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Friday, February 6, 1998 Published at 08:55 GMT



UK

Women's battle for the vote
image: [ Peaceful protests organised by the women's suffrage movement ]
Peaceful protests organised by the women's suffrage movement

More women MPs than ever before now brighten the benches of the House of Commons. But the days in which women were not even entitled to vote are still within living memory.

Women were enfranchised 80 years ago, on February 6, 1918. The Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women over 30 who "occupied premises of a yearly value of not less than 5".

But it was not until 1928 that the voting age for women was lowered to 21 in line with men.


[ image: Suffragettes were often beaten by police]
Suffragettes were often beaten by police
The campaign for female suffrage began in earnest in the mid-19th century.

They had the support of liberal intellectuals such as John Stuart Mill, who campaigned for women's suffrage in parliament.

When Benjamin Disraeli's government introduced the 1867 Reform Bill, supporters of general suffrage hoped the vote might also be extended to women.

They argued that by Lord Romilly's Act of 1850 the word "man" applied to women as well.

But the extent to which women were held in disdain was clearly indicated by the remark of one MP: if a woman could be brought in under Lord Romilly's Act, he said, so might a cow!

The courts upheld the MP's views, ruling that the 1867 Reform Act did not extend to women.

In 1897 the various suffragist societies united into one organisation, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, led by Millicent Fawcett. The movement now had more coherence, and more strength.

But as bills for female suffrage were brought before Parliament again and again, they were each defeated.


[ image: Moments before Davison threw herself under the King's horse]
Moments before Davison threw herself under the King's horse
One of the suffragists, Emmeline Pankhurst, was so frustrated by the continued lack of government action that she founded the more militant Women's Social and Political Union in 1903.

At first the tactics were nonviolent. They organised big public demonstrations, and heckled politicians who refused to talk to them. One chained herself to the railings in Downing Street to make a speech, another chained herself to a statue in the lobby of the House of Commons.

They were often arrested and taken to prison, where they continued their protests by going on hunger strikes.

As parliament continued to defeat consecutive suffrage bills, the "suffragettes" turned to force, and resorted to a policy of violence against property.

At organised demonstrations, hundreds of women started breaking windows and burning down buildings in protest at the government's refusal to act.

Then on Derby Day in 1913 Emily Davison threw herself in front of King George V's horse and was trampled to death. The Suffragettes had gained a martyr.

War breaks out

But it was the work done by women during the First World War that finally earned them the vote.


[ image: Women proved their worth during the war]
Women proved their worth during the war
With the men in the trenches, the fabric of life in Britain was transformed. Women began to do work that previously they would have been thought incapable of performing.

The Suffragettes saw the war as an opportunity to show what women could do.

They suspended militant tactics, and used their organisational strength to mobilise women to do relief work, and fill in the jobs that had been left empty by men on the battlefields.

Many employers were surprised by how well women could do men's work, and the experience converted them to the cause of women's suffrage.

On February 6, 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed, giving women over the age of 30 the vote.

Later that year another act was passed that allowed women to be elected to the House of Commons.

But it was still a long time before women politicians were taken seriously: in the 1920s Winston Churchill blushed at the sight of a woman politician in Parliament.

"It was as embarrassing as if she burst into my bathroom when I had nothing on with which to defend myself," he said.






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