Today, as the centenary of legislation which gave the vote to some British women is being celebrated by women MPs in the House of Commons, on an all-woman BBC Radio 4 Today Programme – at last! Hurrah! – and (hopefully) in schools across the country, here’s a quick look at The Representation of the People’s Act 1918, and how it passed through parliament during the First World War.
By 1916, two years into the war, the British electoral register was no longer fit for purpose. Had a new register been prepared along pre-war lines, only half of the country’s eligible electors would have been able to vote because war work had taken the other half away from their homes – and residency was a condition of registration. Politically, this was unacceptable since it meant British soldiers fighting abroad were among those disqualified to vote. The vital war work being done by women also undermined pre-war arguments against granting them the vote, too.
A Special Register Bill (1916) attempted a temporary solution, but failed to address the problem of disenfranchised soldiers; this Bill was dropped.
Finally, in 1918, all previous voting rights were repealed by The Representation of the People’s Act, which gave male soldiers aged 19 and over the right to a vote, as well as all men aged 21 and over. Women had to wait until they were 30. They also had to qualify to vote in local government elections through property ownership – or be married to a man who was – before they could vote for their MP.
The 1918 Act did give single women over 21 the right to vote in local authority elections, and ended a ban on people in receipt of poor relief or alms from voting. Conscientious objectors, however, were prohibited from registering to vote until five years after the conclusion of the Great War.
Equal voting rights for men and women were never seriously considered under the 1918 Act. That was because gender equality would have given 14 million women the vote, a majority over men. At the time it was considered unacceptable that men who’d fought in WW1 could be out-voted by women who hadn’t. Instead, the 1918 Act gave 8.4 million women a parliamentary vote so male voters would continue to outnumber females.
While special provisions were made for serving soldiers, including proxy & postal votes for those still in France and Belgium, munition workers who’d had to move house to be near armament factories were excluded from the 1918 Act, so they couldn’t vote for the next government.
It took a further ten years before The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 gave equal voting rights to men and women for elections in the UK.