By Dr Jacqui Turner
With the release of the Suffragette film this month there has been an explosion of interest in women’s suffrage movements, especially in militant suffrage and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). However consideration needs to be given to what happened next. What happened after women won the vote and after the militant struggle ended?
Some women were given the vote under the Representation of the People Act in 1918 and there is an assumption that this was as a direct result of their war work during World War I. This was not the case. The 1918 Act was primarily introduced to resolve the issue of soldiers returning from service in World War I, who were not entitled to the vote as they did not meet existing property qualifications. The Act abolished almost all property qualifications for men over 21 and gave the vote to women over 30 but only if they met minimum property qualifications or were married to a man who did. Women could also vote if they were a university graduate as part of a university constituency. Part of the reasoning for limiting votes to women over 30 was pragmatic. Due to the loss of men in WWI there was potentially a surplus of women, in particular a generation of single women of marriageable age, who would make up majority female electorate. The age differential ensured that women did not become the majority of voters. Even with the limitation on women eligible to vote, women still made up 43% of the electorate post the 1918 Act.
Women were only given the vote on the same terms as men a decade later. On 2nd July 1928 the Second Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was passed into law. The Act had been introduced in March but in a cruel twist of fate Emmeline Pankhurst, leader and co-founder of the militant WSPU, did not live to see it passed; she died on 14th June 1928, 18 days before the bill passed into law and equal suffrage rights were granted.
Lady Nancy Astor was the first woman to take her seat in parliament; her husband Waldorf was the sitting MP and (supported by him) she won his Sutton Plymouth seat at a by-election in 1919. She was not the first woman to stand for parliament or to be elected. Sin Fein’s Constance Markowitz was the first woman elected at the General Election in 1918 but she did not take her seat. The 1918 General Election had seen 17 female candidates including Christabel Pankhurst who stood for the Women’s Party in Smethwick. Despite the Conservative Party agreeing not to field a candidate, Christabel narrowly lost to the Labour Candidate by 775 votes.
Suffrage campaigners were dismayed that Nancy Astor, as the first woman MP had played no role in the suffrage movement and had succeeded her husband. Initially she was unsupported by any faction of the movement: she was upper class, elite and an American. Astor however proclaimed herself an ‘ardent feminist’. Her campaign had made clear her commitment to women’s causes and interestingly after World War I Plymouth Sutton had a majority of women voters. Astor set out her stall from the off:
If you want an M.P. who will be a repetition of the 600 other M.P.s don’t vote for me. If you want a lawyer or if you want a pacifist don’t elect me. If you can’t get a fighting man, take a fighting woman. If you want a Bolshevist or a follower of Mr Asquith, don’t elect me. If you want a party hack don’t elect me. Surely we have outgrown party ties, I have. The war has taught us that there is a greater thing than parties and that is the State.
Throughout her parliamentary career Astor supported other female MPs, vigorously campaigned for the Equal Franchise in 1928 and supported cross party policies relating to the family, women and children. She retired in 1945 after winning six consecutive elections.
In order to stand for parliament Pankhurst, Markowitz and Astor had relied on the Sex Disqualification removal Act of 1919 to allow access to professions for women. The act made way for 24 year old Jennie Lee to enter the House of Commons as Labour MP for North Lanarkshire in March 1929.