Votes for women: The moment we realised it really was going to happen
- Credit: Archant
It was a moment that changed history: when it became clear women (not all, but perhaps more than eight million) would be allowed to vote for the first time
Imagine the 'noise' today if something momentous happened – such as the voting age dropping to 16. It would be all over Facebook, we'd have wall-to-wall coverage on TV and radio, and The One Show would find a daft way of covering it… such as dispatching Gyles Brandreth to a high school disco.
A century ago, something even more seismic did take place. Following years of campaigning, Britain decided it would give the vote to women. But were there fireworks when a major obstacle was cleared? Not if some headlines were a measure.
Readers of the East Anglian Daily Times, for instance, learned on January 11, 1918, that the Rubicon had been crossed – though they'd have needed to be eagle-eyed, as it was tucked away.
Newspaper layouts were pretty standard at that time. The headline was good, 'Victory for Women. Peers agree to give them the vote', but it certainly didn't 'scream' like a modern one would.
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Perhaps it would have been different had we not been preoccupied with the fourth year of a terrible war that separated families.
Perhaps the arguments had long been considered won. (The main Bill was passed in the Commons the previous summer, by a majority of 385 to 55.) Even so, peers could have thrown a spanner in the works, and some definitely tried.
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The report does capture something of the death throes of those fighting female emancipation. It explained that Lord Loreburn's proposal to omit from the Reform Bill the clause giving women the franchise was defeated by 134 votes to 71.
Here's what part of our report said:
The Lord Chancellor was not at all satisfied most women wanted the vote. He told peers there was no evidence of such a general desire on the part of women. There was not sufficient evidence of the people's will on the question whether they desired what was neither more nor less than a revolution in the institutions of the country. There might be a desire on the part of some people to take the plunge, but he denied there was any great feeling in the country in favour of change. The whole thing was a gigantic experiment, a leap in the dark, and the addition to the register of six million women [modern records suggest 8.4m] new to politics would provide a vast amount of material for agitation among the so-called pacifists in favour of a hurried peace, which would really be no peace at all but would leave Prussian militarianism unbroken. His belief was that women as voters for the Imperial Parliament would be as much out of their proper sphere as they would be sitting as members of either Chamber.
The Earl of Shelborne said there was a large body of opinion in the House in favour of a drastic change in the marriage laws; how could they, in the name of justice, attempt to deal with the marriage laws, practically turning them upside down, without allowing women to have a say in the matter?
Women had shown the same magnificent determination and solidarity of purpose [during the war] as the men, and he hoped the House would reject the amendment.
Earl Curzon was unconvinced it was wise or desirable to add six million women to the electorate. This vast and catastrophic change would be irrevocable. The selection of the age of 30 for giving the vote to women was artificial. Was there anyone who believed this age limit could last more than a few years?
It was not merely the thin end of the wedge; they were taking the wedge and hammering it halfway in. Before twenty, fifteen, ten years had passed, the six million voters would have become ten millions, and very likely twelve millions.
He did not depreciate women's efforts during the war, but equal service had been given by boys and some men not in line to receive the vote. [Only 60% of male householders over the age of 21 had the vote.]
Did anyone imagine that, if given the vote, women would be willing to return to the monotonous routine of domestic life? It was all very well to break up the homes temporarily for the purposes of the war, but the first duty of this country when the war was over was to terminate these conditions and to rehabilitate the home to get the mistress back to her children, and to resume the more healthy conditions of social and domestic life.
The division was taken, and the result received with cheers.
The Representation of the People Bill received royal assent on February 6. The Act was then officially passed in June. It gave votes to women over the age of 30 (if they met some conditions) and all men over 21. It meant about 80% of women over 30 had a voice.
The electorate nearly trebled: from nearly 8m people in 1912 to 21m-plus. About 43% of voters were now female. In the November, another Act meant women could become MPs.
The wait wasn't long, with a General Election held on December 14, 1918. Seventeen of the 1,600 or so candidates were women.
Countess Constance Markievicz was the first elected, but didn't take up her seat as she backed Sinn Fein's boycott of Westminster until Home Rule was won. So the first woman MP to take her seat was Nancy Astor, nearly a year later. Having said all that, equal voting rights still didn't arrive until 1928. But we were well on the way.