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In 1918, at the end of World War One, certain women over the age of 30 were finally enfranchised. This marked a major point in democracy, as it was the first time in the UK that women had been given any electoral power. It is generally accepted by many historians that the main reason for women gaining the vote was due to their role in the first world war, that it was a “thank you” from the government.
However there are other historians who view this theory as being overly simplistic and that there are a number of other factors that contributed to the granting of votes to women. Historians such as Alistair Gray and Arthur Marwick believe strongly that women gaining the vote was a direct result of their war work on the Home Front while the men of Britain fought abroad in the Great War.
Over the 4 year period of the war, 1914 to 1918, women filled the gaps left behind by men in areas such as industry, engineering and munitions factories the number of women working in such positions increased to over 700,000, this was considerably dangerous, with risks not only from explosions but from the chemicals used, and in government departments, which had previously been filled solely by men, now were almost entirely dominated by 200,000 women, the female population of Britain quickly came to envelop almost all aspects of British life and society, from farming to police work.
Many believe that the enfranchisement of women over 30 solely as a result of their work during the war, and it was merely a expression of gratitude. That the actions of women during the war caused men to change their attitude towards women as their eyes were opened to the capabilities of women. Historians such as Paul Bartley oppose the traditional view, Bartley said “It would be naive to believe that women received the right to vote solely for services rendered in the First Word War. ” This belief is backed by the fact that once the war had ended, women were promptly ejected from the roles which they had flourished in during the war.
Showing that while, women may have successfully proven their worth, and that they were not simply inferior and submissive housewives, they were still not considered to equal enough to continue their work. Moreover those those that had put themselves at risk in the munition factories and on the fields, had been single and young, most in their early 20s, whereas those that received the vote were 30 years old and over, and, more often than not, married to rich property or landowners, therefore deemed as “respectable” and worthy of the vote.
For the most part this type of woman did very little to aid the war effort, therefore logically it is unlikely that the enfranchisement of these women had much to do with their war work. Nevertheless, it is possible that the war-work of the younger and less well-off generations improved the government’s view of woman as a whole, allowing their enfranchisement to seem more deserved.
Another factor put forward by historians to weaken the argument that the war work of women resulted in the vote was the French situation occurring with women in France, All those women had done what the British women had done were not granted the vote once the war was over, meaning that either the French government was much harsher on its female population, or that British women were given the vote merely as a coincidence colliding with the end of the war. It can therefore be seen that the arguments of Alistair Gray, and others, is seemingly weak and, indeed, simplistic.
A possible argument which has gained weight, is that the government feared the militancy of the suffragettes, would recommence after the war and could cause further damage to the war battered Britain. The government felt obliged to grant limited franchise to appease the suffragettes. As put by the historian Constance Rover “it was obvious that the militant campaign would return once the war was over if nothing was done to enfranchise women. ” Some credit has been given to the suffragettes as having persuaded men of their right to vote with their willingness to die.
However, while the suffragette campaigns certainly publicised their cause , the damage they perpetrated did little to enhance their reputation or build up mens trust. Therefore it would appear, it was not so much the suffragette campaigns themselves but more the fear of these campaigns which prompted the government to grant votes for women. Another factor put forward, is the change in government within Britain. The early war Prime minister, Herbert Asquith, was forcefully anti-women’s suffrage, while the later Prime minister, David Lloyd George, was more in favour of women’s suffrage.
Lloyd George, who felt that the enfranchisement of women was a necessity, brought into office the likes of Balfour, Arthur Henderson and Lord Robert Cecil who were all also in favour of giving the vote to women. Many feel that the change of government, switching from one of a chauvinistic nature to that of pro- enfranchisement, aided greatly in getting the vote to women, as opposed ti the War effort. Moreover another argument is that has been put forward by various Historians was the issue of soldier’s returning home from the War.
At the time in order for men to vote, a permanent area of residency was necessary for a minimum of one year, but many lost this as a result of moving for the cause of the war. Naturally the government felt obliged to change the law in order to allow the returning soldiers to vote, and some historians argue that the government merely decided to enfranchise women at the same time. However, this argument is weak as it is illogical to believe that the sudden need for an unrelated regulation change prompted the enfranchisement of women when for 100 years women had been denied this right.
Therefore, the need for a change in men’s voting rules probably had little or no bearing on the 1918 enfranchisement of women. Politicians had already come together in order to discuss and analyse the enfranchisement situation in June, 1971, months before the war was actually over, indicating that the war was not solely responsible in gaining votes for women, but that parties had united for the cause of enfranchisement as opposed to individual advantage and benefit.
Finally, another major factor which I believe swung the vote for women was the fact that democracy was spreading all across the world in which women s enfranchisement was becoming a fast adopted trend. The example being set overseas by British colonies such as New Zealand, Canada and Australia along with Norway and four American states who were already enfranchising their women would have been humiliating for Britain, the ‘mother’ of all Parliaments if they stopped their own people from receiving the vote.
It is therefore clear that women’s war wasn’t the main cause for their eventual enfranchisement in 1918. This however is probably only a minor factor in governments change in policy. In conclusion, it is clear that although the war was important in giving women a platform to show their value and that it contributed to a change in attitude towards women, hough it was not the sole reason for women being enfranchised. Neither is it solely due to any of the other arguments mentioned above.
If it had not been for the removal of Asquith as prime minister, the fear of suffragette militancy and the enfranchisement of women in other countries then women may not have received the vote. Therefore it is clear that the view of “women only receiving the vote in 1918 on account of their war work” is overly-simplistic and cannot e considered accurate. There were other more significant factors which must be considered and it was the combination of all these factors which led to the enfranchisement of women in 1918.