Votes For All

May 7th, 2015

Today, as you probably already know, is election day and the blog is taking a look at voting and how the War changed the laws. Also, how campaigns for political representation were affected by the War.


The women’s suffrage movement is probably the most famous campaign for voting rights. It began in the nineteenth century and was gathering momentum right up to the outbreak of the First World War. The most notorious of its campaigners were the Pankhurst family. Emmeline Pankhurst set up the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. They advocated more militant tactics than previous suffrage groups; law-breaking, violence and hunger strikes were common campaign methods.
However, as war was declared Emmeline announced that the drive for women’s voting rights was to be suspended whilst the country was at war, allowing women more time to support the war effort from the home front. In 1915, Lloyd George recruited Emmeline and her daughter Christabel to help him advertise the need for female labour to drive the war effort. On 17th July 1915 they staged a successful march in Central London, demanding the right for women to serve by working in munitions factories. The number of women in employment rose dramatically, from 4.08 million in July 1914 to 4.94 million in November 1918. Despite having officially dropped the campaign for women’s right to vote, Christabel released a pamphlet about women’s war work. It contained the following:

“Because of the dangers in which the country stands, and because of the terrible cost in suffering and in life that the war imposes, the militant women have, for the time, ceased from their warfare.

“They cannot however, forget, and the public must not forget, how closely related is the question of women’s vote with the war, and with the national safety.”

Women and members of the Suffrage movement were largely responsible for the White Feather campaign. It aimed to shame men who had not yet enlisted to sign up to go to The Front. However, this campaign was often indiscriminate and targeted anyone who was male and not in a military uniform. Often underage boys, men who were disabled, carrying out essential war work, or even on temporary leave were targets. There are even reports of a VC winner, travelling to collect his medal in civilian clothes, being presented with a white feather.

However, not all suffrage campaigners agreed with support for the war. In fact one of Emmeline’s other daughters, Sylvia, joined the Women’s Peace Party and travelled around the UK giving speeches on women’s rights, social economic equality and peace. She was arrested near Chesterfield after giving a radical speech. The local activist, Alice Wheeldon, was also a suffrage campaigner and peace activist.

AFTER 1918

Between 1916-17, James William Lowther chaired a conference on electoral reform. It recommended limited women’s enfranchisement. In 1918 The Representation of the People Act was passed. This allowed women over the age of 30 who met certain property criteria to vote. This meant to 8.5 million women were now eligible to vote, but it meant that only 40% of the female population had gained the right. However, the law also increased the number of men who were able to vote. Prior to 1918, only men who owned substantial property, and had been residing in the country for 12 months prior to the election, could vote. This meant that huge numbers of men who had been fighting abroad during the war could not vote. The act changed this so that all men over the age of 21, and all male military personnel over the age of 19 could vote. This boosted the voting population from 8 million to 21 million.

Finally, in 1928, the Equal Franchise Act was passed and women over the age of 21 were given equal voting rights to men.