In February 2018, Britain will commemorate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, a piece of legislation designed to reshape the electorate after four years of war.
One primary concern of the act was to ensure that serving soldiers, who had been out of the country for prolonged periods of time, were not disqualified from voting as a consequence of this absence.
But perhaps more historically significant was that the act enfranchised some women for the first time, giving the vote to women property holders and wives of householders over the age of 30.
This, of course, excluded large numbers of women, including many of those who had been actively engaged in war work since 1914 – but it was a start.
The act represented the culmination of a campaign that had been active in Britain for more than 50 years, and the second half of the 19th century saw the creation of a large number of suffrage societies intent on lobbying Parliament and their menfolk for the right to vote.
In 1897, many of these groups merged to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), a single society united in the cause of peaceful campaigning. However, frustrated by the slow progress of the movement, in 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters set up an alternative group, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), determined to bring about change more rapidly.
The WSPU adopted very different, militant tactics, earning them the label ‘Suffragettes’, a name they adopted and embraced.
One hundred years on, it is strange to imagine the lack of equality that fuelled this campaign, and we now take it for granted that all women and all men should have the same democratic rights to vote in all elections.
In 1914, however, when the First World War broke out and Suffragette militancy was at its height, many people did indeed support the idea in principle. But many more, including some prominent women, opposed woman suffrage, believing that as long as their husbands and fathers had the vote, then women were perfectly satisfactorily represented.
This notion of dependency seems incredible now, but women had to campaign hard against this opposition for their voices to be heard. And while the violence of the Suffragette campaign attracted a lot of criticism, it did catapult the cause of votes for women to the centre of the pre-war political scene. The vote for women was important because it stood for equal citizenship with men.