Vic­tory at last!

This year marks the cen­te­nary of the mo­ment that mil­lions of Bri­tish women won the right to vote. On these pages, Diane Atkin­son takes the pulse of the na­tion in 1918 when women went to the polls, while, on page 26, four his­to­ri­ans an­swer the big ques­tion

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Diane Atkin­sonn is a his­to­rian and au­thor. Her lat­est book is Rise Up Women! The Re­mark­able Lives of the Suffragettes (Blooms­bury, 2018). She was a con­sul­tant on the 2015 film Suf­fragette, star­ring Carey Mul­li­gan

It was 100 years ago that Bri­tish women fi­nally won the vote. Diane Atkin­son re­counts how the pub­lic re­acted to this mo­men­tous event

It was “al­most the hap­pi­est mo­ment of my life”, re­mem­bered the nov­el­ist Evelyn Sharp, a lead­ing suf­fragette and mem­ber of the Women’s So­cial and Po­lit­i­cal Union (WSPU), as she walked down White­hall with her friends Henry Nevin­son and Bertha Brew­ster on 6 Fe­bru­ary 1918. “To live to see the tri­umph of a ‘ lost’ cause for which we have suf­fered much and would have sac­ri­ficed ev­ery­thing, must be al­most the great­est of hu­man de­lights.”

Her joy stemmed from the Rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Peo­ple Act, which passed into law that day, giv­ing all men over the age of 21, and cer­tain women over the age of 30, the vote.

Savour­ing the mo­ment, Sharp re­mem­bered “friends lost by the way and friends gained in the strug­gle of hor­rid dis­il­lu­sion­ment and trans­fig­ur­ing rev­e­la­tion; mem­o­ries that hurt so much they had to be buried out of sight, and mem­o­ries so il­lu­mined by fine be­hav­iour and de­li­cious hu­mour that they would re­main a pre­cious pos­ses­sion un­til the end of life”.

The act was the cul­mi­na­tion of a pro­longed and some­times dan­ger­ous cam­paign to se­cure women’s suf­frage, but it was also a re­sponse to the First World War. When war broke out on 4 Au­gust 1914, suf­frage cam­paign­ers were quick to re­act: the mod­er­ate suf­frag­ists of the National Union of Women’s Suf­frage So­ci­eties (NUWSS), led by Mrs Mil­li­cent Fawcett, con­tin­ued to cam­paign for the vote, and took up war work (al­though some were un­happy about ap­pear­ing to sup­port the con­flict). Em­me­line and Christa­bel Pankhurst, lead­ing fig­ures in the mil­i­tant WSPU, also urged all women to sup­port the war ef­fort but sus­pended their strug­gle.

Ab­sent with­out votes

In 1916, it be­came clear that thou­sands of men who had vol­un­teered to fight had lost the right to vote by de­fault, since the law stated that those ab­sent from their homes were to be dis­en­fran­chised. This was po­ten­tially em­bar­rass­ing to the gov­ern­ment, so plans were made not just to re-en­fran­chise male vot­ers but to ex­tend the vote to all men (40 per cent of men did not have the vote at this time). With many op­po­nents of women’s suf­frage in the pre­war years hav­ing now left the po­lit­i­cal land­scape, the gov­ern­ment also de­cided to re­ward Bri­tish women for their vi­tal war work by giv­ing some of them the vote.

Two weeks be­fore the act be­came law, a car­toon ti­tled ‘At Last!’ had ap­peared in Punch mag­a­zine (no friend to the women’s suf­frage move­ment), de­pict­ing Joan of Arc, who was the pa­tron saint of the WSPU. Bare-headed Joan plants her boots on a bleak land­scape, her uni­form tat­tered by years of bat­tle, her right hand hold­ing a ‘Woman’s Fran­chise’ flag, a burst of light be­hind her sug­gest­ing

that women’s freedom was dawn­ing. The car­toon (shown be­low) de­scribed the sense of re­lief that the vote had fi­nally been won.

The vic­tory was not com­plete, how­ever. Women could only vote if they were house­hold­ers, the wives of house­hold­ers, oc­cu­piers of prop­erty with an an­nual rent of £5, or grad­u­ates of Bri­tish uni­ver­si­ties, or sim­i­larly qual­i­fied. And, of course, they weren’t granted the fran­chise un­til they were 30.

The of­fi­cial rea­son that women had to wait nine years longer than men was that they were said to be too im­ma­ture to vote. The truth was some­what dif­fer­ent: if en­fran­chised on equal terms with men, women would have out­num­bered male vot­ers in the elec­torate – a be­wil­der­ing propo­si­tion to many peo­ple.

“I didn’t vote for a very long time be­cause I hadn’t ei­ther a hus­band or fur­ni­ture,” said one suf­fragette

Too sor­row­ful to cel­e­brate

There were no pub­lic cel­e­bra­tions to mark this his­toric mo­ment. Bri­tain was still at war, the out­come by no means cer­tain. Daily ca­su­alty fig­ures of the dead, miss­ing and wounded filled the news­pa­pers. Tri­umphal­ism was thought un­seemly. Suf­fragette Sylvia Pankhurst, a paci­fist and so­cial­ist, en­cap­su­lated the mood: “The fight for wom­an­hood suf­frage had been won,” but “the pageantry and re­joic­ing, the flam­ing ar­dour, which in pre­war days would have greeted the vic­tory, were ab­sent when it [the vote] came. The sor­rows of the world con­flict pre­cluded ju­bi­la­tions.”

“When we got the vote, it was a sort of an anti-cli­max ac­tu­ally,” said suf­fragette Mary Phillips, who had served five months in prison, dur­ing which she had been force-fed. “It came in such a sneaky way. You couldn’t re­joice as you would have done if it had come at a time of mil­i­tancy. But still it was very good to feel that it was fin­ished and that we had been con­trib­u­tors to­wards it.”

Lil­ian Len­ton, a suf­fragette ar­son­ist, was 27 years old in 1918 and so in­el­i­gi­ble to vote: “I was ex­tremely pleased we got the vote but very dis­gusted at the cu­ri­ous terms on which we got it… I didn’t vote for a very long time be­cause I hadn’t ei­ther a hus­band or fur­ni­ture.”

Con­versely, Jessie Stephen­son, dis­owned by her fam­ily for cam­paign­ing for the vote, was op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture: “Woman now has in her hands the key to get re­pealed the scan­dalous laws made against her in the past… we sur­viv­ing war­riors, bat­tered, mauled and mostly worn-out, look con­fi­dently to her… and hand the key to the com­ing gen­er­a­tion to un­lock the door to Freedom and Equal Op­por­tu­nity.”

It was clear that women’s suf­frage was not uni­ver­sally ap­plauded and of­ten there was un­pleas­ant­ness when el­i­gi­ble women went to regis­ter their vote in readi­ness for the next gen­eral elec­tion. A niece of suf­frag­ist Maud Arn­cliffe Sen­nett told her aunt that she and her friend had “spent all morn­ing try­ing to find the place with­out suc­cess. Ev­ery­one we asked was so nasty. I can quite un­der­stand how beastly it must have been to have had that wall of in­sult­ing prej­u­dice against one in ev­ery turn, if they are like this now that it is won!”

De­spite such ob­sta­cles, the cam­paign for equal­ity con­tin­ued apace. In March 1918 the NUWSS vowed to cam­paign for women to have the vote at 21 and ob­tain “re­forms, eco­nomic, leg­isla­tive, and so­cial, as are nec­es­sary to se­cure a real equal­ity of lib­er­ties, sta­tus, and op­por­tu­ni­ties be­tween men and women”.

One sig­nif­i­cant vic­tory in this cam­paign ar­rived on 21 Novem­ber 1918 with the pass­ing of the Par­lia­ment (Qual­i­fi­ca­tion of Women) Act, which al­lowed women to stand as can­di­dates to be­come mem­bers of par­lia­ment.

In the thick of the dan­ger­ous and dar­ing suf­fragette cam­paign, few would have imag­ined that 8.4 mil­lion women would soon be legally en­ti­tled to vote. Fewer still would have an­tic­i­pated that some of them would be able to cast that vote for a fe­male can­di­date.

But that’s ex­actly what many of them did when, on 14 De­cem­ber 1918, women went to the polls for the first time in Bri­tish par­lia­men­tary m his­tory. Me­dia in­ter­est at the prospect p of women vot­ing for the first time was w fever­ish. Be­cause sev­eral mil­lion men were w away in the­atres of war around the world ( the Ar­mistice to end the con­flict had only been b signed on 11 Novem­ber), the count was not n held un­til 28 De­cem­ber.

With so many sol­diers still abroad, in many m parts of Lon­don fe­male vot­ers out­num­bered b men by 20 to 1. Women “gave much less trou­ble t at the polling sta­tions than was feared by b pes­simists,” re­ported The Times. Many were w de­ter­mined that “their house­hold cares should s not be an ob­sta­cle to their ex­er­cise of the t fran­chise. Nor were they so timid and un­cer­tain u at the polling sta­tions as had gen­er­ally g been an­tic­i­pated.” The fact that many m of the polling clerks were young women “ready to give ad­vice and as­sis­tance” put the “women vot­ers more at ease”. The Times’ im­pres­sion i was that more women voted in con­stituen­cies c with a fe­male can­di­date.

The re­porters learned that fe­male can­di­dates d in Lon­don had or­gan­ised “bands of women helpers to mind the homes and look after the baby, and even cook the mid-day

meal, while the wives went to vote”. Many moth­ers took their older chil­dren with them to the polling sta­tion, and in the evening wives and hus­bands went to vote to­gether. The el­derly and in­firm were fre­quently taken in cars ar­ranged by the fe­male can­di­dates. (The el­dest fe­male voter was a Mrs Lam­bert of Ed­mon­ton, aged 105. She told a re­porter she would vote for the man who would “have that beast of a kaiser shot”.)

The Daily Newss re­ported that sup­port­ers of one can­di­date, Emily Frost Phipps, had in­stalled a polling booth in her com­mit­tee rooms in the King’s Road, Chelsea, so that women could prac­tise vot­ing. A woman helped Mary Macarthur’s can­di­dacy in Stour­bridge by look­ing after 60 ba­bies while their moth­ers went to the polls.

The lead­ing lights

The con­sen­sus was that, of the 17 women to stand for elec­tion, Christa­bel Pankhurst, the fem­i­nist cam­paigner Ray (Rachel) Stra­chey, women’s trade union­ist Mary Macarthur, and Vi­o­let Markham, for­merly a lead­ing light of the Women’s National Anti-Suf­frage League, were the most likely to be re­turned to par­lia­ment.

The 17 fe­male can­di­dates won a to­tal of 58,978 votes. Christa­bel Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Party (for­merly the WSPU), polled the most of these (8,614 votes in Smeth­wick) but was bit­terly dis­ap­pointed to lose by 775 votes. Al­though the sub­se­quent Sex­ual Disqual­i­fi­ca­tion Re­moval Act (1919) would al­low women to en­ter many pro­fes­sions – though not the church – Christa­bel did not then go on to use her first-class law de­gree. In­stead she de­voted the rest of her life to Sev­enth Day Ad­ven­tism, trav­el­ling around Amer­ica evan­ge­lis­ing for the sec­ond com­ing of Je­sus.

Vi­o­let Markham’s bid to be an MP was cu­ri­ous: her hos­tile views had mel­lowed when con­fronted by the great in­equal­ity women suf­fered dur­ing the war, and she be­came a fem­i­nist cam­paigner. Some­what half-heart- edly, she stood for her brother Arthur’s seat, which he had held from 1900 un­til his death from a heart at­tack in 1916. She polled 4,000 votes as an in­de­pen­dent lib­eral in Mans­field, los­ing out to Labour’s Wil­liam Carter, who won al­most 9,000 votes.

Alice Lu­cas, a widow, rep­re­sented the Con­ser­va­tives in her late hus­band’s Ken­ning­ton con­stituency, fol­low­ing his death three days be­fore the elec­tion. Like many can­di­dates – male and fe­male – Lu­cas’s man­i­festo was tren­chantly anti-Ger­man and anti-paci­fist. If elected, she said she would

make sure the Ger­mans paid the full price of the war, the kaiser and all “guilty Huns” would be brought to trial, and con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tors would re­main in prison “un­til it is im­pos­si­ble for them to snatch the jobs which are right­fully the re­ward of our re­turn­ing heroes”. Lu­cas won 3,573 votes, just over 1,000 fewer than the Lib­eral party’s Henry Pur­chase.

In fact, the only woman to win a seat in the his­toric De­cem­ber 1918 elec­tion was one who had re­cently earned a re­prieve from the death sen­tence. Con­stance Markiewicz, whose name was put for­ward to rep­re­sent Sinn Féin in the con­stituency of St Pa­trick­Pa­trick’ss in Dublin, polled 7,835 votes, and d duly be­came the first woman to be elect­ede to the Bri­tish par­lia­ment. Ma arkiewicz was in Hol­loway prison n (hav­ing ear­lier been jailed for herh part in the Easter Ris­ing of 191 16) when her vic­tory was an­noun nced. She would refuse to take he er seat when she was re­leased. .

It would be an­other yeary be­fore a fe­male MP wo ould fi­nally en­ter par­lia­men nt – and, like Con­stance Markiewicz, that wom man was not a lead­ing light of the suf­frage cam­paign. Nancy As­tor had never ag­i­tated for votes for women. In fact, if her hus­band, Wal­dorf As­tor, MP for Ply­mouth Sutton, hadn’t quit the Com­mons to take his dead fa­ther’s seat in the House of Lords, she would never have stood for par­lia­ment at all. But, wish­ing to keep the seat warm for her el­dest son Bill, that’s ex­actly what she did. And, on 28 Novem­ber 1919, she won the seat with a ma­jor­ity of 5,000, polling 51 per cent of the vote.

The day after As­tor’s vic­tory, a large crowd con­gre­gated at Padding­ton sta­tion to catch sight of this un­likely pi­o­neer­pi­one of women’s suf­frage as she changed trains t en route to the fam­ily es­tate at Clive­den. C When As­tor emerged fro om her car­riage, a group of suf­fraget ttes, some of whom had been force-fed d, pushed their way to the front. One pre­sented p the new MP with a badge, say­ing: “It is the be­gin­ning of our er ra. I am glad I have

suf­fered for this s.”

Bath­room m out­rage

Women had won the right to vote and to stand for elec­tion to the House off Com­mons – but now they waanted more. The same year ass As­tor’s po­lit­i­cal tri­umph, thhe NUWSS elected Elean­nor Rath­bone as its leaader, and changed iits name to the National Union of So­ci­eties for Equal Cit­i­zen­ship (NUSEC). They cam­paigned for the vote for women at 21, for equal pay for equal work (still not fully achieved), re­form of the di­vorce law, and wid­ows’ pen­sions, equal rights of guardian­ship of chil­dren, and ac­cess of women to the le­gal pro­fes­sion.

The mo­men­tum ap­peared to be with them. But that did not mean that all politi­cians ap­proved of such progress. Win­ston Churchill, who was one of the suffragettes’ most im­pla­ca­ble en­e­mies in the pre­war years, was ap­palled at the ar­rival of Lady Nancy As­tor in the House: “I find a woman’s in­tru­sion into the House of Com­mons as em­bar­rass­ing as if she burst into my bath­room when I had noth­ing with which to de­fend my­self, not even a sponge,” he de­clared.

Years later, Nancy As­tor re­called that much of the hos­til­ity di­rected to­wards her came, not from her po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies, but from “men whom I had known for years [who] would not speak to me if they passed me in the cor­ri­dor”.

De­spite such an­tipa­thy, As­tor would still be walk­ing those cor­ri­dors a quar­ter of a cen­tury later. Twenty-four fe­male MPs were elected to par­lia­ment in the gen­eral elec­tion of 1945, the year that As­tor fi­nally quit her seat. By 2017’s gen­eral elec­tion, that num­ber had risen to 208. Women may still ac­count for fewer than one in three MPs but, to the cam­paign­ers who sac­ri­ficed so much in the fraught years lead­ing to the his­toric 1918 elec­tion, that fig­ure would surely have of­fered some cause for cel­e­bra­tion.

Fe­male can­di­dates or­gan­ised “bands of helpers to mind the homes and look after the baby, while the wives went to vote”

The de­fin­i­tive me­dieval hero? Read about the real Richard the Lionheart on page 73

Prom­i­nent suf­fragette Christa­bel Pankhurst role-plays cast­ing a vote – pos­si­bly dur­ing a fundrais­ing event for the suf­frage cam­paign – in 1910. Eight years later, her dream of re­ceiv­ing the fran­chise would be­come a re­al­ity

Cam­paign­ers urge the peo­ple of Smeth­wick to vote for Christa­bel Pankhurst. De­spite their best ef­forts, the lead­ing suf­fragette would lose out by 775 votes

Joan of Arc, bat­tered from years of bat­tling, cel­e­brates suf­frage at last, as de­picted in Punch, Jan­uary 1918

Sinn Féin’s Con­stance Markiewicz be­came the first woman to be elected to par­lia­ment, de­spite lan­guish­ing in Hol­loway prison

The suf­fragette Mary Phillips is led down a Lon­don street by two po­lice­men, c1912–14. “When we got the vote,” Phillips would later de­clare, “it was a sort of an anti- cli­max”

Nancy As­tor be­cam e the first fe­male MP to sit in the House of Comm mons, on 1 De­cem­ber 1919

A woman casts her vote, ac­com­pa­nied by her chil­dren, in De­cem­ber 1918. Women weren’t as “timid and un­cer­tain at the polling sta­tions as had gen­er­ally been an­tic­i­pated”, re­ported The Times

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