Why Did Some Women Get the Vote in 1918?

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This essay shall attempt to explain why some women got the vote in 1918 by discussing male and female spheres, the emergence of the suffrage societies and the similarities and differences between them. It shall proceed to discuss anti-suffrage, the role of politics, discuss how the war affected the women’s movement and finally the 1918 Representation of the People Act. It shall conclude was a summary of the points discussed.

To understand the reasons behind some women getting the vote in 1918, one must look back at the history of the women’s movement to fully understand the reason female suffrage was sought and gained. In Victorian Britain there was a longstanding and persistent belief that men and women occupied separate spheres. The separate spheres ideology promoted the belief that due to women’s roles in reproduction, they were best suited to occupy the private sphere of home and family. Alternatively, men were designed to occupy the public sphere work and politics . However, this ideology was a direct contradiction to the reality of Victorian women who, in 1871, constituted nearly 32 per cent of the total British labour force.

Women’s presence in the previously male sphere of employment was not the only contradiction of this time. Many women were beginning to enter the public sphere through charitable and Philanthropic activities. It enabled them gain experience as organisers by conducting meetings, taking minutes, raising funds, keeping accounts and learning to speak in public .

This facilitated the move into politics. Many Victorians regarded the act of voting as quite outside a ladies sphere regardless of the fact that women were already accepted as municipal voters. Moreover, women joined party-political organisations from the 1800s onwards, notably the Primrose League and the Women’s Liberal Federation. In this capacity the women became more than loyal followers and organisers of social events. They also canvassed the male electors, conveyed them to the poll and became skilled platform speakers. The assumption that women would not be tough enough and that their voices would never carry on the public platform soon collapsed as the ladies demonstrated that they could hold an audience with ease. By the early 1900s politicians conceded that without women it would difficult to run election campaigns.

Mid-Victorian feminists fought for equality for women. A look at a woman’s prospects when getting married perhaps explain why there was just a steep decline in the numbers of women getting married during this time. When she married the wife’s property and income became her husband’s, divorce was difficult and costly and the separated wife usually lost access to her children. In addition, the unmarried female municipal elector lost her vote when she married. From the 1850s onwards some middle-class women, led by Barbara Leigh Smith, who were known as the ‘Ladies of Langham Place’, inaugurated a series of pressure groups to seek redress from Parliament. By the 1870s such women as Emily Davis, Lydia Becker, Elizabeth Anderson and Millicent Fawcett were actively pressing for equality for married women, access to professional occupations, improved conduct, and the parliamentary vote .

A number of reforms were achieved by the Victorian campaigners. In 1857 divorce became easier and less expensive, the 1886 Guardianship of Infants Act gave women some rights over their children, and the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 secured the property held before marriage and any subsequent income for the wife.

In 1903 Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) but failed to gain public attention until 1905 when it adopted militant tactics. The WSPU organised rallies, marches and campaigns to challenge the lack of a women’s suffrage bill. They questioned and heckled Cabinet ministers at public meetings and attempted to rush into the...
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