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This essay shall attempt to explain why some women got the vote in 1918 by discussing male and female spheres, the emergence of the suffrage societies and the similarities and differences between them. It shall proceed to discuss anti-suffrage, the role of politics, discuss how the war affected the women’s movement and finally the 1918 Representation of the People Act. It shall conclude was a summary of the points discussed. To understand the reasons behind some women getting the vote in 1918, one must look back at the history of the women’s movement to fully understand the reason female suffrage was sought and gained.
In Victorian Britain there was a longstanding and persistent belief that men and women occupied separate spheres. The separate spheres ideology promoted the belief that due to women’s roles in reproduction, they were best suited to occupy the private sphere of home and family. Alternatively, men were designed to occupy the public sphere work and politics . However, this ideology was a direct contradiction to the reality of Victorian women who, in 1871, constituted nearly 32 per cent of the total British labour force.
Women’s presence in the previously male sphere of employment was not the only contradiction of this time.
Many women were beginning to enter the public sphere through charitable and Philanthropic activities. It enabled them gain experience as organisers by conducting meetings, taking minutes, raising funds, keeping accounts and learning to speak in public . This facilitated the move into politics. Many Victorians regarded the act of voting as quite outside a ladies sphere regardless of the fact that women were already accepted as municipal voters.
Moreover, women joined party-political organisations from the 1800s onwards, notably the Primrose League and the Women’s Liberal Federation.
In this capacity the women became more than loyal followers and organisers of social events. They also canvassed the male electors, conveyed them to the poll and became skilled platform speakers. The assumption that women would not be tough enough and that their voices would never carry on the public platform soon collapsed as the ladies demonstrated that they could hold an audience with ease. By the early 1900s politicians conceded that without women it would difficult to run election campaigns. Mid-Victorian feminists fought for equality for women.
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A look at a woman’s prospects when getting married perhaps explain why there was just a steep decline in the numbers of women getting married during this time. When she married the wife’s property and income became her husband’s, divorce was difficult and costly and the separated wife usually lost access to her children. In addition, the unmarried female municipal elector lost her vote when she married. From the 1850s onwards some middle-class women, led by Barbara Leigh Smith, who were known as the ‘Ladies of Langham Place’, inaugurated a series of pressure groups to seek redress from Parliament.
By the 1870s such women as Emily Davis, Lydia Becker, Elizabeth Anderson and Millicent Fawcett were actively pressing for equality for married women, access to professional occupations, improved conduct, and the parliamentary vote . A number of reforms were achieved by the Victorian campaigners. In 1857 divorce became easier and less expensive, the 1886 Guardianship of Infants Act gave women some rights over their children, and the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 secured the property held before marriage and any subsequent income for the wife.
In 1903 Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) but failed to gain public attention until 1905 when it adopted militant tactics. The WSPU organised rallies, marches and campaigns to challenge the lack of a women’s suffrage bill. They questioned and heckled Cabinet ministers at public meetings and attempted to rush into the lobby of the House of Commons to interrupt debates. Despite the initial interest taken by the newspapers, the WSPU found that they could not maintain the high level of publicity needed to attract new members and funding.
Consequently the militant campaign escalated in 1912 with attacks on government and commercial buildings and commonly took the form of window smashing. Other militant tactics involved setting fire to letters boxes, defacing buildings, burning golf greens with acid and firebombing the newly built country house of then Prime Minister Lloyd George. Suffragettes arrested for criminal damage refused to pay fines and were then put in prison. As a protest against being denied the rights of political prisoners, they went on hunger strike.
The government authorised force-feeding, which met with resistance not only from the prisoners themselves but also from the movement at large. By 1913 the Liberal government introduced the Prisoners Temporary Discharge Act, which was also known as the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act, which meant that once the prisoner’s health had deteriorated past a certain point, they could be temporarily released to regain their health and then rearrested again. The catch was that they were soon rearrested if they did not return to the prison voluntarily so that the cycle of hunger-strike and force-feeding could be continued.
Despite the new technique failing to change government policy, it contributed to suffragette propaganda. The purpose of suffrage propaganda was to build up an irresistible pressure of public opinion and at the same time convert MPS to active support of the cause in parliamentary debates. Another explanation of the WSPU’s success after 1905 is that they were well funded and supported by wealthy upper-class ladies. Though militant suffragism was a radical movement, it was based squarely within the British Establishment, and it aimed to gain entry into the system for women rather than to change it fundamentally.
Moreover, suffragette attacks on property were of little economic significance, they were private houses and leisure facilities, and so, although the violence attracted considerable publicity, it represented a law-and-order problem rather than a truly subversive threat. Late Victorian feminists won a series of improvements for women, and by their successful participation in public roles, both in local government and in party politics, they had steadily undermined the traditional case against women’s enfranchisement.
As a result, by the turn of the century political opinion had swung in their favour; the 1906 Parliament in particular contained a large suffragist majority. It is argued that militancy has been greatly exaggerated in the women’s movement. Women’s suffrage was divided between two groups’ militancy and non-militancy. In some ways the two complimented each other. For example, the suffragettes initially attracted huge publicity which was vital in keeping woman’s suffrage on the public agenda.
Moreover, it encouraged women who were reluctant to participate in militant activities, to empathise the suffering of suffragettes in prison. The publicity and empathy stirred up by the suffragettes had a direct correlation to led to a growing number of member of the Suffragist organisation National Union for Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) who had 460 branches by1913, compared with only 90 for the WSPU and 61 for the Women’s Freedom League. It should also be noted that, due to the Pankhursts autocratic style of leadership, there were three splits from the WSPU which depleted their numbers and left them unorganised.
Consequently the government continued to use the full force of the law against the suffragettes. It did not believe that women’s suffrage had become a mass movement. Despite militancy assisting in keeping the women’s movement in the public eye it also damaged the cause. It antagonised politicians who felt the violence was unreasonable. The effect became obvious in the House of Commons when a pro-suffrage vote of 255-88 in 1911 turned into an anti-suffragist vote of 222-208 in 1912. Opposition to the women’s franchise movement was not confined to the government.
The arson campaign had the effect of alienating public opinion and provided anti-suffragists with evidence that women were unfit to vote. Moreover, in March 1912, a gang of medical students smashed the windows of The Women’s Press in Charing Cross Road. The greatest progress in the women’s movement was made not through militant tactics but through aligning themselves with other political pressure groups. The NUWSS forged links with the working class community when they persuaded several trade unions to drop their opposition to women’s suffrage.
Their pact with the Labour Party in 1912 contributed strongly to this because it brought middle-class and working-class radicals together and put pressure on the Liberals by fostering new Labour candidacies in seats held by anti-suffragists. It also meant that, perhaps for the first time, the women’s movement was not viewed as a ‘noisy minority’ of middle class women. The outbreak of the First World War meant that women were required to do jobs that were previously male dominated. By 1914 almost one million women were employed in the munitions factories, huge numbers also served in the armed forces.
In 1915, Lloyd George negotiated the Treasury Agreement, with the Trade Union. 50,000 women were registered officially as available for war work. Munitions of War Act allowed unskilled workers including women to enter into occupations that have previously been undertaken by skilled men. It can be argued that political reform was a catalyst for some women getting the vote in 1918. The women’s suffrage movement was suspended to focus on fighting the war but when the question of a new voting register was raised.
The existent legislation in place required voters to be resident for a year rendering soldiers fighting abroad ineligible to vote. The NUWSS stated that it would not stand by and allow voting rights to be extended to thousands of men while not considering the inclusion of women. The government agreed and ‘Votes for women’ was included in the electoral reform debate. The suspension of the suffrage campaigns and women’s contribution to the war effort made it easier for anti-suffragists to retreat from their entrenched position without appearing weak.
The government expected women to relinquish the jobs they had held during the war and the government feared that Suffragettes would return to the same militant tactics they employed before the war. The setting up of the coalition government in 1915 enabled an all-party agreement to be made and removed fears that one particular party would benefit from the measure. The end of Asquith’s premiership in December 1916 brought in Lloyd George as prime minister and he was a supporter of women’s suffrage.
Finally, politicians recognised that women were going to acquire the vote if not immediately after the war then very soon after. They were not prepared to alienate potential supporters. The argument that the vote was awarded to women as a ‘reward’ for their effort during the war appears flawed as The Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of ?5 or graduates of British universities. However, many women who contributed to the war effort were under 30 and from the working class.
There was a belief among politicians that women over 30 were better able to understand the intricacies of politics and that they would be less likely to support radical ideas. It was also believed that women over 30 would be more likely to be married and consequently would vote the same as their husband. In conclusion, the reason some women got the vote in 1918 are cumulative. The Women’s Suffrage campaigns had significant importance in the decision to grant women the vote as they demonstrated that women were not just housewives of less importance than their husbands.
While the militancy of the Suffragettes gained the movement much needed publicity to keep it on the political agenda it is erroneous to believe the Pankhursts’ claim that militancy was justified and necessary because the women’s movement had made no progress by relying on respectable methods since the 1860s. Victorian feminists achieved a great many victories during their campaign. The outbreak of World War one enabled women to transcend their ‘private sphere’ further as they were required to work jobs that had previously been done by men, but it ultimately postponed the decision to give women the vote.
However, it did enable the social, economic and, perhaps more significantly, political status of women to change. There were a large number of factors that ultimately hindered the female campaign for the vote, entrenched male attitudes, and the legal and economic position of women and to some extent the suffragette campaign itself. It is clear however is without the suffragette campaign female suffrage would not have been at the top of the political agenda.
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