This year marks the 100th anniversary of The Representation of the People Act that gave the vote to some, but certainly not all, women.
The Act gave the vote to all men over the age of 21 regardless of whether they owned property, and to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification. It wasn’t until 1928 that all women over the age of 21 were able to vote.
Part of the purpose of the Act was to widen the electorate following the losses of the First World War. The changes saw the size of the electorate triple from 7.7 million to 21.4 million. Women now accounted for about 43% of the electorate. The higher age requirement for women ensured that they would not make up the majority of the electorate.
The Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed after fierce campaigning by women and male allies across the UK. From the mid-1800s, women’s suffrage groups began to spring up across Britain. Many of these early groups inspired the famous names that are associated with the suffrage movement of the early 1900s, such as Millicent Fawcett, who lead the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), and Emmeline Pankhurst, who headed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The work of these organisations encouraged many incremental changes that led to the passing of the Representation of the People Act in 1918.
The WSPU was formed in 1903 when Emmeline Pankhurst, along with her daughters, felt that the NUWSS weren’t making sufficient progress in gaining the vote for women. The WSPU were more radical than many groups before them, and its members, known as “suffragettes”, fought strongly for their beliefs and sometimes resorted to militant tactics and violence to gain attention for their cause. From 1912, the WSPU’s militancy began to escalate and more and more suffragettes were arrested during protests.
During their imprisonment, many suffragettes carried out hunger strikes, and their iron will was widely noted. Hunger strikers lost enormous amounts of weight in prison, and the government began to carry out force-feeding of prisoners. The process of force-feeding was truly horrific and led to a public outcry.
In 1913, the government passed the Cat and Mouse Act, formally known as the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act, which allowed them to release hunger striking prisoners when they became too ill and re-arrest them once their health had improved.
The negative public response to the Act, and to force-feeding, shows that the public perception of suffragettes was beginning to turn in their favour.
The outbreak of the First World War saw a rapid decline in the activity of suffragette organisations. It appears that many women put aside their desire to campaign for their right to vote in favour of what they saw as the greater good. This allegiance to the nation’s war effort affected perception of the suffrage movement; in 1916, Herbert Asquith, who had previously been a major opponent to the work of the WSPU, declared his support for women’s right to vote.
Some argue that women would have gained the right to vote earlier than 1918 had it not been for the war, but the choice of many women to support the war effort certainly worked in their favour by improving public perception of those involved in the cause.
Some activists in the women’s suffrage movement actively opposed the war. Sylvia Pankhurst, having split from the WSPU (her mother’s organisation), was vocal in her opposition to conscription and actually visited Horsham to promote its repeal. She perhaps came to the town to meet with fellow activists in the Horsham Council who were also against conscription. Unfortunately for Sylvia, the rest of the town did not agree with her and she was pelted with food and jeered at during her speech. Reports of the speech state:
“For the most part the rotten oranges and lemons, tufts of grass, cabbage etc. were badly aimed, but all too soon her white straw hat was dirtied and presently a nasty whack on the forehead stopped the flow of speech. At times the crowd cheered, either to thoroughly drown the remarks or to kindly give needful rest. Then there was booing and hooting, varied with the singing of “Rule Britannia.””
Despite this ugly treatment of Sylvia Pankhurst, Horsham was not hostile to the suffrage movement. Horsham’s very own women’s rights group, the Qui Vive Corps, was founded in 1912 by Mrs Florence de Fonblanque, following on from the fun that a group of Horsham ladies had on the Women’s March from Edinburgh to London that year.
The aim was to found a women’s suffrage umbrella group under which smaller groups could be created; this umbrella formation would allow women from the area to be mobilised at short notice. The corps aimed to organise themselves along military lines in order to demonstrate that women were capable of organisation, discipline, and comradeship.
Our museum holds several posters produced by the Qui Vive Corps to advertise meetings and demonstrations, some of which can be viewed below. Thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Horsham Museum, the museum’s extensive poster collection is available to view online at: www.horshamposters.com.It is a fantastic resource, and well worth a look.
A women’s suffrage meeting was held in Horsham Town Hall on 5th April 1913 and records from the time show that the women of the town were powerful advocates for the cause.
“A crowded meeting under the auspices of the Marchers’ Qui Vive Corps for Woman Suffrage was held at the Horsham Town Hall last Friday, many persons being unable to gain admission. Mrs. de Fonblanque, leader of the march of 400 miles from Edinburgh to London, introduced herself and the speakers, complaining that the Sussex press alone of all counties did not give them a notice regarding their achievement… Mrs. Cavendish Bentinck was the second speaker. She said they wanted the vote as the symbol of citizenship for women for the women’s own sake. We did not allow women sufficient freedom and scope to develop, and were keeping down the efficiency and standard of the country. We were not getting the best we could out of women because we had suggested to them that they were the weaker, feebler and less confident, and, without meaning it in the least, men had debarred women from many trades. There were only 18 women factory inspectors to 180 men inspectors. Eighty per cent of the women were now wage earning in this country. Women needed the vote to help women in the industrial world.”
The suffrage movement, both in Horsham and across the country, marked the start of a long fight for equality that still continues to this day. The fight for equal pay, the fight against sexism, sexual harassment, and the push towards greater female representation in positions of power is not complete:
- Women make up slightly more than half of the UK population, but less than a third of MPs. The UK has only had two female Prime Ministers in its long history.
- It wasn’t until the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 that women could apply for a credit card in their own name.
- The Equal Pay (Amendment) Act 1983 allowed women to be paid the same as men for work of equal value.
- It was not until 1991 that the House of Lords made rape in marriage a criminal offence in the UK.
- According to the Office for National Statistics, even today men are more likely to be employed in higher skilled jobs than women.
- Female graduates are more likely to start their careers in lower skilled jobs.
It is clear that, even after 100 years, we still have much work to do. There are many more stories to be found within the museum’s collections, so please get in touch with us if you have any questions or wish to conduct your own research.