 500,000 more women on the register than men, and that half million would, of course, be spread over many constituencies."

Jewson argued: "I wish to draw attention to the very great injustice that is done to large bodies of women by their exclusion from the franchise. There is a large body of young wives and mothers who feel, very naturally, that if they are capable of bringing children into the world, and of being responsible to the State for those children, it is only right that they should have the privilege and protection of the vote in helping to mould the laws which will govern themselves and their children. Then there is the large body of wage-earning women. It is estimated that 70 per cent. of those women are under 30 years of age and are now excluded from the franchise. They have suffered intensely, and are now suffering, from low wages and under-employment, and as this House will be discussing during the next few years questions of a minimum wage, hours of work and other questions which vitally affect these women, the time has come when they should have some opportunity of exercising their control over the laws that are going to affect them. There are also large numbers of wage-earning women, professional women, business women, nurses, governesses and a large body of hotel and domestic workers who are altogether excluded, or practically excluded, from the exercise of the vote. It may be argued that domestic workers have not any knowledge of politics, and should, therefore, be excluded, but I do not think that is a fair argument, because the women have shown in exercising the vote that they have gained knowledge and that the vote in itself has been a liberal 865education for them. I would particularly draw attention to the report of the inquiry into domestic service, which was set up by the Minister of Labour in last Government, the Committee on which definitely recommends that to improve the status of domestic workers the women should be allowed to exercise the franchise." (10)

Katherine Stewart-Murray, a Tory MP supported the Labour motion. "I come next to the proposals in the Bill in regard to women. I quite agree that there are women voters who have grievances. There is the grievance of the woman university graduate who, though she may have taken a much better degree than many of the men of her year, finds she has to wait until the age of 30 before she can exercise the Parliamentary vote, while the young man who has taken an inferior degree gets the vote at the age of 21. There is also a grievance to which I do not think the Mover of the Second Reading referred. That is the grievance of the married women who are registered as voters in respect of their husbands, and who, if their husbands pre-decease them, are removed from the register until they make a fresh application to be enrolled in their own names. That is a grievance which would be recognised on all sides of the House. There is a further grievance of which I have seen something, and it is one of those to which the hon. Member has referred. It is the grievance of the single women over 30 in various professions, who find it difficult to get the vote because they are in lodgings and have not their own furniture. That is a grievance specially felt by many women assistant teachers in the country. These women often find it difficult to get lodgings, and if they took their own furniture with them they would have less chance than ever, and it would inconvenience them as they move on from one poet to another. They are entitled to have a vote." (11)

The Jewson motion was won 288 to 72, but the Ramsay McDonald was unable to bring in the legislation because Stanley Baldwin, the leader of the Conservative Party, and H. H. Asquith, the leader of the Liberal Party, decided to being the Labour government down over the issue of its relationship with the Soviet Union. On 30th September, the Liberals condemned the recently agreed trade deal with the Soviet Union. They claimed, unjustly, that Britain had given the Russians what they wanted without resolving the claims of British bondholders who had suffered in the revolution. "MacDonald reacted peevishly to this, accusing them of being unscrupulous and dishonest." (12)

The following day, Conservatives put down a censure motion on the decision to drop the case against John Ross Campbell. The debate took place on 8th October. MacDonald lost the vote by 364 votes to 198. "Labour was brought down, on the Campbell case, by the combined ranks of Conservatives and Liberals... The Labour government had lasted 259 days. On six occasions the Conservatives had saved MacDonald from defeat in the 1923 parliament, but it was the Liberals who pulled the political rung from under him." (13)

The Daily Mail published the Zinoviev Letter on 25th October 1924, just four days before the 1924 General Election. Under the headline "Civil War Plot by Socialists Masters" it argued: "Moscow issues orders to the British Communists... the British Communists in turn give orders to the Socialist Government, which it tamely and humbly obeys... Now we can see why Mr MacDonald has done obeisance throughout the campaign to the Red Flag with its associations of murder and crime. He is a stalking horse for the Reds as Kerensky was... Everything is to be made ready for a great outbreak of the abominable class war which is civil war of the most savage kind." (14)

Dora Russell, whose husband, Bertrand Russell, was standing for the Labour Party in Chelsea, commented: "The Daily Mail carried the story of the Zinoviev letter. The whole thing was neatly timed to catch the Sunday papers and with polling day following hard on the weekend there was no chance of an effective rebuttal, unless some word came from MacDonald himself, and he was down in his constituency in Wales. Without hesitation I went on the platform and denounced the whole thing as a forgery, deliberately planted on, or by, the Foreign Office to discredit the Prime Minister." (15)

Ramsay MacDonald suggested he was a victim of a political conspiracy: "I am also informed that the Conservative Headquarters had been spreading abroad for some days that... a mine was going to be sprung under our feet, and that the name of Zinoviev was to be associated with mine. Another Guy Fawkes - a new Gunpowder Plot... The letter might have originated anywhere. The staff of the Foreign Office up to the end of the week thought it was authentic... I have not seen the evidence yet. All I say is this, that it is a most suspicious circumstance that a certain newspaper and the headquarters of the Conservative Association seem to have had copies of it at the same time as the Foreign Office, and if that is true how can I avoid the suspicion - I will not say the conclusion - that the whole thing is a political plot?" (16)

Bob Stewart claimed that the letter included several mistakes that made it clear it was a forgery. This included saying that Grigory Zinoviev was not the President of the Presidium of the Communist International. It also described the organisation as the "Third Communist International" whereas it was always called "Third International". Stewart argued that these "were such infantile mistakes that even a cursory examination would have shown the document to be a blatant forgery." (17)

The rest of the Tory owned newspapers ran the story of what became known as the Zinoviev Letter over the next few days and it was no surprise when the election was a disaster for the Labour Party. The Conservatives won 412 seats and formed the next government. Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Daily Express and Evening Standard, told Lord Rothermere, the owner of The Daily Mail and The Times, that the "Red Letter" campaign had won the election for the Conservatives. Rothermere replied that it was probably worth a hundred seats. (18)

David Low was a Labour Party supporter who was appalled by the tactics used by the Tory press in the 1924 General Election: "Elections have never been completely free from chicanery, of course, but this one was exceptional. There were issues - unemployment, for instance, and trade. There were legitimate secondary issues - whether or not Russia should be afforded an export loan to stimulate trade. In the event these issues were distorted, pulped, and attached as appendix to a mysterious document subsequently held by many creditable persons to be a forgery, and the election was fought on 'red panic' (The Zinoviev Letter)". (19)

After the election it was claimed that two of MI5's agents, Sidney Reilly and Arthur Maundy Gregory, had forged the letter. It later became clear that Major George Joseph Ball, a MI5 officer, played an important role in leaking it to the press. In 1927 Ball went to work for the Conservative Central Office where he pioneered the idea of spin-doctoring. Christopher Andrew, MI5's official historian, points out: "Ball's subsequent lack of scruples in using intelligence for party political advantage while at Central Office in the late 1920s strongly suggests... that he was willing to do so during the election campaign of October 1924." (20)

Labour government was brought down The NUSEC had close links with the Labour Party and Ramsay McDonald and were bitterly disappointed when its 1924 minority government was unable to give the vote to women on the same basis as men. However, MacDonald did appoint Margaret Bondfield as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour, and the first woman to be given a post in government. (21)

Stanley Baldwin, wanted to change the image of the Conservative Party to make it appear a less right-wing organisation. In March 1927 He suggested to his Cabinet that the government should propose legislation for the enfranchisement of nearly five million women between the ages of twenty-one and thirty. This measure meant that women would constitute almost 53% of the British electorate. The Daily Mail complained that these impressionable young females would be easily manipulated by the Labour Party. (22)

Winston Churchill, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was totally opposed to the move and argued that the affairs of the country ought not be put into the hands of a female majority. In order to avoid giving the vote to all adults he proposed that the vote be taken away from all men between twenty-one and thirty. He lost the argument and in Cabinet and asked for a formal note of dissent to be entered in the minutes. There was little opposition in Parliament to the bill and it became law on 2nd July 1928. As a result, all women over the age of 21 could now vote in elections. (23)

A bill was introduced in March 1928 to give women the vote on the same terms as men. There was little opposition in Parliament to the bill and it became law on 2nd July 1928. As a result, all women over the age of 21 could now vote in elections. Many of the women who had fought for this right were now dead including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy, Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pankhurst.

Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the NUWSS during the campaign for the vote, was still alive and had the pleasure of attending Parliament to see the vote take place. That night she wrote in her diary: "It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20th, 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning." (24)

Primary Sources

(1) Margaret Rhondda, Time and Tide (14th May, 1920)

That the group behind this paper is composed entirely of women has already been frequently commented on. It would be possible to lay too much stress upon the fact. The binding link between these people is not primarily their common sex. On the other hand, this fact is not, without its significance. Amongst those to whom the need we have spoken of is apparent today are a very large number of women. Women have newly come into the larger world, and are indeed themselves to some extent answerable for that loosening of party and sectarian ties which is so marked a feature of the present day. It is therefore natural that just now many of them should tend to be especially conscious of the need for an independent press, owing allegiance to no sect or party. The war was responsible for breaking down the barriers which kept each individual or group of individuals in a watertight compartment. The past five years have taught the importance of that wider view which sees the part in relation to the whole.

There is another need in our press of which the average person of today is conscious, but which must specially weigh with women - the lack of a paper which shall treat men and women as equally part of the great human family, working side by side ultimately for the same great objects by ways equally valuable, equally interesting; a paper which is in fact concerned neither specially with men nor specially with women, but with human beings. It must be admitted that the press of today, although with self-conscious, painstaking care it now inserts "and women" every time it chances to use the word "men" scarcely succeeds in attaining to such an ideal.

(2) Editorial, Time and Tide (23rd May, 1922)

On December 23rd, 1919, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act passed into law, and for the past two years or more it has been gradually dawning upon women of all classes, ages and professions, that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act does not remove sex disqualification.

Let us examine this Act a little more closely. When it was passed it was presented by the Government as a Charter of Freedom. Henceforth women were to enjoy equal opportunities, equal chances, equal rights with men. It was a reversal of the customs of the ages. It was, as Mr. Talbot pointed out last Friday, a revolutionary piece of legislation. Incidentally it was the carrying out of a pledge made by the Coalition to the women just before the previous General Election and signed by Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Bonar Law: 'It will be the duty of the new government to remove all existing inequalities in the law as between men and women.'

Specifically, of course, the Act did not do a very great deal. It was quite short, consisting of four clauses only. The first clause dealt with the admission of women to the Civil Service, to which, for practical purposes, if not in theory, they had been admitted before; and to juries, which was a new departure. It also entitled women to become magistrates and to be admitted and enrolled as barristers or solicitors. The first sub-clause to clause I contracted out of the obligations of the Act to admit women on equal terms into the Civil Service by providing that all regulations dealing with this admission should be left to Orders in Council.

The second sub-clause to clause I gave power to a judge to order that a jury should be composed of men only or women only as the case might be, and that on application being made a woman might be exempted from serving in a case 'by nature of the evidence to be given or of the issues to be tried.'

The second clause dealt with the qualifications necessary to entitle women to be admitted and enrolled as solicitors on the same terms as men.

The third clause stated that nothing in the statutes or charter of any university should be deemed to preclude the authorities of such university from admitting women to its membership. It was as a result of this that in 1920 Oxford admitted women to full membership. The clause was, however, merely permissive, and Cambridge has elected not to act upon it. Women were already admitted to membership of every other university in the United Kingdom before this date.

The fourth clause was simply the short title and repeal clause usual in Acts of Parliament.

To sum up, what the Bill actually did was:- To admit women to jury service although not on the same terms as men. To allow women to become magistrates. To allow women to become barristers or solicitors. To grant power to Oxford and Cambridge to admit women to membership if they chose.

(3) Editorial, Time and Tide (17th October, 1922)

It is true that we have been most singularly fortunate in our first two women members. They have set a standard to which few could hope to attain. Nevertheless, even though we can scarcely hope that many future women M.P.'s will achieve so conspicuous a success as have the first two it is undoubtedly most desirable to add to their number. In the last Parliament Lady Astor and Mrs. Wintringham were doing the work often ordinary people. No human being can be expected to keep going indefinitely at such a pressure. We publish today the first of a series of three articles dealing in some detail with the chances of the prospective women candidates who have been adopted up to the present. It seems clear from a close scrutiny of the list of seats placed at their disposals that none of the Parties have been prepared to pay much more than lip service to the proposition that it is desirable to have women in Parliament. The Independent Liberals head the list so far as numbers are concerned, but even the Independent Liberals do not so far appear to have given their women candidates any safe seats. Perhaps, however, there was some excuse for the 'Wee Frees,' seeing that they had not many safe seats to give.

Few people who have closely followed the course of events in the last Parliament will be found to deny that there is need in the next for a greater representation of women. And this not only on the general grounds that it is desirable to have national political problems fully envisaged from every possible angle, but also and at the present time particularly because there are still today a certain number of subjects the importance of which tends to be underrated by many of the men in Parliament but is adequately appreciated by women. The value of Lady Astor and Mrs. Wintringham has lain not only in their contributions upon general political questions but also in the steady hard work they have put in over such matters as the Criminal Law Amendment Bill (whose passage was largely due to their efforts), the Equal Guardianship of Infants Bill, the Women Police question (that any Women Police at all have been retained in the London area is due almost entirely to them), and other matters of the kind. It has lain also in the fact that they could be trusted to understand the point of view of the professional and working woman.

(4) Editorial, Time and Tide (16th November, 1922)

Up to the time of going to press only sixteen women parliamentary candidates have been officially endorsed by their respective parties. It seems certain that more women candidates will be adopted almost immediately, but in most cases these will only be asked to fight forlorn hopes. We much doubt the desirability of women candidates accepting the party leavings. In fact, what the parties are doing is to fling to any women who are prepared to accept them - and in most cases to pay the greater part of their own expenses - constituencies which the average male candidate refuses to touch knowing them to be 'duds.' When the women get defeated, as in these hopeless seats they can only expect to be, the parties who have thus used them are the first to turn round and say: 'There is no use putting up women candidates, they only get defeated.' We are of opinion that women of any standing should refuse to be made use of in this way, their defeat only does harm to the ultimate cause they desire to serve. It should be remembered that there is no generosity in offering a woman the chance of fighting a hopeless seat on condition that she pays her own expenses. The party which does so is merely trying to get something for nothing by playing on the comparative innocence of women in the political game.

(5) Dorothy Jewson, speech in the House of Commons (29th February, 1924)

I desire to draw attention to the fact that the principle of the Bill, to grant equal franchise to women, has been acknowledged and accepted by the House on a very large number of occasions by an overwhelming vote. Following on the 1918 Act, which was only accepted as a compromise and a temporary measure, the Coalition Government at the General Election in 1918 declared in their election manifesto that it will be the duty of the new Government to remove all existing inequalities between men and women. I think the women of the country interpreted that as an intention on the part of the Government at least to remove the existing inequalities in the franchise. That pledge was never carried out. In 1919, 1920, 1922, 1923 Bills came before this House and were carried on Second Heading, and in some cases on Third Reading. The time has come when the House ought to consider not merely talking about this question of equal franchise, but acting on it

We believe that the 1918 Act was a compromise. It was only accepted, very reluctantly, by women's organisations in the country because it was agreed that to add 7,000,000 or 8,000,000 of new electors to the register was a very big experiment. I think no hon. Member will deny that that experiment of 1918 has been amply justified. We have had six years in which to consider whether or not that experiment was justified. In that time, we have had three elections, and I think every hon. Member will agree that in those elections women have shown very great interest, and an increasing interest, in national and international affairs. Uncertainty was expressed at the time as to how women would vote. I think everyone must now admit that they have exercised their vote wisely and well. Some fears were expressed that women might combine as a sex, and it was felt that that would be dangerous, because women who would be in larger numbers than men might so exercise the vote that we might have petticoat government. Events have shown that those fears were not founded on fact. The women have shown that they differ, like men differ, in their opinions; they have divided into parties in just the same way as men, and there is really no fear that women will combine as a sex and vote against the men. In an electorate of 26,000,000, it has been estimated that if women receive the vote on the same qualification as men there will be only about 500,000 more women on the register than men, and that half million would, of course, be spread over many constituencies.

In supporting the Second Resolution, I wish to draw attention to the very great injustice that is done to large bodies of women by their exclusion from the franchise. There is a large body of young wives and mothers who feel, very naturally, that if they are capable of bringing children into the world, and of being responsible to the State for those children, it is only right that they should have the privilege and protection of the vote in helping to mould the laws which will govern themselves and their children. Then there is the large body of wage-earning women. It is estimated that 70 per cent. of those women are under 30 years of age and are now excluded from the franchise. They have suffered intensely, and are now suffering, from low wages and under-employment, and as this House will be discussing during the next few years questions of a minimum wage, hours of work and other questions which vitally affect these women, the time has come when they should have some opportunity of exercising their control over the laws that are going to affect them. There are also large numbers of wage-earning women, professional women, business women, nurses, governesses and a large body of hotel and domestic workers who are altogether excluded, or practically excluded, from the exercise of the vote. It may be argued that domestic workers have not any knowledge of politics, and should, therefore, be excluded, but I do not think that is a fair argument, because the women have shown in exercising the vote that they have gained knowledge and that the vote in itself has been a liberal 865education for them. I would particularly draw attention to the report of the inquiry into domestic service, which was set up by the Minister of Labour in last Government, the Committee on which definitely recommends that to improve the status of domestic workers the women should be allowed to exercise the franchise.

I have carefully looked through the Debates on this question in the House, and I have found no justification for the ago limit of women being fixed at 30, whereas for men it is fixed at 21. It has been pointed out on more than one occasion that, legally, it is possible for a girl to marry at the age of 12, whereas a boy cannot do so until he is 14. Many speakers have pointed out, and, I think, we all recognise it, that women do mature much more quickly than men, and we know that a girl of 21 has quite as much commonsense, if not, more, than a young man of that age. All these disabilities are relics of a by-gone age, and ought to be swept away. Great Britain could claim at one time to be the pioneer of representative government, but it is now very much behind on the question of the franchise. Great Britain is alone in Europe, with the exception of Hungary, in granting equal franchise to women Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany have all given equal franchise to women with men, and in our own Dominions. New Zealand and Canada have done the same. Even in the East, Madras, Bombay and Burma have given equal franchise to women with men. Surely the time has come when the Mother of Parliaments should do the same.

The Bill has the backing of all the women's organisations, religious, political, social and economic. I would remind hon. Members that of the 32 Members who in 1919 opposed the Women's Emancipation Bill only 10 are now Members of this House, and of the 60 who opposed the Bill in 1922 only 40 are now Members. I thank the House for the very great courtesy it has shown in listening to me, and in conclusion I appeal particularly to hon. Members to give this Bill their whole-hearted support. I appeal also to the Government, who have long been pledged to this principle of equal franchise, and I ask them to realise that the women look to them to carry out their promises. Great disappointment was felt by the women at the reply of the Prime Minister on this question recently, when he said that the Government had not had time to consider this important question. That reply came definitely as a shock and disappointment to many women. I ask the Government to give full facilities for this Bill to become a Government Measure and to go through all its stages in the House, without any delay.

(6) Katherine Stewart-Murray, speech in the House of Commons (29th February, 1924)

I come then to this other proposal, which is a very far-reaching one. That is the proposal to make the Local Government franchise the same as the Parliamentary franchise. This proposal seems to me to be even more drastic than the one to which I have referred. The reason for the difference between the two franchises must be well known to hon. Members opposite. It is simply an embodiment of the principle that we must have no taxation without representation, and no representation without taxation: the one is the corollary of the other. I think that what I have said should have a good deal of support from hon. Members of the Liberal Party, for it is a sound Liberal principle. The reason why the franchises are so different is simply this; that the local funds on which local services depend are drawn from the rates, and the rates are levied only on certain forms of wealth, that is on land, houses and machines in factories. Local Government has rested on the basis that the local franchise is given only to those who contribute to the rates. The Parliamentary franchise can be very much wider because, while many people may escape payment of rates for the reason I have stated, the subjects on which the Chancellor of the Exchequer can levy taxes are infinitely more varied and greater in number. There can be comparatively few people who escape payment of national taxation in one form or another. Therefore, I think it will be generally recognised that we have been justified in having a very much wider Parliamentary franchise than the local one. But this Bill will bring every man over the age of 21 who lives in lodgings, or lives at home with his parents, on to the local register, though he will be contributing, in these circumstances, nothing to the rates.

The nerves of the ratepayer throughout the country have not been steadied by certain occurrences which were the occasion of a debate recently in this House. I shrink from thinking of what the effect on those same nerves, would be if the country thought that this House was seriously considering a proposal to assimilate the two franchises in the way that this Bill proposes. I was interested to see that even the Minister of Health, whom I do not think anyone would regard as a specially stalwart champion of the ratepayer, did agree that he had some sympathy for the non-resident ratepayers of a certain parish of which we have heard a good deal lately. I would very much like to know how the right hon. Gentleman views this proposal. If he is inclined to consider the non-resident ratepayer with sympathy, surely he must have an equally generous measure of sympathy to extend to the resident ratepayer. Under this Bill both the resident and the non-resident ratepayer will be swamped by all the young men brought in who are not contributing anything to the rates. I know that the Mover of the Second Reading signified his readiness to leave this proposal to the judgment of the House in Committee. I suppose he realises how this proposal is likely to jeopardise his Bill. It seems to me a rather odd thing that he should not have thought it out a little before he produced his Bill. Though I agree that a death-bed repentance is better than no repentance at all, yet I hope the hon. Member will forgive me if I say that his admission that this vital provision in the Bill received at his hands inadequate consideration, does not lead me to feel that I am ready to trust to the hon. Member's leading in other matters in the Bill.

I come next to the proposals in the Bill in regard to women. I quite agree that there are women voters who have grievances. There is the grievance of the woman university graduate who, though she may have taken a much better degree than many of the men of her year, finds she has to wait until the age of 30 before she can exercise the Parliamentary vote, while the young man who has taken an inferior degree gets the vote at the age of 21. There is also a grievance to which I do not think the Mover of the Second Reading referred. That is the grievance of the married women who are registered as voters in respect of their husbands, and who, if their husbands pre-decease them, are removed from the register until they make a fresh application to be enrolled in their own names. That is a grievance which would be recognised on all sides of the House. There is a further grievance of which I have seen something, and it is one of those to which the hon. Member has referred. It is the grievance of the single women over 30 in various professions, who find it difficult to get the vote because they are in lodgings and have not their own furniture. That is a grievance specially felt by many women assistant teachers in the country. These women often find it difficult to get lodgings, and if they took their own furniture with them they would have less chance than ever, and it would inconvenience them as they move on from one poet to another. They are entitled to have a vote.

This Bill, however, goes very much further than those grievances and very much further than the remedies to which the hon. Member referred. Whatever their occupation, whether married or single, women are to be given the Parliamentary franchise from the age of 21. In brief, the woman tinker is to be enfranchised. The hon. Member for Norwich (Miss Jewson) spoke of the general desire among women for this change. I agree that there are women's societies that are very anxious to see this change, but I would like to ask what evidence she has that there is a widespread desire for this among women in general, and, if she asks me why I doubt her statement, I point to the fact that at the last General Election not more than 62 or 63 per cent. of the electors recorded their votes. That does not seem to indicate a very widespread desire for a wide extension of the franchise. I should say that there are many women in this country, married women, the wives of wage-earners who, living their busy lives - I think the wife of a wage-earner with a large family of young children is the busiest person in the country, except, possibly, Cabinet Ministers - have had in the past very few opportunities of hearing about political subjects. They do not get the opportunies of going out to meetings that their husbands have. My experience is that the I men go to the meetings and leave the wives at home to manage the children. Women have not the opportunities of going to meetings that their men enjoy. I think that, particularly at the last General Election, many of them felt that they had not had many opportunities of hearing about the subjects that were before the country and many of them in consequence were diffident in recording their votes.

There is another point to which I attach great importance. I think Members of all parties will agree how invaluable is some experience of local government in helping people to form sound judgment and to take a broad outlook on political questions. I think Members of all parties, and men everywhere in the country, are very ready to give generous recognition to the value of women's services on public local bodies. The fact that a certain number of women are generally recognised as having given valuable services on these bodies, has tended to obscure the fact that the number of these women is relatively small. I do not know if hon. Members, generally, realise how small the number is, and I hope I may be allowed to give a few 872figures. In England and Wales on 62 county councils, only 70 women are serving. On 7,664 urban district, rural and parish councils there are 353 women. On 364 borough councils including London, there is a rather larger proportion, the number being 226: but out of 24,000 members of boards of guardians, there are only 2,323 women. Looking at the figures for Scotland we find that on 37 education authorities there are only 44 women and on 16 of these education authorities there are no women at all, leaving an average of a little over two women per education authority for the others. Turning to the parish councils, we find that on 869 of these there are 115 women, and on the 33 county councils of Scotland only two women are serving.

Yet these are bodies on which the services of women are not only invaluable but necessary. No public body can efficiently administer poor law, education, public health, or maternity and child welfare without the assistance of women. These local public bodies are not receiving the benefit of all the special service which women can render, and I feel sad to think that we have not yet entered more into our kingdom. I feel, also, that before we ask for so great an extension of the franchise as this Bill proposes, we ought to wait until we have made our position more secure on these local bodies, and through service, gained more of the experience and the knowledge which is invaluable in political life. It is said that this proposed extension of the franchise will mean an addition to the electorate of 3,500,000 women, or as some say, 5,000,000 women. Whichever be the correct figure, no one will dispute that the proposal means that women will be in the majority on the Parliamentary register. When I reach that point I cannot forgot that that preponderance, whatever the exact figure may be, will have been largely due to, or at least greatly increased by the fact that we lost 740,000 precious lives of men in the great War, and that that War is still taking its toll of the ex-service men. Therefore, I cannot help saying that I feel that to propose a great extension of this kind looks like taking advantage of the heroic sacrifices of those men. [Interruption.] Yes, I do feel that, though hon. Members may not view the matter in the same way; to me it looks like taking an advantage, and, therefore, I cannot associate myself with the claim to so great an extension of the franchise at the present time. But, as I have said, I recognise there are many women who have grievances under the present system, and it is on that account that my Amendment does not take the form of asking for the rejection of the Bill. Had the Bill contained only those other provisions from which the hon. Member who moved the Second Reading seems inclined to run away, I should have tabled a Motion for rejection, but because I recognise that there are matters in connection with the present franchise concerning women which require consideration, I ask that the precedent be followed which was adopted when the last extension of the franchise was made, and I ask the House to accept the Amendment standing in my name.

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References

(1) The Manchester Guardian (7th February, 1918)

(2) Norah Dacre Fox, Fascist Quarterly (January 1935)

(3) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 149

(4) Ray Strachey, The Cause: A History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain (1928) page 370

(5) David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (1977) page 283

(6) The Daily Herald (2nd January, 1924)

(7) The Daily Herald (4th January, 1924)

(8) Robert Shepherd, Westminster: A Biography: From Earliest Times to the Present Day (2012) page 313

(9) Austen Morgan, J. Ramsay MacDonald (1987) page 99

(10) Dorothy Jewson, speech in the House of Commons (29th February, 1924)

(11) Katharine Stewart-Murray, speech in the House of Commons (29th February, 1924)

(12) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 180

(13) Austen Morgan, J. Ramsay MacDonald (1987) page 118

(14) The Daily Mail (25th October 1924)

(15) Dora Russell, The Tamarisk Tree (1977) page 178

(16) Ramsay MacDonald, statement (25th October 1924)

(17) Bob Stewart, Breaking the Fetters (1967) page 161

(18) A. J. P. Taylor, Beaverbrook (1972) page 223

(19) David Low, Autobiography (1956) page 161

(20) Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) page 150

(21) David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (1977) page 283

(22) The Daily Mail (28th April, 1928)

(23) Clive Ponting, Winston Churchill (1994) page 314

(24) Millicent Garrett Fawcett, diary entry (2nd July 1928)