February 2018 is the anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the UK. In the same year so did women in Austria, Germany, Poland and Russia, although they were well behind New Zealand (1893) and Australia (1902: white women only). Investigate this important democratic milestone with these resource ideas and history activity from the GLP-W.
A Bird in a Cage: the life of leading campaigner Margaret Thomas, Lady Rhondda
The People’s Collection Wales: small collection of suffragette images https://www.peoplescollection.wales/collections/378054
National Museum of Wales Women’s history site: background features on Welsh women’s lives in the early 20th Century https://museum.wales/welsh_womens_history/
Wales online: suffragettes in Wales article http://www.walesonline.co.uk/lifestyle/nostalgia/welsh-women-who-took-long-12577954
BBC Wales: suffragettes in Wales article http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history/sites/themes/society/women_politics.shtml
Historical Association (HA): education pack for students aged 12 to 19 ‘Suffragette Social Changers’ from The National Schools Partnership and Into Film with Pathe celebrates the cinema release of Suffragette: https://www.history.org.uk/ha-news/news/2549/suffragette-resources
The Vote 100: UK Parliament site with a range of sources for older pupils, including documents, images and case studies https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/vote-100/vote-100-project/vote-100-project-info/
National Archives: suffrage teaching resource collection of primary sources, activities and teaching resources http://suffrageandthemedia.org/source/suffrage-teaching-resources-national-archives/
People’s history museum: Deeds Not Words; The Fight for Women's Suffrage 1900-1918: Teacher Handbook with activities http://www.phm.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Teacher-Handbook.pdf
Women’s Institute: 100 anniversary toolkit – includes timeline and data about women in public life https://www.thewi.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/268038/100-years-toolkit-low-res.pdf
Fawcett Society: The Fawcett Society has been campaigning for women’s rights for 150 years. Includes timeline, sources, events https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/our-history
Museum of London exhibition: includes some online images https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london/whats-on/votes-women-museum-london
LSE: women’s suffrage collection of primary source materials http://www.lse.ac.uk/library/collections/collection-highlights/womens-suffrage
Women stats: Info-graphics and world maps showing 36 patterns of gender inequality, including women’s representation in parliament worldwide http://www.womanstats.org/newmapspage.html
On the 6th February 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to 5.6 million men and 8.4 million women in the UK. For the first time, women over 30 could vote in Parliamentary elections, as well as all men over the age of 21. It took until 1928 for women over 21 to get the vote.
Why did it take so long for women to get the vote? Funnily enough, before 1832 a very small number of women who owned property could vote in elections. Not many men could vote either. Ironically, the 1832 Reform Act specifically referred to male adult suffrage. This meant that those few women who could vote could no longer do so. The rest of the 19th Century became a battle for the vote. Gradually more men were given the right to vote, but it took until 1928 for women to have the vote on the same basis as men. Why did it take so long?
Most Victorians believed in ‘separate spheres’ for men and women; women were separate, not inferior. They thought men were suited to war, business and politics; women were suited to child-rearing, home-making and gentle hobbies like painting, sewing and so on. Of course this was untrue for many, mostly working-class women, who had to both work to earn money and look after the home. Men were supposed to protect women, so women and their possessions ‘belonged’ to their father until they married, and then belonged to their husband. Some women thought getting the vote was the best way to change this idea, and give women the right to run their own lives.
It was not just men who opposed the idea of women having the vote. Some famous women, like Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale, were adamant that women should not vote. Others worked for change. The Suffragists first formed after the 1867 Reform Act refused women the vote, and spent the next 60 years peacefully protesting against the law. Others, the Suffragettes, became fed up with the slow progress and took a much more aggressive stand. They broke windows, burned letter boxes, chained themselves to railings, and went to prison. Emily Davison died in a protest at the Derby horse-race. Historians argue about how effective these actions were: some say they made people take notice, others say it alienated supporters.
The campaign for votes for women was strong in Wales. It included the Women’s Freedom League, founded in 1909 in Swansea. They campaigned peacefully, for example by holding public meetings. In 1913 groups of women from North and South Wales marched to join a large demonstration for the vote in London. Others were more militant: a leading Welsh suffragette, Margaret Thomas, was jailed for blowing up a post box in Newport.
Most historians agree that it was the part women played during World War One that most changed opinion. Women worked in factories making shells, driving ambulances, on the land: filling the gaps left by men in the armed forces. Whatever the reason in 1918 women over 30 were given the vote.
The first woman to be elected to the House of Commons was Constance Markievicz, in the general election of 1918. However she did not take her MP’s seat because she was a member of Sinn Fein. The first woman to take her seat was Nancy Astor after a by-election in December 1919. She was elected as a Conservative for the Plymouth Sutton constituency after her husband, Waldorf Astor, the former MP, was made a Member of the House of Lords. Since then the number of women in Parliament has increased. In 2017 there were 208 (out of 650) women MPs.
Investigate: Which other Acts of Parliament since 1918 that have increased the rights of women?
Suffrage: the right to vote in a local or national election.
Resource prepared by the Geographical Association and Historical Association for GLP-W.