A moment in history
Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor

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.

Language, Gender and Politics event

Discussing women and parliamentary politics a century after the first women voters

Friday 6 October 13.00-18.00

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One of the main arguments against woman suffrage was that women could not be granted this citizenship because they could not contribute to all aspects of national life. Most significantly, women could not serve their country in time of war.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, this was true. Women could not serve in the army; they could not fight. But as the leaders of the campaign quickly realized, they could do everything else.

Some opposed the war as pacifists, and worked to relieve the suffering of working women and for international peace. Others supported the war and the quasi-military structures of the suffrage societies provided the perfect infrastructure for the organisation of women’s wartime services enabling women to contribute to the war effort on multiple fronts.

The achievement of the vote in 1918 has often been seen as a ‘reward’ for this war work. However, as the act franchised relatively few working women, this seems unlikely.

Another theory is that the vote had already been as good as won by 1914, but that this legislation, like so much other, was put on hold with the outbreak of the war. Alternatively, the loss of life by 1918 did threaten the overall size of the electorate. Perhaps women were actually needed as citizens after all.

Historians differ as to why women were given the vote in 1918, but it is clear that it represented an important strategic victory in the overall campaign for equality.

Women were also given the right to stand for Parliament, and while the Sinn Fein politician Constance Markievicz was elected, she refused to take her seat for political reasons. It was not until the following year that Lady Nancy Astor, representing Plymouth, became the first woman to take up her seat in the House of Commons. Politicians quickly became aware that they needed to consider the female vote in both campaigning and policy.

Women had to wait until 1928 for the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act before they achieved real electoral equality with men, the right to vote for everyone over the age of 21. Equality in all other aspects of public and political life took much longer.

In the General Election in 2017, 208 women MPs were elected, the highest number ever. But that is 208 out of 650, still only 32 per cent. The 2017 election saw the highest electoral turnout for 25 years, with almost 70 per cent of the electorate voting. Two-thirds of newly registered voters were young people.

One hundred years on things do seem to be moving in the right direction. But these figures still indicate that 30% of those who were eligible to vote stayed at home. And many of these will have been women.

It is of vital importance that we remember the 1918 Representation of the People Act, that we commemorate the women who worked so hard to achieve those first steps towards equality. We have come a long way since then, but not yet far enough.

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Our teaching is driven by research which in 2014 was rated among the best in the UK by the nationwide Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment. Our staff have published extensively and internationally across a diverse range of fields in literary criticism and creative writing.

For example, Senior Lecturer Peter Hinds, author of The Horrid Popish Plot, teaches and publishes on early modern literature and Professor Anthony Caleshu, prize winning poet, leads the Contemporary Poetry module.