2018 is no ordinary year in the women’s rights calendar as it marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, a historic piece of legislation which allowed property-owning women over the age of thirty the right to vote in UK general elections for the first time.. While, by today’s standards, the age and gender-based voting restrictions set out by the Act seem unacceptable (the Act also extended the vote to all men over 21), we must remember that the world was a very different place, what appears to be not too long ago. It was thanks to the bravery of members of the Suffragette movement and other powerful individuals who fought tirelessly for democratic representation that a breakthrough was achieved. . It took eighty-six hard-fought years for women to gain the vote for the first time following the first petition for women’s rights, which was presented to parliament in 1832.
Many often forget that women in the UK also achieved a second legal victory in 2018 – the passing of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act. Despite being only one page long, it was a greatly significant document, confirming that women would no longer be disqualified by sex or marriage from sitting or voting as members of the House of Commons. This meant that women could be elected from the age of 21, putting them on an equal par as men when running for parliament, even though they didn’t enjoy the same voting rights until much later. The discrepancy was only corrected in 1928, when the Equal Franchise Act gave women equal voting rights with men, making millions of women aged over 21 eligible to vote.
Today, 100 years on, we have a record number of 208 or 38% female MPs in the House of Commons and thus we are slowly approaching parliamentary gender equality for the first time in UK history
Whilst there is still some way to go to achieve full parity, this year we reflect on the events that profoundly changed the fabric of our society. To mark this momentous year, Women in Journalism teamed up with ABP to organise a Centenary Celebration of Women at Westminster event in the House of Commons in February 2018. The celebration, which brought together women from the worlds of journalism and politics was not just a nod to the achievements of the past but also set the course for creating an even fairer, more equal society in future.
Here are just a few of the significant actions of famous Suffragette figures, which contributed to women’s victory in gaining the vote: …
Mary Smith of Stanmore, Yorkshire creates the first women’s suffrage petition to parliament. Henry Hunt MP presents the petition on her behalf. It is ‘laughed out’ of the House of Commons.
John Stewart Mill presents a petition for women’s suffrage on behalf of a women’s suffrage committee in London. The petition is unsuccessful despite gaining 1,521 signatures.
Millicent Garrett Fawcett sets up the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).
After little progress using a democratic approach Emmeline Pankhurst leaves NUWSS and forms the radical Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with two of her daughters. Mrs Pankhurst is arrested, tried and imprisoned numerous times over the following decade.
The term Suffragette is first printed, intended as a belittling distinction from Suffragists.
Suffragette Marion Wallace Dunlop is the first to go on hunger strike. Force-feeding is introduced.
Emily Wilding Davison enters the House of Commons as a visitor and hides in an air ventilation shaft for 36 hours in order to ask a question to the house. When she is discovered she says, “I am a suffragette and my ambition is to get into the house.”
Later that year ‘Black Friday’ protests rise up in frustration over the stalling of the Conciliation Bill, which would have enabled some women to vote.
The Parliamentary Franchise (women) Bill is defeated in Parliament. Tensions rise.
WSPU member Emily Wilding Davison steps out in front of the king’s horse, later dying from her injuries. 50,000 people line the street at her funeral procession wearing the suffragette colours, white and purple.
WSPU and NUWSS pause campaigning to support war efforts.
Representation of the People Act is passed allowing women over 30 who own property (or have a husband that owns property) and men over 21 to vote.
The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act is passed on 21 November allowing women to stand for Parliament
Women vote in a general election for the first time on 14 December with 8.5 million women eligible
The Equal Franchise Act is passed giving women equal voting rights with men. All women aged over 21 can now vote in elections. Fifteen million women are eligible.
When the history of suffrage is recalled it is often told as if the first women attaining the vote in 1918 signified the end of the fight for democratic equality. It may have meant an end to the hunger strikes and widespread imprisonment of Suffragettes but in reality the Representation of the People Act was only the beginning of the most transformative 100 years of progress and representation for women in UK society and parliament. One year later, in 1919, Nancy Astor became the first female MP to sit in the House of Commons.. This made way for the first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and currently our Prime Minister Theresa May.
Whilst our society still holds disparities between men and women, the past 100 years certainly demonstrate just how much change can be achieved in the space of one lifetime. We can work to ensure that the next 100 years will be detailed in the history books as a transformative period in which the gender pay gap was finally closed and equal parliamentary representation was achieved.