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Women’s war work and 1918’s Representation of the People Act


By the end of World War I about one million more women were at work than had been in the summer of 1914.

Most of them had taken jobs previously done by men who were in the armed forces. The large number of working-class women was nothing new; such women had always gone out to work. But for the first time women from the middle classes were seen to be earning a living; indeed, women from all social classes helped to ‘keep the home fires burning’ and joined in the war effort. They worked as coal-heavers, railway porters, land-girls, carpenters, mechanics, postwomen, policewomen and munitions workers.

An enormous range of semi-skilled and labouring jobs was taken up by women, who previously would not have been allowed, or considered themselves able to do such work. By the end of the war, women had demonstrated that they were not weak, frail, unintelligent creatures. They had helped to win the war, and at the same time, overturned society’s views about men’s and women’s roles. The first positive moves towards votes for women were made during World War I, but the right for some women to voice their political opinion on a ballot would not come around until 1918.

Thousands of men who had volunteered to fight for their country had accidentally lost the right to vote; the law stated that those absent from home for more than one year relinquished this right, whatever the reason for their absence. This was potentially embarrassing to the Government, and so plans were made to re-enfranchise them. Plans were also made to give a limited measure of women’s suffrage, to reward women for their war work. The All Party Speaker’s Conference made several recommendations which were eventually included in the Representation of the People Act. This, the first act to give votes to women in Britain became law on 6 February 1918.

Under this long-awaited Act a woman over the age of thirty was entitled to vote if she met one of the following criteria: being a householder; being the wife of a householder; being the occupier of property with an annual rent of £5; being a graduate of a British university, or similarly qualified but not a graduate. And so, approximately eight and a half million women were entitled to vote in the General Election of 1918. At last, some women had the vote. Also, importantly, women became eligible to stand as MPs, although none of the suffragettes and suffragists who stood in this, their first election were successful.

The women’s suffrage movement was disappointed at the imposition of the age limit. They had hoped that, like men, women over the age of twenty-one would get the vote. The Government was wary of doing this for two reasons. First, because if all women over twenty-one had been enfranchised then they would have been the majority in the electorate and would have outnumbered male voters, and second, it was felt that women under thirty were ‘flighty’ and not responsible enough to choose an MP.

Historians have debated at length the issues surrounding this first granting of the vote to women. Rewarding them for their war work was certainly a factor, but not the only one. It would have been difficult for the Government to refuse to give women the vote in the light of their contribution. Also, many of the arguments against women’s suffrage seemed hollow in the aftermath of the war. However, it was not only the war which changed politicians’ minds – after May 1915 the Government was a coalition government which included several senior politicians who actively supported the women’s suffrage movement. Asquith, the suffragettes’ toughest opponent, had resigned in 1917 and was replaced by Lloyd George, who by this time was more sympathetic to the women’s claim. Gradually political opinion came round to support a limited measure of votes for women. The fact that women had played an important role during the war simply made it easier for politicians to support a bill.

The first instalment of women’s suffrage opened the door to a series of important acts which started to redress some of the many inequalities between men and women. It was the start of a slow and gradual process. The Sex Disqualification Removal Act of 1919 made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their sex. This meant that women could now become solicitors, barristers and magistrates. Soon most of the professions opened the door to women, albeit in some cases, like the Civil Service, slowly and reluctantly.

Extracted from The Suffragettes In Pictures by Diane Atkinson 

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