For the majority democracy is a crucial part of our lives and it’s hard to believe that over 100 years ago, at the outbreak of the First World War most of the general public did not have the right to vote. The political voices of many of the men who fought on the foreign battlefields and women who ensured the upkeep of the country were ignored. As the war came to an end and after decades of action by the ‘suffragists’, their voices were finally heard and the 1918 Representation of the People Act passed through Parliament with an overwhelming majority.
Dr Mari Takayanagi is Senior Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives, where she has worked in various roles including public services, outreach, preservation and access. She is joint project manager and co-curator of ‘Voice and Vote: ‘Women’s Place in Parliament’, Parliament’s exhibition to celebrate 100 years of the vote for some women and all men in 2018. In her guest article, Mari takes us through the events that led up to the signing of the act, and the significance of this political milestone being marked on a UK 50p coin.
On 6th February 1918 the Representation of the People Act received Royal Assent. One of the most important Acts in the history of parliamentary democracy, the Act gave the Parliamentary vote to virtually all men, and the first women. Although votes for some women is the eye-catching change, actually the origins of the Act lie in the need to give votes to more men. This is captured in the 2018 Representation of the People Act 1918 50p coin design, showing a soldier and a working man, as well as celebratory and campaigning women.
It’s often not realised that about 40 per cent of men couldn’t vote before 1914 because they didn’t meet residential and property requirements. As well as the poorest men in society, butlers and domestic servants who lived in other people’s property didn’t quality; nor did students and soldiers, who weren’t resident in one place long enough. But as men went off in their millions to fight and die in the First World War, it became clear the men on active service must be enfranchised. As Prime Minister H. H. Asquith acknowledged in the House of Commons on 16 August 1916, ‘If there is anyone entitled to be heard in the choice of the Parliament which is ultimately to determine our destinies after the War it is our soldiers and our sailors.’
However it wasn’t as simple as just giving the vote to fighting men. What about other men in militarily-useful jobs, such as working in factories and fields? And if those men got the vote, what about the women working alongside them? Parliament couldn’t agree, so a large cross-party body was set up to discuss these and related issues, the Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform. The Conference recommendations in January 1917 included votes for all men, and all woman who were on the local government register (i.e. meeting a property qualification), or whose husbands were, provided they had reached a specified age ‘of which 30 and 35 received most favour’.
The previous 50 years of campaigning for votes for women was essential in getting this onto the agenda. All the decades of peaceful campaigning by Millicent Fawcett and others, petitioning, lobbying and marching from 1866 onwards; and the more recent militant campaigning by Emmeline Pankhurst and others, throwing stones, breaking windows and chaining themselves to railings – women could point to this as proof that the vote was wanted, and indeed demanded. If none of this had happened, there was no way any women would have got the vote in 1918 – it was quite controversial enough as it was.
Although suffrage campaigners wanted the vote on the same terms as men, almost all were agreed that any votes were better than none. On 29 March 1917 in a deputation to David Lloyd George, who was now Prime Minister, Fawcett stated, ‘We should greatly prefer an imperfect scheme that can pass, to the most perfect scheme in the world that could not pass.’ Emmeline Pankhurst added, ‘In war time we cannot ask for perfection in any legislation.’
On 19 June 1917, the House of Commons sat down to debate clause 4 of the Representation of the People Bill – votes for women. Although it was in the Bill, and supported by many Government ministers including the Prime Minister, the Commons had a free vote on it – the whips were off. And some MPs were still prepared to oppose it. But at the end of the day, the clause was passed 385 votes to 55.
It’s sometimes said that the vote was a ‘reward’ for women’s work in the First World War. Although a lot of the debate inside and outside Parliament was about the war, at the end of the day the ‘reward’ theory just doesn’t ring true, because most of the female war workers didn’t qualify. For example, the House of Commons employed four ‘Girl Porters’ during the war in place of men, but they were aged between 14 and 18 – too young to vote. And although Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett supported the war effort, by no means all the suffrage campaigners did; some were pacifists, including Emmeline’s daughter Sylvia. What the war really did was to change the political landscape. It made it necessary to give votes to all men, and women benefited as a result. The war also made it possible for some die-hard opponents in Parliament to climb down from their high horses, and acknowledge that they had changed their minds.
Here in Parliament we’ve been looking forward for some time to celebrating 2018. You can come and visit our major public exhibition, ‘Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament’, during summer 2018. Keep an eye on our website for further details of this and the rest of the UK Parliament’s exciting Vote 100 activities: www.parliament.uk/vote100
The 1918 Representation of the People Act is available to buy now, in Brilliant Uncirculated, Silver Proof, Silver Proof Piedfort and Gold Proof – it will also be released into circulation late this year so be sure to look out for it in your #CoinHunt. If you find one, share your pictures with us on our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram!