Was the First World War more important than pre-war suffrage movement in securing the 1918 Representation of the People?
The 1918 Representation of the People reformed the electoral system as it extended the vote to men over 21, but, most importantly gave women over 30 the vote, for the first time ever. This was a monumental piece of legislation as it was the first act which had legally given women suffrage, when previously they had been explicitly excluded. There are two overarching arguments as to why women were able to secure the vote; firstly, it can be said it was solely down to the suffrage movements which pushed for change, whist the other side argues that if it had not been for the war and the changing role of women this would have not been possible. The first argues that the suffragette’s movement and their violent campaigning allowed them to amass a large following which in turn meant they were able to garner the attention of parliament. This created a large following from the media which allowed the movement to become a household name. However, the latter argument is argued to be stronger. It is important to note; however, this act was not passed until after the First World Wat. Therefore, it has to be noted that the War was the pivotal factor in securing the vote for women. This can be due to several factors that will be discussed further in this essay. Firstly, the war had showed women’s economic value and allowed men to realize that they could be seen as citizens rather than subject. Also, once women filled this role there was no way that they would ‘unlearn’ the financial freedom they were able to have. The war changed the relationship between the public and government, so parliament knew they needed to change the voting electorate to maintain public support. However, it is important to look at both sides of the argument.
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Prior to the war the Suffragette and Suffragists movement pushed incredibly hard in order to gain the vote for women. There were several tactics used by both which allowed the movement to pick up momentum and a reason why many can argue that the Representations of the People was put into motion. The WSPU (the Suffragettes) drew on tactic used by Russian anarchists to vandalise shops, burn buildings and damaged pieces of art to gain media attention in an effort to push the government to enfranchise women. Nevertheless, this group were only a small part of the movement, as the majority of members were peaceful. Nevertheless, the motives of the group allowed for the movement to people a heard cause. Their antics were often published in the media and were able to then in turn garner a large amount of attention and following. Nevertheless, this was seen by many in a negative light and led to many politicians distancing themselves further from giving the vote to women. They felt that the actions of the women were almost terrorist therefore they should not be awarded the vote. The NUWSS, was the largest organisation for women’s suffrage and had over 53,000 members by 1914 – led by Millicent Fawcett.
This group was much larger and did not have such. Militant campaigning may have garnered negative attention but the work of the NUWSS were a major factor in women getting the vote. Before the start of the war women had already pushed for legislation over 20 times but had failed. This frustrated many women and it got to a point were Emmeline Pankhurst and her followers became more militant just before the start of the war. This can show how the war was the most important factor in getting women the vote, as prior to 1914 they had adopted several tactics which had all failed. The war ultimately showed that women were able to work and become breadwinners for the household. moreover, this showed they could adopt a man’s role which in the eyes of parliament made them worthy of the vote and would have never taken place if the men had not gone off to war.
Ultimately the war allowed women enfranchisement as both groups were able to show themselves as being citizens. Despite the differences in campaigning, both groups agreed to back down following the start of the war. They believed that the reason for the war was due to the fact that women had been denied the vote. On the day that war was declared Millicent Fawcett was speaking at an anti-war conference and told her followers to support the impending war. The WSPU declared a truce with the government and within weeks women were realised from Holloway Prison. Fawcett also famously declared: “Let us show ourselves worthy of citizenship whether our claim to it be recognised or not.” Many can see this as the end or temporary delay of the fight for female suffrage, but this is far from the truth. The women knew that they were to play a vital role in the war as the majority of the country’s men went off to fight. Pankhurst was quick to appear at recruiting rallies demanding work for women during the war, as she knew this was the first step in making women more independent. This was vital in showing how women were able to play a large role in the war, whist also be seen as being more patriotic which showed the government that they supported their country.
The Suffragettes were quick to capitalise on this and in their newspaper, there was a new symbol called Britannia which was said to represent over one million women who worked in munition factories. While the NUWSS helped to run and fund field hospitals and ambulances which were run by women, to make soldiers more comfortable. Throughout the war both groups maintained their primary goal, which was to get full suffrage for women. The war did also have a negative impact on the campaign as many argued that women should not get the vote as they were not physically fighting in the war. As it was believed that should there be a future war why should be women be part of a vote to start a war when they cannot fight in it. Many legislators also noted that men were losing their vote when they went to wat are over forty percent of the male population were barred.
Another reason the war was vital in winning women the vote was due to the fall of the male population as many died in combat. Many MP’s and legislators realised that the female vote would now be important in winning them the vote, which is why debates for women franchise arose in 1916 and 1917. This in turn lead to the Representation of the People Act (1918) which stated that citizenship should be awarded to those who had served their country, which was seen by the work of many women during the war. Therefore, ultimately it was the role of Suffragettes and Suffragists which ultimately lead to women gaining the vote.
To conclude, both sides of the argument hold weight however the War can be seen as the turning point in women’s suffrage. The was created a medium which allowed women to be seen as citizens as they took on the roles of the men that had left. This can be as parliament were finally able to see that women were capable of being financially independent and carrying out the role that was previously only seen to be for me. Nevertheless, the war allowed women to see that they were not just housewives and were able to support themselves. This realisation scared many in parliament and made them realise that female support needed to be maintained, therefore, gave women the chance to vote. The change in relationship, which was previously mentioned, was vital in the extension of the vote, which would have ultimately not been possible without the war. It can be argued that had it not been for the suffrage movement there would have not been such a strong call for female vote, therefore, it would have not taken place after the war. However, the suffrage movement was not active during the War as they chose to support the war effort at home. This can be seen as fundamental moment as once they began to co-operate women were given the vote. Therefore, the First World War was the most important factor in allowing women the vote.
- Laura Nym Mayhall, The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930, (London: Oxford University Press, 2003)
- Cheryl Law, Suffrage and Power: The Women’s Movement, 1918-1928, (London: Social Science, 2000)
- Sophia A. van Wingerden, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain, 1866-1929, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999)
- Les Garner, Stepping Stones to Women’s Liberty: Feminist Ideas in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1900-1918, (New York: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984)
- Michelle Elizabeth Tusan, Women Making News, Gender and Journalism in Modern Britain, (New York, University of Illinois Press, 2005)
- Angela Woollacott, Munitions Workers in the Great War, (London: University of California Press, 1994), p. 265
 Laura Nym Mayhall, The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930, (London: Oxford University Press, 2003), Chapter 6
 Cheryl Law, Suffrage and Power: The Women’s Movement, 1918-1928, (London: Social Science, 2000), p. 105
 Sophia A. van Wingerden, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain, 1866-1929, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), p. 241
 Les Garner, Stepping Stones to Women’s Liberty: Feminist Ideas in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1900-1918, (New York: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984), p. 55
 Michelle Elizabeth Tusan, Women Making News, Gender and Journalism in Modern Britain, (New York, University of Illinois Press, 2005), p. 190
 Angela Woollacott, Munitions Workers in the Great War, (London: University of California Press, 1994), p. 265
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