Women and the Vote

1866 – 1928


At the start of the twentieth century women in the United Kingdom weren’t allowed to vote in elections. It was not just women who were excluded from democratic processes, the majority of the population (including working class men) were unable to vote. This meant that only the richest men were electing the country’s decision makers (MPs). We are focussing on women’s suffrage and the campaign for the vote. These activists are loosely divided into two groups the Suffragists and the Suffragettes. They faced opposition from the anti-suffrage movement but eventually the Representation of the People Act of 1918 allowed a women over thirty who were householders the right to vote. Around 40% of British women now had the vote. It was a further ten years before the law changed again in 1928, granting women equal voting rights on the same basis as men. 

The Suffragists

In 1866, Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett brought a petition with over 1500 signatures to the House of Commons. It was first British mass women’s suffrage petition and prompted a debate on votes for women in 1867. Although it was a further 61 years before all women got the vote in 1928, the Suffragists campaigned tirelessly until the end for the cause. The most well-known group was the National Union for Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett. The Suffragists believed they could achieve the vote through reasoned argument and education. These women organised marches, public meetings, distributed petitions, posters and leaflets.

The Suffragettes

In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester. Having previously been a Suffragist, Emmeline felt that the movement was stagnating and not progressing as quickly as she would like. The WSPU became notorious for their acts of violence and direct action. These included vandalism, arson, chaining themselves to railings, refusing to pay tax, assaulting MPs, smashing windows and Emily Wilding Davison’s death at Epsom Derby. Many suffragettes were arrested, some went on hunger strike whilst in prison and were aggressively force fed.

Anti – Suffrage

Both the suffragists and suffragettes faced fierce opposition from those in the anti-suffrage movement. There were a range of arguments, presented by both men and women, as to why women should not have the vote. These included: most women did not want the vote; women already had influence through their husbands; on past evidence it was clear that  men could make decisions on laws concerning or affecting women; and the British Empire would be weakened if the ‘weaker sex’ were granted power.

Representation of the People Act 1918

Following the First World War a revision of electoral policy was deemed necessary as millions of soldiers were not entitled to vote. This Act widened suffrage as it meant all men over 21 could vote and gave women over 30 who met property qualifications the vote. Those eligible to vote tripled from 7 million to 21million people.

Equal Franchise Act 1928

This act, ten years later, granted equal voting rights to men and women. This meant men and women over the age of 21 could now vote in both local and general elections.

The Representation of the People Act 1969

This legislation saw the voting age lowered from 21 to 18 for everyone.