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Socialism Today 120 - July/August 2008

The fight for universal suffrage

As with all democratic ‘rights’, it took years of struggle before working-class people won the right to vote. And it required one of the largest mass mobilisations of women in Britain’s history to make that universal. Eighty years on from when women finally won the right to vote on the same terms as men, ELEANOR DONNE writes on the scale and nature of the struggle.

ON 2 JULY eighty years ago, women finally won the right to vote in parliamentary elections on the same terms as men. The Equal Franchise Act of 1928 extended voting rights to all women over the age of 21 so that working-class women and young women were able to vote for the first time.

Since that time many girls and young women have been brought up with a sense that they have a duty to vote, that they owe it to the women who fought so hard to gain this right. Yet voter turnout at the last two general elections in 2001 and 2005 were at their lowest since 1918 – enough to make a suffrage campaigner turn in her grave! This is not, however, because of voter apathy. On the contrary, women in particular are very angry at cuts in the National Health Service, the dismantling of public services, under-funded schools and over-tested pupils. As the majority of civil servants, teachers, teaching assistants and local authority workers, they have been increasingly willing to take industrial action against insulting pay ‘rises’ and cuts in jobs. The problem now is not that we are not allowed to vote, but that there is nobody to vote for!

The need for a political party which represents the interests of ordinary people is now as pressing as it was at the turn of the 20th century, when the campaign for women’s suffrage (the vote) was at its height. The tens of thousands of ordinary women who campaigned for the vote in the industrial working-class areas of the North West and London recognised that this was not just an abstract right, but saw it as a means to an end. The vote to them was a tool, which they could use to challenge the terrible social conditions and inequality they faced. While some, especially in the national leadership of the suffrage organisations, hoped that having the vote would give them ‘leverage’ with the existing Liberal and Tory MPs of the day, many activists at local level participated enthusiastically in the growing movement for an independent political voice for the working class.

The campaign for women’s suffrage was one of the biggest movements by women in the history of Britain. Yet most of the working-class activists and local organisers of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) who devoted many years of their time to ‘the cause’ remain hidden from history. It is the suffragettes who most people think of in relation to votes for women – with the iconic photographs of well-dressed ladies chained to railings, or the diminutive Emmeline Pankhurst in the grip of a large policeman.

Jill Liddington and Jill Norris explain in their book about the rise of the women’s suffrage movement, One Hand Tied Behind Us: "Several years before ‘suffragette’ became a household word, the cotton workers of Lancashire were debating the controversial issue of votes for women in meetings at their factory gates, street corners and in town squares. The speakers who addressed the crowds were not educated, middle-class ladies, but local women who had come to the suffrage movement through their experience of factory work and of organising working women".

In the workers’ organisations

THESE WOMEN, SUCH as Selina Cooper, Helen Silcock, Ada Nield Chew and Sarah Reddish, were known as the radical suffragists, both because their methods differed from the polite parliamentary lobbying of the NUWSS leadership and because of their programme. The NUWSS national leaders called for votes for women on equal terms with male voters, who at that time consisted of male ‘householders’ (owners or tenants) over 21, following the 1884 Parliamentary Reform Act. The radical suffragists’ aim was ‘womanhood suffrage’: voting rights for all women. Where they were prepared to support demands for limited women’s suffrage, they saw this as a step towards full universal suffrage and not an end in itself.

The radical suffragists naturally took the question of women’s suffrage into their own organisations – the cotton workers’ and weavers’ trade unions, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, the Independent Labour Party (ILP, formed in 1893) and, later, the Labour Representation Committee (which preceded the Labour Party). Cooper, for example, was a member of the Social Democratic Federation, the ILP and the Labour Party. Many in the labour movement were very supportive of women’s suffrage, but others regarded it (along with other women’s issues) with indifference or suspicion, seeing it as a ‘middle-class’ concern that put gender before class. In spite of determined efforts by the suffragists, the Labour Party did not back women’s suffrage until 1912.

There was a genuine fear among some socialists and trade unionists that if women of property got the vote they would use this to support the Tories and Liberals to the detriment of the fledgling Labour Party. This led many to put the demand for nothing short of ‘adult suffrage’ as opposed to ‘women’s suffrage’. Exactly how many women would be eligible to vote if they won the same rights as men (ie based on a property qualification) was the subject of controversy. Surveys carried out by ILP branches, the Women’s Trade and Labour Council and the Women’s Co-operative Guild across towns in the North claimed that the biggest group to benefit from an extension of suffrage to women on the same terms as men would be ‘working women’. This was more likely to be the case in the towns of the North West, where there was a long tradition of women working outside the home, and where wages in the mills, even for the women, were relatively high, compared to other jobs available to women such as being ‘in service’.

After 1912, when the Labour Party finally adopted a policy of women’s suffrage, the NUWSS transferred its support from Liberal to Labour election candidates. Emmeline Pankhurst, frustrated at the less than solid support from the ILP and the Labour Party, had in 1903 set up the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. Initially, this was based within the ILP and had close links still with the radical suffragists in and around Manchester.

A class divide

IN 1905, CHRISTABEL Pankhurst and Annie Kenney started a campaign of direct action and civil disobedience. They were thrown out of a meeting with Lloyd George speaking and jailed for public order offences. The suffragettes got widespread press coverage and almost overnight spread the word about the campaign to thousands of women. Many of the radical suffragists were enthused by this publicity and admired the courage and determination of the protestors. However, by 1906 the WSPU, according to Teresa Billington, an ex-member, "has gradually edged the working-class element out of the ranks", and "cut down its demand from one of sex equality to one of votes on a limited basis".

The radical suffragists broke with the WSPU after 1906 because of their abandonment of the call for universal women’s suffrage. Christabel and Emmeline left the ILP in the same year. The WSPU resorted to stone throwing and even arson in response to the Liberal government’s refusal to grant even partial suffrage. They had by now abandoned any attempt to maintain links with the labour movement and campaign on wider social issues. Emmeline Pankhurst stated: "Our members are absolutely single-minded; they concentrate all their forces on one object, political equality with men. No member of the WSPU divides her attention between suffrage and other social reforms". (One Hand Tied Behind US)

In 1913, even Sylvia Pankhurst was expelled from the WSPU for the crime of speaking at a mass meeting with Irish socialist James Larkin about the Dublin lockout. Sylvia was the only one of the Pankhursts who retained her socialist ideas, and carried on campaigning in the East End of London.

From 1909 imprisoned WSPU members started to go on hunger strike and had to endure force-feeding. In 1913, the notorious ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act was introduced, which permitted prisoners to be temporarily discharged to recover their health and then be returned to prison. At its height, the WSPU had 2,000 members, over 1,000 of whom went to prison. However, it started to lose members after 1913 when it adopted arson as a tactic. The WSPU ended up as a semi-underground group with Christabel Pankhurst in exile until the outbreak of the first world war.

The effects of war

WHY DID THE coalition government grant limited votes for women in 1918 when four years previously the Liberal government under Herbert Asquith had seemed actively hostile? The main fear was always the link between women’s suffrage and the labour movement. Sylvia Pankhurst, in her book, The Suffragette Movement, argued that Asquith had actually been planning to introduce limited women’s suffrage in 1914 to attempt to break the link and divide the suffrage campaign movement more decisively along class lines. The government was facing revolt in parliament over home rule for Ireland and strikes by dockers and miners – the period of ‘great unrest’ on the industrial front. It had been forced to implement reforms such as pensions, health and unemployment insurance from above in order to prevent revolt from below.

The outbreak of the first world war cut across this radical mood temporarily. But, during the course of the war, women were drawn into the workforce in ever-larger numbers to replace men who were at the front. This had a significant effect on women’s consciousness and started to break down existing social attitudes about women belonging in the ‘domestic sphere’.

The conventional view is that a section of women were ‘given’ the vote in 1918 in recognition of the sterling efforts they put in for ‘king and country’ during the war. Certainly, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst were taken over by patriotic fervour and, in return for the release of suffragette prisoners at the start of the war, agreed to put their campaign on hold. By this time they had abandoned any attachment to socialist ideas and the trade union movement. Annie Kenney describes in her Memoirs of a Militant how they even changed the name of their newspaper from The Suffragette to The Britannia, and set up an ‘Anti-Bolshevist Campaign’ to oppose strikes in key industries. The NUWSS also ‘shut down’ during the war. Not all of its grassroots members agreed to this, however, and many suffragists totally opposed the war and were active in campaigns to stop young men from being drafted into the army.

In 1917, the Russian revolution inspired working-class movements all over Europe, and radicalised the war-weary troops returning to Britain. They were no longer prepared to accept the old order of things. The government feared giving working-class men a political voice, but feared the consequences of not doing so even more. Thus, in 1918, all men over 21 (and ex-serving troops over 19) got the vote.

It is possible that the government’s ‘change of heart’ on votes for women – the decision to grant the vote to women property owners over 30 – may have been an attempt to ‘stabilise’ the electorate and tip the balance back in favour of the middle and upper classes. Out of an electorate of 21 million, eight million (around 40%) were women. It was a kick in the teeth for the younger women who made up the bulk of the munitions workers, but whom the government felt were politically more unpredictable.

One battle won

BY 1928 THE political situation was vastly different. The Labour Party in office had shown itself to be no significant threat to the establishment. The 1926 general strike had ended in defeat, sabotaged by the leaderships of the Labour Party and Trades Union Council, while the economy looked stable, superficially at least – with no apparent hint of the impending crash of 1929. The Equal Franchise Act was passed with no real opposition, giving women over 21 the vote.

Women’s lives today are very different from when they first won the vote. We have gained important legal rights and have entered the workforce and public life in numbers that would have seemed astonishing a century ago – even to the Lancashire cotton workers who were the exception to the ‘norm’. We have access to contraception and abortion, and maternity services. Washing machines and vacuum cleaners have taken the hardest work, if not the drudgery, out of housework. However, in spite of equal pay and sex discrimination legislation women still make up the bulk of the low paid, casual workforce and bear most of the responsibility for childcare. Public provision of social care and other services is being cut and so caring responsibilities fall mainly on women.

We saw in the recent campaign to defeat attacks on abortion rights that there is the potential for wide sections of women to come together on issues that affect them as women. This clearly reflects the fact that women face repression on the grounds of gender, apart from the class issues faced by working-class women. And it was a feature of the suffrage movement in which women of very different backgrounds campaigned on a common cause. Tensions did arise, mainly over the question of how to pose the demand for limited suffrage – as an end in itself or just the beginning, and whether to break with the Liberals and look to Labour for support. This was further complicated by the unwillingness of many in the ILP and Labour Party to recognise women’s issues, including the vote, as anything but secondary to the main business.

Women are much better placed now to play a greater role in the industrial, social and political battles of the future, including the establishment of an independent workers’ party. Such a party will need to develop a programme to address the specific needs of women, which not only challenges capitalism but which offers a route to economic and social liberation.

Legal reform

1832 The Parliamentary Reform Act gave voting rights to male householders with land worth over £10 per year. In the boroughs, this included tenants as well as landowners. In the towns, it applied to owners only. Six out of seven adult men were left with no voting rights. Women were specifically excluded altogether.

1867 The Representation of the People Act extended the vote in the boroughs to all male owners of dwelling houses and to occupiers who paid rent of £10 per year. In the towns, to all owners of property worth more than £5 and to occupiers who paid rent of over £50 per year. Three out of five adult men still had no voting rights. All women were excluded.

1869 Some women got voting rights in local elections only.

1884 The Parliamentary Reform Act gave most male householders over 21 the vote, adding six million to the voting registers. Women remained excluded.

1885 Married women were allowed to vote in local elections.

1918 The Representation of the People Act gave women householders over the age of 30 the vote for the first time. All men over 21 got the right to vote (not just home owners and tenants). Out of a 21 million electorate 8.4 million were women. About one quarter of women 30 and over did not get the vote as they were not property owners or married to property owners.

1928 The Equal Franchise Act finally brings about universal suffrage. All women over 21 gained the right to vote, bringing them in line with men.

1969 The voting age for men and women was lowered to 18.


Women’s suffrage organisations

National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS): Founded in 1897 with Millicent Fawcett as president. It had 100,000 members at its height. It was the biggest of the suffrage organisations, known as ‘constitutional suffragists’ because its leaders limited themselves to asking for votes for women on the same terms as men rather than ‘universal womanhood suffrage’. It was a loose structure that allowed branches a lot of autonomy.

Radical Suffragists: Mainly working-class women, members of and organisers in the NUWSS, who brought to it their experience as trade union activists based in the mill towns of the North West. They demanded universal womanhood suffrage.

Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU): Founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst. It had 2,000 members, known as ‘suffragettes’. Initially, it oriented towards the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and worked with the NUWSS and radical suffragists, but left the ILP in 1907. It adopted a ‘direct action’ approach in 1905 and this became its main form of protest.


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