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Representation of the People Act 1918
Today men and women over 21, unless they fall into universal exceptions, are eligible to vote in UK elections.
The Representation of the People Act 1918 should be celebrated as a milestone in achieving this but in terms of voting equality it was incomplete. In fact, although symbolic for women it did more in practice for men.
Why did it happen?
The First World War provided a lot of impetus behind changes to who could vote. Young men had stepped up and fought for their country and women had taken on roles to support the war effort, which pre-1914 would have been unheard of. Women were working on farms, down coal mines and in munitions factories. The notion of rewarding people was a factor.
Only 58% of the adult male population was eligible to vote before 1918. 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 12 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 all men and some women at long last.
The influence of the Suffragette movement
The Suffragette movement influenced the creation of the Act in many ways; gaining support; affirmative media grabbing action, mass marches, putting the issue in men and women’s minds and debates around the dinner table. However it also caused some controversy. The more violent and sensationalist activities played into the hands of those who said women could not be trusted with the vote as they had shown themselves to be irrational and hysterical.
A tired nation
Another argument is that the UK was exhausted from the horrors of war and did not wish to return to the violence they had seen prior to the war from militant suffragette movements. The world had changed, the outlook of British women had changed and perhaps someone who had become skilled and seen the value of work, albeit under awful circumstances, did not want to give it up again and return to a purely domestic life.
A frightened nation
Others were frightened after the Russian Revolution in which through persistence a whole society and country had been violently turned on its head.
Contents of The Representation of the People Act 1918
During 1916-1917, the House of Commons Speaker, James William Lowther, chaired a conference on electoral reform, which recommended limited women’s suffrage.
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 8.5 million women met these criteria, it only represented 40 per cent of the total population of women in the UK.
The same act abolished property and other restrictions for men, and extended the vote to all men over the age of 21. Additionally, men in the armed forces could vote from the age of 19. The electorate increased from eight to 21 million, but there was still huge inequality between women and men.
Passing the Bill
The Bill was passed by 385 to 55 against in the House of Commons. Many believe the majority was so high because there were those who genuinely believed in suffrage for women but also members who thought this would quiet down the suffragette movement, perhaps they would lose some public support if they continued, and prevent more ‘extreme’ measures such as equal voting rights in the future.
The Bill also passed with relative ease through the House of Lords when a prominent anti-suffrage campaigner Lord Curzon said he would not take on the fight with the superior House of Commons. This was likely influenced by the large majority.
The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918
This Act meant women were allowed to stand in elections to be Members of Parliament.
The first woman MP was elected in the General Election of 1918. Countess Constance Markievicz was a member of Sinn Fein and won a seat in Dublin. She did not take her seat in the House of Commons. The first woman to take her seat was Lady Nancy Astor after a by-election in 1919.
View the Act
A copy of the Act
This can be viewed on the UK Parliament website (external link above)
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