How important were the Women's Suffrage Campaigns in the decision ot grant women the vote in 1918?

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Nadine Cowan

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How important were the Women’s Suffrage Campaigns in the decision to grant women the vote in 1918?

On June 19th 1918, the House of Commons voted 385 to 55 to accept the Representation of the People’s Bill, thus granting the vote to women for the first time. This represented the culmination of a long process of change in the 19th and early 20th century, when many middle class women had made significant advances into the male sphere, especially in work and politics. Women’s suffrage was constantly kept on the political agenda. They had become much more involved in a range of serious activities across society which made it harder for politicians to justify not giving them the vote. With  of adult males having the vote by 1884, it seemed unfair that women, like mentally unstable people and criminals, were denied the basic right to vote. Therefore, as no one in any political party was campaigning for ‘votes for women’ the Suffrage societies formed. Both the Suffragist, and later the Suffragette, campaigns were extremely important in convincing politicians to grant women the vote, as they brought ‘the cause’ to a national audience and highlighted the political inequalities between men and women at that time. However, there are other factors such as the Great War, which gave women the opportunity to show that they could keep the country going in a time of need that played significant roles in the decision to extend the franchise to women in 1918. It is largely assumed that the decision was made as a reflection of MP’s appreciation of the women’s war work, though historian Martin Pugh suggests that it was just a continuation of the pre-1914 majority in Parliament for women’s suffrage. Above all, the campaigns of the women’s suffrage societies were vital in the passing of the 1918 Bill, as the vote may not have been granted to women had they not been so effective before the war. It is certain that the pre-war suffrage movement, especially that of the Suffragists, prepared the basis for votes for women.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed in 1887 under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett. They were the first group of women to argue for women to receive the vote. All suffrage movements before this were localised and so had no real impact on politicians. The NUWSS was made up of middle class women who campaigned in reaction to the further enfranchisement of men after the Second Reform Act of 1867, where skilled working class men gained the vote, yet all women were excluded. These middle class women campaigned in the NUWSS as they had free time and comprehensive social networks, and were influenced by liberal equal rights ideology, such as “On Liberty” by J.S Mill, a philosopher and MP who, in 1865, became the first member in Parliament to call for the vote to be given to women. The campaign brought this issue to the attention of politicians, and although many women were opposed to them gaining the vote - they saw it as threatening to both their comfortable status and identity as women – the Suffragists, as they became known, grew from local suffrage societies all over the country and had thousands of members. Their peaceful tactics, such as petitions, silent protests and public speeches aimed to raise awareness and win wider support by persuasion. In February 1907, for example, over 3000 women marched through the streets of London from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall advocating for women’s suffrage in the cold and wet, proving to the WSPU that the NUWSS was equally vigorous in fighting for reform. These tactics were designed to undermine the stereotypical view that women were disorganised, irrational and politically illiterate. They won over many politicians such as Lloyd George, who even though the rest of their party were against the idea both expressed support towards women. The Suffragists campaign was pretty successful pre-1914, as is evident from the 1911 Conciliation Bill. By 1914, with 53,000 members across 480 branches, the Suffragists were having an impact on the views of politicians towards them, as seen by politicians such as most Liberals who had growing support for these women, clearly shown in the 1911 Conciliation Bill, where 255 MPs were for votes for women, and many abstained, whilst 40 Private Members Bills were also taken to Parliament between 1867 and 1907 requesting the enfranchisement of women, showing the growing backing for them. The Suffragists also won Labour supporters from the 1912 pact, where Labour candidates would stand for election in constituencies where the Liberal candidate opposed ‘votes for women’. This meant that Labour candidates could benefit by gaining votes of Liberals who favoured votes for women. Sandra Holton states that “what can be confidently asserted is the importance of women's suffragists' own efforts, especially the efforts of the democratic suffragists, in securing the strong position enjoyed by their cause at the outbreak of war.” It can also be argued that the cause was more or less won by 1914 and that women receiving the vote was inevitable in the near future, thanks to the Suffragist campaign. By 1914 most Liberals were in favour of extending the franchise to women, portrayed in the Conciliation Bill of 1911 when approximately 1/3 of the Liberal party voted for granting votes to women, but were not obvious because the government collapsed and the Bill did not become law, thus illustrating the success of the electoral pact.

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However, there is evidence to suggest that politicians just ignored the Suffragists. Their success can be questioned, as all 40 of the Private Member’s Bills were rejected, and in the 2nd Conciliation Bill, MPs voted against enfranchising women. Also, without having the support of Asquith, Prime Minister at the time, the Suffragists were never going to be able to gain women the vote before 1914. In order to stop women gaining the vote, Asquith dropped the Second Conciliation Bill of 1911 and instead wished to put forward a bill that would give more men the vote, initially angering the WSPU. ...

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