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After many years of campaigning, women over thirty years of age gained the vote in 1918 and all women over the age of twenty one gained the vote in 1928. There are many factors why this was achieved. For example it can be said that a combination of the votes for women campaign led by the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) and the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) which included various tactics, both illegal and legal as well as other factors such as changing attitudes to women in society and World War One (WW1). This particular factor has in the past been argued to be one of the main reasons for the gaining of the vote, more so than the pre- war campaigns. However recently this theory has been challenged.
The war was significant in contributing to gaining the vote for women because there was a shortage of male workers due to many of them fighting; so many women took on the jobs of men in many areas of work. For example women worked in heavy industry such as armaments and ammunition factories which was vital for the war effort. Also the WRENS (Women’s Royal Navy Service) and the WRAFS (Women’s Royal Air Force) contributed by doing such jobs as drivers, typists, messengers, telephonists, welding and carpentry on aircraft. This proved to men that women were just as capable of undertaking manual and responsible jobs as they were. This challenged the idea of the separate spheres that men and women were different both mentally and physically and so had different roles to fill in life.
However, the idea that WW1 broke down the idea of the separate spheres can be challenged as Harrison argues “although many women serving in the Armed Forces were extremely brave, they did not experience the horrors of the front line. The separation of role was also reinforced by…many men across the channel while most women stayed at home.” Therefore it can be said that rather than challenging the separate spheres, WW1 reinforced them and so did not greatly help to convince society and politicians that women were equal to men and so deserved equal opportunities.
Previously historians have argued that WW1 did help to gain the vote because the government granted women the vote as a reward for their hard work and sacrifices. This was because most of the war work that women took on was highly dangerous and hours were long. Also there was the constant threat of explosions like at Silvertown in January 1917 and TNT poisoning which turned the skin of workers yellow and so the workers became known as Canary Girls. However, this can also be challenged because work was often carried out by women under thirty, whilst the vote in 1918 was only granted to women over this age. So women who did the majority of the work were not rewarded.
It can also be argued that the war did little to help women gain the vote in 1918 because by 1914 when the war started, the government was on the verge of granting the vote. Asquith meet the deputations of the WSPU and the NUWSS in 1913 and 1914 so he may have been close to granting the vote after being won round, partly through the suffragette movement; if this is true, the war delayed this from happening. This was mainly due to the fact that when WW1 started the government had more important issues to discuss and so the question of votes for women had to take a back seat. However, Harrison claims “the war weakened the suffragist movement. It pushed all peaceful problems down the political agenda.”
Moreover, WW1 improved relations between the WSPU and the NUWSS and the government during the war years. Before the war relations between the WSPU and NUWSS and the government were not strong mainly because of the illegal activities of the WSPU. This was caused by most suffrage activities being suspended whilst the war was on. Many members of the WSPU and NUWSS threw themselves whole heartedly into the war effort and became highly patriotic.
‘The Suffragette’ newspaper was renamed ‘Britannica’, members helped to recruit munitions workers and also put the suffragette movement’s funds and resources at the disposal of the government to help with the war. This increased the respectability of the WSPU and NUWSS and so improved their relationship with the government which made them more likely to grant women the vote. However, not all members of the suffragette movement were as patriotic as the WSPU and NUWSS. The ELFS (East London Federation of Suffragettes) were both anti- war and anti- government. There were also splits within the NUWSS against pro and anti- war members.
More importantly, the war also raised the question of voting rights in general. This was because the current laws stated that male voters had to live at the same address for at least a year to be eligible to vote. This caused problems for the men who had gone to the front to fight for over twelve months, therefore the Speakers Conference was held in 1916 to address male suffrage. At this conference there were no women or members of the suffragette movement present, however there were male supporters of votes for women and it was likely that the topic of female suffrage would also be raised. Therefore in this case it can be seen that the war helped votes for women to be granted because without the war the Speakers Conference would not have taken place and so the topic of female suffrage would not have been raised at this time.
There were a number of political changes within government such as a coalition government formed in 1915. This altered the balance between the number of supporters in government and the number against. Balfour, Bonar Law and Arthur Henderson who were all pro- votes for women were appointed in government posts. Also Lloyd George who was mainly pro- female suffrage replaced Asquith as Prime Minister when he stepped down in December 1916. Therefore this meant that there were more supporters of votes for women within government and also Asquith did not lose face and seem to be giving in to the suffragettes’ demands; he used war work as a reason to give women the vote. Therefore it can be seen that in certain areas, WW1 did help women to gain the vote.
However, this is not the only factor that contributed to the vote for women being granted. The pre- war campaign began in 1860 when the campaign for female suffrage started; this raised the question of votes for women earlier than it would have been without it. The ways in which the pre- war campaign was carried out were largely as a result of the NUWSS and WSPU which were founded in 1897 and 1903 respectively.
The suffragette campaign took place in a series of legal and illegal ways. Traditionally the WSPU have been associated with the more militant and illegal methods where as the NUWSS were associated with peaceful, legal tactics. It has often been said that the WSPU turned to more daring and militant tactics as they felt that the NUWSS’s lack of imagination and success was due to unsuccessful methods and tactics although as Pugh says that this theory is “quite wrong.” Examples of the more peaceful tactics included holding various meetings. These were both semi private and public, for instance Lydia Becker and other suffragette members spoke at various church groups and speakers were invited to meetings at people’s houses. Other larger, more public meetings also took place; for example in 1909 large meetings were held at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the Synod Hall in Edinburgh as well as in other large meeting halls such as the Albert Hall in Nottingham.
These meetings generated publicity and were also an effective way of recruiting new members to the suffragette movement. Other legal methods of the campaign included demonstrations and pilgrimages; these were often highly impressive and colourful. Demonstrators dressed in the colours of the suffragette movement which were purple, green and white. An example of such a demonstration happened in 1908 when Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the WSPU led a large scale demonstration where seven different processions met in Hyde Park.
Propaganda also played an important part in the suffragette campaign. Techniques included the publication of ‘The Suffragette’ newspaper which was published from 1913. Poems, short stories and plays such as ‘How the Vote Was Won’ written by Elizabeth Robins, an active member of the WSPU and a well known dramatist were performed to audiences around the country. The WSPU also designed, advertised and sold various merchandises in their London shops such as soap, cakes, jewellery, cards, stationary, badges, bags and blouses. It was a combination of all of these techniques that increased the membership of the movement, for instance membership of the NUWSS grew from 6,000 in 1907 to 50,000 by 1914.
More violent tactics which were often carried out by the WSPU included vandalism such as breaking windows and arson. One arson attack included setting fire to part of Lloyd George’s country house in Surrey in 1913. Other illegal tactics included destroying letter boxes, telegraph wires and also destroying pieces of art, such as Venus by Velasquez in the National Gallery which was slashed by Mary Richardson.
These tactics of the WSPU and the NUWSS both helped and hindered the bringing about the votes for women. Ways in which it helped the vote to be granted were by raising the question of the vote. It is most likely that without the suffrage campaign the question of female suffrage would not have been addressed when it was. Also the campaign led by the WSPU and the NUWSS helped women to gain the vote by forcing the government to take notice of their campaign and forcing them to respond to the militant tactics. However the militant tactics also hindered the suffrage campaign by causing many people including politicians and the general public to lose respect for the campaign and so this led politicians not to grant the vote earlier because they felt that the members of the suffrage campaign were behaving in an irresponsible manner and so were not worthy of having the vote.
Despite the suffrage campaign hindering some aspects of women gaining the vote before 1918 there was some success that followed as a result of the pre- war campaign. For instance as a result of the campaign the suffragette movement gained even more supporters and members of the movement and also more men were won round into supporting votes for women. These men included key influential figures such as journalists Henry Nevison and H N Brailsford, cricketer Jack Hobbs and middle class intellectuals such as John Masefield and John Galsworthy. Also several male organisations were being set up, such as the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and the Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage which later became the Men’s Political Union. Members of Parliament and in particular members of the Labour and Liberal Parties were also being won round to supporting the campaign; and to a certain extend some members of the Conservative Party also did.
Moreover the WSPU and the NUWSS attracted publicity; this was achieved partly by militancy which was largely carried out by the WSPU. For example, the press reported the demonstrations, marches and acts of violence. Although this publicity was negative it did highlight the issue of female suffrage and so it could no longer be ignored by the government and Parliament.
The votes for women campaign had also caused several bills to be attempted to be put through parliament such as the Conciliation Bill which was first introduced into Parliament in 1910. This bill did gain the majority of votes although it failed to get through Parliament because it ran out of time to be re- read in the House of Lords. However this does show that there was support for votes for women in Parliament. The Government Franchise Bill in 1913 and the Women’s Suffrage Bill which had its first reading in 1907, also failed to get through Parliament. However although these attempted bills failed they can be seen as significant in helping to achieve female suffrage because attempts were being made to gain female suffrage.
It can be argued that the pre- war campaign was more significant than WW1 in bringing about votes for some women. This is because the campaign did more in the way of first raising the issue of female suffrage and also had significant achievements which consequently led to female suffrage being granted in 1918. Also had the argument of female suffrage not been raised by the pre war campaigns of the WSPU and NUWSS and had been addressed in the Speakers Conference it is doubtful that at the end of WW1 female suffrage would have been granted. This is because the same pattern of bills being introduced into Parliament but failing to get through may have continued longer than it did. Also in France during WW1 women had also undertaken men’s jobs and roles and yet because the question of female suffrage there had not previously been raised, French women were not granted the right to vote at the end of the war.
Another significant factor in bringing about votes for women being granted was long term social and economic change. This was backed up by Millicent Fawcett the leading suffragette who claimed that when the vote was granted it would be because of wider changes in society. By this time certain attitudes in society were changing. For instance, as Pugh claims “women made great advances at all levels of their education in this period, and thereby won a wider share of employment… where they often performed the same work as men,” also after 1907 women were allowed to be elected onto county councils, school boards, poor law boards and also parish councils. It therefore made sense to assume that within time women would also be granted the right to vote in government elections, as Pugh also suggests “in the long run their participation in local governments made women’s exclusion from national elections increasingly untenable.” Also because British colonies such as Australia had granted women the vote it made sense to think that it would not be long before the British government, which was regarded as the leader of democracy granted the same.
Overall it is clear that WW1 was not the only factor that was significant in paving the way for women in Britain to be granted the vote at the end of the war in 1918. It is also debatable that WW1 was the most significant factor of all. It can be seen that without the pre- war suffrage campaign the issue of female suffrage would not have been raised and so without it WW1 would most likely have had no effect on female suffrage as it did in France. Also the pre- war campaign gained many important and influential supporters who were able to influence change within the government and so succeeded in coming closer to the government granting women the vote. WW1 can also be seen as less significant than previously thought because in some ways it is possible that it delayed the vote being granted for a further four years.
It is also possible to discredit the argument that the vote was grated as a reward for women who had taken part in war work because the women who did the majority of the work were not rewarded by the vote until 1928 when the voting age was reduced to the age of twenty one, the same as men. However without the political changes in government which happened as a result of WW1 and also the issue of male suffrage being raised in 1916 it is doubtful that the vote would have been given in 1918.Therefore it can be seen that although WW1 was certainly an important factor in bringing about votes for women, it is by no means that most important or significant. It is effectively a combination of all three factors that resulted in female suffrage being granted in 1918, twenty years after the issue of female suffrage was first raised by the NUWSS in 1897.
Bartley, Paula Votes for Women 1860-1928
Harrison, B The First World War and Feminism in Britain, History Review 1993
Pugh, Martin Modern History Review
Smith, Harold L The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign