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The road to suffrage

Dan Carrier charts the battle women fought to get the vote

09 February, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

IT is a century since a partial victory in the battle for votes for women was won – a battle that had been raging for decades before MPs passed the Representation of the People Act, that, for the first time, opened the franchise and allowed some women to have a say at the ballot box.

While the period during the French Revolution had seen the issue of suffrage raised in coffee houses, written about in political pamphlets, and discussed at meetings hosted by groups such as the London Correspondence Society, it would not reach the stage of Parliamentarians having the chance to consider it until the 1830s.

In 1832, five years before Queen Victoria acceded the throne, Mary Smith petitioned Parliament to include women in fresh voting legislation – but while the new Act scrapped rotten boroughs, created new constituencies and gave men a vote if they paid more than £10 a year in rent, it steadfastly refused to include women. But the idea was on the table.

The issue was again before Parliament in 1866 – this time put forward by John Stuart Mill – and when it was again refused, Suffragette societies were formed.

There were advances elsewhere – the Isle of Man granted women the vote to their Parliament in 1881 – but in 1884 another bid was voted down.

There was to be little progress until the turn of the 20th century.

Millicent Fawcett led the National Union of Universal Suffrage, which was established in Gower Street, Bloomsbury, in 1897, and then six years later, the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union, headed by Emmeline Pankhurst, was founded. By now, the campaign was gathering support – the Liberal prime minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, backed widening the vote and found support among MPs.

The age of the Suffragettes was ushered in, as demonstrations and protests began to capture the imagination of the public.

Landmarks on the road to change included the death at the Epsom Derby of Emily Davison, who stepped in front of the king’s horse at the race and attempted to tie the Suffragettes’ colours to its bridle: her coffin was followed from Epsom to London, marched through the streets with a brief service at St George’s Church in Bloomsbury, before being taken by train to Newcastle where again thousands turned out to pay their respects.

As war broke out, the mood towards those in prison for taking part in direct action softened and many were released – but the campaigns did not stop.

And the war also helped focus the minds of MPs that electoral reform could no longer be dismissed – but not because they all backed a woman’s right to vote.

Instead, having so many men serving overseas threw up an anomaly in the electoral system.

And the changes were partly prompted by the fact the law had said men voting had to be in the country for a year before they could cast a ballot paper – meaning many who had been serving abroad were going to be cut out of the forthcoming Khaki election.

Finally, in 1917, the Electoral Reform Bill was passed in the Commons and became law the following year.

But despite the progress, it did not give women universal suffrage.

Women had to be over 30 and have property to their name, while for men it was 21.

It would mean around 8.5 million women could now vote – still only 40 per cent of the female population – but would be another crucial step on the road to universal adult suffrage, ushered in at last in 1928.

The inspiring names…

DOZENS of names of Suffragettes will be etched onto the plinth of the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square.

The announcement this week came 100 years after some women secured the right to vote and there was an exhibition about the project in Trafalgar Square. The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said the Millicent Fawcett statue by Royal Academician, artist Gillian Wearing, would feature names and portraits of women and also men who were central to the suffrage movement.

Gillian Wearing said: “I am delighted to reveal the names of the women and men who will feature on the plinth of Millicent Fawcett’s statue.

“These were all incredible people and by honouring them in Parliament Square, I believe they will continue to inspire generations to come.”

Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, added: “As we mark 100 years of women’s votes we must resolve to change women’s lives today and tomorrow by ending the sexism, violence and discrimination they experience.”

The statue is due to be unveiled in the spring.

The names and portraits include well known figures like the Pankhursts and Emily Davison but also lesser known figures like Ada Nield Chew, a working-class factory worker who promoted women’s trade unions and was one of the first Clarion Van speaker, Lolita Roy, who was President of the London Indian Union from 1908, and Jessie Craigen, a working-class speaker.

Laurence Housman, a founding member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, and George Lansbury, one of the most well-known male supporters of women’s suffrage in Britain, will also be included.

TOM FOOT

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