On 6 February 1918 the Representation of the People Act received Royal Assent, marking the start of female suffrage in Great Britain. The bill had been passed in the House of Commons by 385 votes to 55 and gave women over the age of 30 who owned property the right to vote. While it therefore denied the vote to a large number of women, it was still a watershed moment in the history of gender equality in the UK.
A traditional explanation for parliament supporting the bill is that it acted as a ‘reward’ for the vital work done by women during World War One. Adherents of this interpretation argue that the Suffragettes had actually damaged the suffrage movement through their violent actions. These included committed arson, vandalism, and other high-profile protests that included the death of Emily Davison at the horse racing Epson Derby of 1913. This interpretation therefore argues it was only the work done by women during the First World War, such as in munitions factories, driving buses, or working on farms that persuaded Parliament to support women’s suffrage.
Conversely, in France where women did equally important war work, they did not win the right to vote. A counter-argument therefore exists that says this is because there was no pre-war suffragist movement in France – and certainly nothing to equal the militancy of the Suffragettes. Adherents of this interpretation therefore argue that the work of the Suffragettes and Suffragists before 1914 had been vitally important to women winning the right to vote years later. The actions of the Suffragettes had shocked many people in Britain, and no-one was keen to return to the violence of pre-1914. In the aftermath of violence that had erupted in Russia and led to the Communist Revolution, the British establishment wanted to avoid that possibility at home. This interpretation therefore argues that passing a relatively moderate female suffrage section in the 1918 Representation of the People Act kept the suffragists happy and delayed more radical reform – such as full and equal voting rights for men and women.
The 1918 Representation of the People Act was, therefore, an important but rather conservative measure. Firstly it only gave the vote to women over 30, since many politicians believed that their age meant they were 1much less likely to support radical politics since they were more likely to be married with children. This meant that many of the women who had worked in the fields and in munition factories during the war did not get the right to vote as they were generally younger than the minimum age. Secondly only women who were property owners qualified for the vote, meaning that even the educated middle-class women who had supported the Suffragettes before 1914 were excluded since many of them had gone into white-collar work after 1920 and lived in rented property away from their parents as a sign of their independence.
The bill passed through the House of Lords by 134 votes to 71 after Lord Curzon, the president of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage, made it clear that he would not oppose it and risk clashing with the Commons. Consequently it received Royal Assent from George V on 6 February 1918, increasing the electorate to about 21 million of whom 8.4 million were women.
The women’s suffrage movements welcomed the 1918 Representation of the People Act with prominent campaigner Millicent Fawcett describing the act as the greatest moment of her life. However, the act still showed a clear division between men and women since the same act gave all men over the age of 21 the right to vote, while those who had been on active service in the armed forces could vote from 19. Therefore, women were still not political equals even after the 1918 act. True suffrage equality only came in 1928.