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IN 1918, af­ter al­most 100 years of try­ing to change the law, women over the age of 30 were al­lowed to vote in na­tional elec­tions. Un­til that time women worked, paid tax and had to obey the law, the same as men, but they had no say in who was elected to Par­lia­ment, where laws were made. Women protested in many ways and some even died for the right to vote.

Chang­ing the law so that women could vote be­came a long strug­gle but, be­fore the 19th Cen­tury, not many men had the vote ei­ther. Orig­i­nally the right to vote de­pended on how much land you owned. In 1832 The Great Re­form Bill was passed which said that only ‘male per­sons’ could vote and it was then limited to an even smaller num­ber of men.

From time to time the law changed so that more men were al­lowed to vote but not women. They be­gan to protest. They sent pe­ti­tions and lob­bied MPs (Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment) by meet­ing with them and try­ing to per­suade them that women should have the same rights as men. Some MPs ar­gued in Par­lia­ment for women to be able to vote and there were sev­eral bills, or draft laws, that were de­bated (ar­gued by peo­ple with dif­fer­ent views) but which never be­came law.

Many men felt that women shouldn’t vote be­cause they could not un­der­stand how the law worked and what Par­lia­ment was for. This an­gered women like Mil­li­cent Fawcett. She was mar­ried to an MP and of­ten went to Par­lia­ment to watch the de­bates. She be­gan speak­ing in pub­lic about women’s right to vote and the need to change the law. At the same time, women all over the coun­try were set­ting up groups to pro­mote the rights of women. In 1897 they came to­gether as the Na­tional Union of Women’s Suf­frage So­ci­eties (NUWSS). They con­tin­ued protest­ing and demon­strat­ing but ev­ery year the law was blocked.

In 1903, frus­trated by the lack of progress, Em­me­line Pankhurst joined with some other fe­male ac­tivists and set up the Women’s So­cial and Po­lit­i­cal Union (WSPU). Over the next few years, they used more ag­gres­sive ways to get at­ten­tion for their cause. The Govern­ment de­cided that they had to stop the protests and the po­lice were called to ar­rest the women when they broke the law. The po­lice treated the women roughly and in prison they were force-fed, a hor­ri­ble way to make them eat when they were on hunger strike. It gained them some sym­pa­thy with the pub­lic but still did not re­sult in any change.

By 1914, when war broke out, the WSPU did not have the sup­port it had ear­lier, and the NUWSS agreed to stop all its ac­tiv­i­ties un­til the war was over. Draft laws still ap­peared ev­ery year but none was passed.

Women were needed in the war. They were on the front line of bat­tle, tend­ing to the wounded and driv­ing ve­hi­cles. They also worked in the fac­to­ries as well as look­ing af­ter their fam­i­lies and homes while the men were away. The Govern­ment re­alised that they could no longer ar­gue that women were not ca­pa­ble of un­der­stand­ing the law.

There had been many bills be­fore Par­lia­ment and years of protest but, as the war came to a close, the law was fi­nally changed. Some women – over the age of 30 – had the vote at last! But, it was an­other ten years un­til all women had the same vot­ing rights as men.

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