90 Years and the Vote
Published in the 2008 CWO Conference programme
The first debate in the House of Commons on women's suffrage was initiated by John Stuart Mill, a great advocate of the cause, and held on 20th May 1867. From then on attempts to pass legislation on the subject were made during almost every parliamentary session, without success, although a few bills passed the second reading stage. Arguments against suffrage were held by proponents as positive reasons for it. One (inexplicable) reason was that if suffrage was granted to women on the grounds that those who must obey the law should be allowed a hand in making it, there could be no argument against universal suffrage. Finally, in 1869, the franchise for municipal elections was extended to women ratepayers.
Of the many groups and societies formed to promote the cause of women's suffrage, the best known is the Women's Social and Political Union, founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), who had been campaigning amongst working women in Manchester. In 1905, they decided a course of more militant action was needed, which resulted in repeated arrests, imprisonments and the death of WSPU member Emily Davison who, in 1913, was killed after throwing herself under the King's horse at the Derby.
Although the outbreak of World War I brought a temporary truce, the subject came to the fore again in 1916 when it became obvious that the movement of military personnel had rendered the electoral register out of date. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, as President of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, secured a concession from the then Prime Minister, Henry Asquith, that the matter should be considered once more. A conference of electoral reform was set up and in February 1917 the conference recommended a limited measure of women's suffrage. The recommendations were duly enacted in the Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave the vote to women over thirty years of age. Women over 21 only had to wait until later the same year to become eligible to vote although women were still officially banned from sitting in Parliament.
With a General Election looming and with many women already being chosen as parliamentary candidates, on 23rd October 1918, the House of Commons passed a motion (by 274 to 25) to make women eligible as Members of Parliament. Accordingly, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Bill was introduced by Lord Robert Cecil on 31st October, was passed within three weeks and received Royal Assent on the 21st November 1918, the same day that Parliament was dissolved, some three weeks before the General Election. Women had to wait a further 10 years until the voting age was lowered to 21 years, the same as for men, removing the anomaly that a woman could be elected as an MP nine years before being allowed to vote.
During the 1918 election, there were 17 women candidates out of a total of 1,623 candidates - a mere 1%. Most had been active campaigners in the suffrage movement, including Christabel Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline. It was thought she, amongst others, stood a reasonable chance of success, but was defeated by 775 votes, although she polled more votes than any of the other women candidates.
In fact the only successful candidate in the 1918 election had taken no part in the campaign and was never to take her seat in the House of Commons. Countess Constance Markievicz, of Anglo-Irish background and married to a Polish Count, had contested the election from her cell in Holloway Prison. She was being held under suspicion of conspiring with Germany during the war (although there is no evidence that she did so), having earlier been released under an amnesty from a life sentence for her part in the Irish Easter Rising. In common with other Sinn Fien members, she did not take her seat (the St Patrick's division of Dublin) in protest against Britain's policy on Ireland.
Although most of the 1918 women candidates had been active in the suffrage movement, it is therefore ironic that the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons had never campaigned for women's rights. American-born Viscountess Nancy Witcher Astor was elected for the Sutton division of Plymouth on 15 November 1919 at a by-election caused by her husband's accession to the peerage on the death of his father. She was a character of considerable wit and charm, who soon took up the interests of women and children, and in particular those problems related to the abuse of alcohol.
The first three women MPs to take the oath were all elected for seats which had been held by their husbands. Lady Astor was joined in the House of Commons in 1921 by Margaret Wintringham, who was returned for the marginal constituency of Louth, in spite of the fact that she had not spoken in public throughout her campaign, as a mark of respect to her dead husband. In 1923, Mabel Hilton Philipson, who as Mable Russell had been a well-known musical comedy actress, took over as Conservative Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed after her husband (a National Liberal) had been unseated because of the fraudulent practices of his agent.
The first Labour woman MP to be elected was Arabella Susan Lawrence, returned for East Ham North, on 7th December 1923, but the first female Labour MP to take the oath was Dorothea Jewson, on 9th January 1924.
Today only 29% of MPs are women, compared with just over 50% of the adult population. Until 20 years ago, there had never been more than 5% of women MPs in parliament. Out of the 27 EU member states, the UK ranks 15th in terms of women's representation in national Parliaments; in global terms, the UK Parliament is 51st. 26% of the UK's MEPs are women, well below the 32% average for MEPs from the other 26 EU members.
With thanks to the House of Commons Information Office and the Conservative Party Archive at the Bodleian Library, Oxford