In 1918 the Representation of the People Act granted all men and some women the right to vote in parliamentary elections.
For over 60 years women, mainly middle-class women battled a male political system that barred them from having any say in the running of the country. Yet in 1918, at the end of this campaign, only one-third of women were given the vote. They were the older and more comfortably off. Today, when all women have the vote, is it still easier for middle-class women to involve themselves in feminist campaigns? Are the interests of working-class women still neglected?
Until 1918 all women were barred from voting in British general elections. Some men, too, were unable to vote because the right to vote had always been based on ownership of property. It was thought men needed to have a stake in the country, a stake that property ownership gave them. However it did not matter how much property a woman-owned, her sex meant she was disqualified from voting. Voters were men; women were second-class citizens.
Women, both middle- and working-class women, had been campaigning to win women the vote since 1866. Although no nearer achieving their final goal, by the beginning of the 20thcentury campaigners had done much to increase women’s rights, at least the rights of middle-class women.
The campaign became more intense in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Some women, known as suffragettes, were no longer prepared to rely on words – speaking at meetings, publishing pamphlets – but began to destroy property – setting fire to buildings and even detonating bombs – to try and force the government to give women the vote.
The campaign reached a very dangerous stage before being brought to an abrupt halt by the outbreak of war. During the war, both the militant suffragettes and the law-abiding suffragists worked to help bring about victory. Women undertook work that they had never done – or been allowed to do – before.
Towards the end of the war, the government decided they could no longer withhold the vote from men who had been fighting for their country. Campaigners took the opportunity to press for women, too, to benefit from the proposed change in the law. But politicians were unwilling to allow all women the vote, even though they admitted that women’s war work had been very important. Therefore, they grudgingly suggested that, although women could now be considered voters, the right would be restricted to those over 30 who owned or rented property worth £5 a year, either on their own or with a husband.
The result was that in the 1918 general election 8.4 million women were able to vote for the first time. But this amounted to only about one-third of women. If you were under 30, or even if you were over 30 but did not own property, you were still a second-class citizen. On the whole, it was middle-class women who now had the vote. It took another ten years before the property and age qualifications were removed and all women were counted as citizens.
Women have been voting for 100 years, but who has benefitted? Who are the voters? Who takes part in feminist campaigns? Do campaigners work for the interest of their class? Has anything changed?
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Although Britain and France had not gone to war to win new colonies, once fighting began they were willing to seize the colonies of their enemies.
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