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Laws that have shaped the vote

Parliamentary Reforms

The first Reform Act

The Representation of the People Act 1832, known as the first Reform Act or Great Reform Act:

  • disenfranchised 56 boroughs in England and Wales and reduced another 31 to only one MP
  • created 67 new constituencies
  • broadened the franchise’s property qualification in the counties, to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers
  • created a uniform franchise in the boroughs, giving the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more and some lodgers

Limited change had been achieved but for many it did not go far enough. The property qualifications meant that the majority of working men still could not vote. But it had been proved that change was possible and over the next decades the call for further parliamentary reform continued.

Second Reform Act 1867

The 1832 Reform Act proved that change was possible. The parliamentary elite felt that they had met the need for change but among the working classes there were demands for more. The growth and influence of the Chartist Movement from 1838 onwards was an indication that more parliamentary reform was desired.

The Chartist Movement had peaked by the 1850s but there was an acceptance among Members of Parliament that there was more work to be done to remove anomalies in the system that the first Reform Act had not addressed.


However, the call for universal manhood suffrage or ‘one man, one vote’ was still resisted by Parliament and the second Reform Act, passed in 1867, was still based around property qualifications.

There was no question of campaigning for the right to vote for women too. They were still excluded.

The 1867 Reform Act:

  • granted the vote to all householders in the boroughs as well as lodgers who paid rent of £10 a year or more
  • reduced the property threshold in the counties and gave the vote to agricultural landowners and tenants with very small amounts of land

Men in urban areas who met the property qualification were enfranchised and the Act roughly doubled the electorate in England and Wales from one to two million men.

Third Reform Act 1884

Parliament’s resistance to ‘one man, one vote’ was partly overturned in 1884 with the third Reform Act which:

  • established a uniform franchise throughout the country
  • brought the franchise in the counties into line with the 1867 householder and lodger franchise for boroughs

Redistribution of Seats Act

The following year, the Redistribution of Seats Act redrew boundaries to make electoral districts equal. As a result of this Act, most areas returned only one Member to Parliament, although 23 seats, including the City of London and Bath, continued to return two Members until 1910.

Parliament and the political landscape changed greatly over the 19th century, beginning with a small ruling elite in Parliament and gradually increasing to be more democratic and representative.

The pre-eminence of the House of Commons

The powers of the House of Lords are limited by a combination of law and convention.

The Parliament Acts, although rarely used, provide a way of solving disagreement between the Commons and the Lords.

Parliament Acts: background

Until the early years of the 20th century, the House of Lords had the power to veto (stop) legislation.

However, this arrangement was put under pressure when the House of Lords refused to pass David Lloyd-George’s ‘people’s budget’ of 1909. Eventually, the budget was passed after a general election in 1910; a second general election was then fought on the issue of reform of the House of Lords.

Parliament Act 1911

The result was the Parliament Act 1911, which removed from the House of Lords the power to veto a Bill, except one to extend the lifetime of a Parliament. Instead, the Lords could delay a Bill by up to two years. The Act also reduced the maximum lifespan of a Parliament from seven years to five years.

Votes for women

However, one section of society was still completely excluded from the voting process – women. To be truly representative, Parliament still had changes to make.

The modern campaign to secure the right to vote for women began in the mid-19th century. This aim was partially achieved with the Representation of the People Act 1918.

The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act followed later the same year and allowed women to stand as Members of Parliament.

It was not until the Equal Franchise Act was passed in 1928 that women won the same voting rights as men.

Those campaigning peacefully for women’s suffrage were called suffragists. From the early 20th century some women who pursued militant methods of campaigning were known by the initially derogatory term ‘suffragettes’, a description first used by the Daily Mail in 1906.

However, the term was adopted by women themselves and became widely used.

Right to vote

Women felt they should have the right to vote for many reasons, particularly because they had to pay taxes and abide by the law, just as men did. They believed they had an equal right to influence Parliament and government by voting.

During the 19th century, the franchise was extended to include more men both in the Second Reform Act 1867 and the Third Reform Act 1884.

Working class men could vote

Many working class men could now vote. Many women who were denied the right to vote were in similar circumstances to these men, being rate-payers and subject to the same laws of the land.

There was a growing sense of injustice and from the mid-19th century onwards groups of women joined together to campaign for the vote. They were known as suffragists.

Suffragist groups

Suffragist groups existed all over the country and under many different names but their aim was the same: to achieve the right to vote for women through constitutional, peaceful means.

There were regional groups, especially in urban centres like Manchester, which held public meetings and petitioned at local level. At national level, key individuals included Millicent Fawcett and Lydia Becker.


The suffragists believed in achieving change through parliamentary means and used lobbying techniques to persuade Members of Parliament sympathetic to their cause to raise the issue of women’s suffrage in debate on the floor of the House.

Between 1870 and 1884 debates on women’s suffrage took place almost every year in Parliament. This succeeded in keeping the issue in the public eye as Parliamentary proceedings were extensively covered in the national and regional press of the time.

Parliamentary activities

There was some criticism that by concentrating so heavily on activities in Parliament, the movement sacrificed opportunities to mobilise mass support throughout the rest of the country.


The use of petitions was another tactic employed by the suffragists to demonstrate support for their cause. These petitions were presented to Parliament.

First petition

The first petition to Parliament asking for votes for women was presented to the House of Commons by Henry Hunt MP on behalf of a Mary Smith, on 3 August 1832. The same year, the Great Reform Act expanded the electorate, but to ‘male persons’ only.

Another early petition was presented by John Stuart Mill, the philosopher, political economist and Member of Parliament, in 1866.

Challenging received opinions

There were other men inside and outside Parliament who also supported women’s suffrage, challenging the received opinions of the time.

As the 19th century drew to a close, the suffragist movement lost momentum and some members, such as Emmeline Pankhurst who was to form the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 and would lead a more militant campaign, were frustrated at the lack of progress. The impact of peaceful tactics seemed to have been exhausted. It seemed to some campaigners that a different, more radical approach was needed.

Start of the suffragette movement

The Pankhurst family is closely associated with the militant campaign for the vote. In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst and others decided more direct action was required and started the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with the motto ‘Deeds not words’.

Women only

Membership of the WSPU was limited to women only. Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, were committed members.

WPSU members were determined to obtain the right to vote for women by any means and campaigned tirelessly and sometimes violently to achieve this aim.

Militant action

Their militant campaigns included attacks on property and politicians, which resulted in imprisonment and hunger strikes.

These tactics attracted a great deal of attention to the campaign for votes for women. Other organisations that campaigned included the Women’s Freedom League, formed in 1907 by Teresa Billington-Greig and Charlotte Despard in a break from WSPU.

Not all those campaigning for women’s right to vote favoured militant action.

Legal and constitutional support

Moderate women’s organisations, such as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett, were instrumental in building up the legal and constitutional support for the enfranchisement of women but their contributions were often overshadowed by the high profile actions of the suffragettes.

‘Deeds not words’

Imprisonment for their actions became an important tool for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and led to another important tactic, hunger striking.

The first hunger strike was undertaken by Marion Wallace-Dunlop in 1909 as a protest when she was not given political prisoner status in prison. She had been arrested for damaging a wall in St. Stephen’s Hall in the Houses of Parliament.

When imprisoned, suffragettes would go on hunger strike, leading to the authorities force-feeding women in prison, a dangerous and humiliating treatment which provided the suffragettes with powerful propaganda.

‘Cat and Mouse Act’

The Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act, also known as ‘The Cat and Mouse Act’ was passed in 1913. This permitted the early release of women who had become so ill as a result of their hunger strike that they were at risk of death but required that they return to prison when their health was better to continue their sentence. The hunger strike/force feeding process then began all over again.

Conciliation Bill

In 1910, a Conciliation Bill was read in Parliament. The bill was written to extend voting rights to women but failed to become law. Following its failure there were violent clashes outside Parliament. There were further Conciliation Bills proposed in subsequent years but they failed to resolve the situation.

Emily Wilding Davison

Emily Wilding Davison was particularly committed to ‘deeds not words’, notably hiding in the House of Commons on a number of occasions, including on Census night in April 1911 when she spent the night in a cupboard near the Crypt Chapel in order to state ‘House of Commons’ as her address on her census return.

She was imprisoned eight times for offences including assault and stone-throwing. Her final, and most dramatic, act was to step out in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. It is unclear whether she intended to commit suicide, but she died soon afterwards of her injuries.

Suffragettes in wartime

At the outbreak of the First World War, Emmeline Pankhurst suspended the activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union and concentrated her efforts on helping the government recruit women into war work.

The involvement of women in the war effort did much to change perceptions of the role of women in British society.

During the war years women undertook jobs normally carried out by men and proved they could do the work just as well. Between 1914 and 1918, an estimated two million women replaced men in employment, resulting in an increase in the proportion of women in total employment from 24 per cent in July 1914 to 37 per cent by November 1918.

It had been proved that women were capable of jobs beyond those in traditionally ‘female’ roles, such as domestic service. However, employers still deemed that women’s work was worth less than men’s and their wage packets did not match men’s even for the same jobs.

However, it was not just that women proved themselves equal to men in the workplace that the arguments for the right to vote were strengthened.

Women get the vote

During 1916-1917, the House of Commons Speaker, James William Lowther, chaired a conference on electoral reform which recommended limited women’s suffrage.

The ongoing work of the suffragist movement and the commitment of the growing Labour Party movement to widening the franchise were also factors.

An influential consideration, in addition to the suffrage movement and the growth of the Labour Party, was the fact that only men who had been resident in the country for twelve months prior to a general election were entitled to vote.

This effectively disenfranchised a large number of troops who had been serving overseas in the war. With a general election imminent, politicians were persuaded to extend the vote to women at long last.

Representation of the People Act 1918

In 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed which allowed women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification to vote. Although eight and half million women met this criteria, it only represented 40 per cent of the total population of women in the UK.

The same act extended the vote to all men over the age of 21. The electorate increased from eight to twenty one million but there was still huge inequality between women and men.

In 1918 some women over the age of 30 got the vote. It was also the year that, a separate law was passed – the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act – which allowed women to stand as candidates and be elected as MPs.

The following year the first woman MP took her seat in the House of Commons.

The first woman MP

The first woman to be elected to the Commons was a Polish Countess, Constance Markievicz, in the general election of 1918. However as a member of Sinn Fein, she did not take her seat.

The first women to take her seat was Nancy Astor (Viscountess Astor), after a by-election in December 1919. She was elected as a Conservative for the Plymouth Sutton constituency after her husband, Waldorf Astor, the former MP, was elevated to the peerage.

She held the seat until she stood down in 1945. Although she had never been involved in campaigns for women’s suffrage, she was a great supporter of the women’s movement once in Parliament.

Her husband also worked to promote the admission of women to the House of Lords during the 1920s.

Equal Franchise Act 1928

It was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women over 21 were able to vote and women finally achieved the same voting rights as men. This act increased the number of women eligible to vote to fifteen million.

Women and the House of Lords

Women were given the right to stand for Parliament in 1918 but still could not become members of the House of Lords.

The Rhondda Case

Margaret Haig Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda (1883–1958) was the daughter of David Alfred (‘D.A.’) Thomas, first Viscount Rhondda (1856–1918), a member of the House of Lords. As he had no sons he had made a special request for her daughter to be able to take his title after he died. However this did not entitle her to take his seat in the Upper House.

One of the leading equalitarian feminists of her day, Lady Rhondda founded a pressure group called the Six Point Group and a feminist journal called ‘Time And Tide’. She had been a militant suffragette in her youth, and had been jailed for setting fire to a post-box. In prison she went on hunger strike.

She was determined to take her father’s seat in the Lords and based her claim on the Sex Disqualification Act 1919 which stated that “a woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function”.

Her case was referred to the House of Lords Committee for Privileges and was heard in 1922. Initially the Committee found in her favour but this decision was soon reversed following opposition from the Lord Chancellor, Lord Birkenhead (F. E. Smith).

Private Members Bills

Between 1924 and 1928 in the aftermath of the Rhondda case, various Bills were introduced into the Lords proposing that hereditary women peers should be able to sit in the Upper House.

Viscount Astor, the husband of Nancy Astor, the first woman MP, also introduced a series of motions in the Lords to allow Peeresses to sit in the House, all of which were unsuccessful.

After the Second World War, there was renewed interest in the subject. A pressure group was formed, chaired by Edward Iwi, which collected a petition of 50,000 signatures, although it was never presented to Parliament.

On the 2 March 1948 another petition was presented to the House of Lords which bore the signatures of Lady Rhondda and Lady Ravensdale. The latter – formerly Irene Curzon – would become one of the first women to sit in the Lords.

The Lords vote in favour

On the 27 July 1949 the Lords voted on its composition. Although no legislation followed, this vote established for the first time that the House of Lords was in favour of admitting women.

Life Peerages Act 1958

But it was not until the Life Peerages Act 1958 that women were finally allowed to sit in the Upper House as life peers. Viscountess Rhondda lived to see the passage of the Life Peerages Act, but died on 20 July 1958, before the first women took their seats as life peers in the Lords in October.

Hereditary women peers were finally allowed to sit in the House of Lords after the Peerage Act 1963.