“It is one of the virtues of war that it puts the light which in peacetime is hid under a bushel in such prominence that all can see it” – Women’s War Work, Jennie Randolph Churchill 1916.Throughout the Nineteenth and Twentieth century Britain had made great leaps toward becoming a democracy. As was the case in many industrialised countries at this time, Britain had started to increase male suffrage and had began to introduce policies to start looking after the poorer classes, the impoverished and the elderly. There was a general move away from laissez faire attitudes and more emphasis was being placed on Government intervention mainly fuelled by a more educated and politically aware populations. By the beginning of the Twentieth century there had also been many reforms that dealt with reforming parliament and men’s suffrage with the majority of the male population being enfranchised in 1884. However, the issue of woman’s suffrage has attracted much debate among historians and specifically the issue of why it took women so long to obtain the right to vote.At first glance of the facts it may appear to be obvious that women’s suffrage was a reward for the work carried out in World War I; however, on closer analysis there was clearly a great deal of issues surrounding why it took until 1928 to obtain equal voting rights to men. This is especially so when you consider that women had been campaigning for this right for sometime and had even gained some support from sympathetic MP’s. Despite this they were still not enfranchised in previous electoral reforms or had any real political voice. In a changing society where women were already taking on a more professional role it is easy to see how this seemed unjust to women and this did indeed lead to rising tensions in the form of direct and sometimes violent protest from women’s suffrage groups. In frustration, many female suffrage supporters started a very direct and radical campaign and on occasion led to violence and vandalism.Although previous to Representation of the People Act of 1918 no women had the right to vote there had previously been a very small group of women allowed this privilege. These privileges were removed in the parliamentary reforms that dominated the Nineteenth century and somewhat ironically was the start of men’s expanded enfranchisement outside of the elite land owners and upper classes. The 1832 Reform Act that introduced this restriction was a huge reform for men’s suffrage and introduced many changes on the electorate, however there was little opposition to the restrictions imposed on women and was very telling of the opinions of women at this time, both on the part of women and men.Although throughout the Nineteenth century there was an increase in women taking up posts in professions such as medicine and teaching, they did so in the face of prejudice. Many women, although capable, were refused the right to university education and women in the lower classes of work were refused union membership. Most women worked in traditional roles, both in the type of career options available and the role in which they played in the family home. Paid work for women mostly involved domestic work and there was little need or demand for women to obtain new skills. However with the emerging opportunities in an industrialised Britain, new kinds of employment opportunities were emerging for women. A large number were moving from rural areas to take on jobs such as factory workers and seamstresses and this created a new kind of social problem. With women outnumbering men in the largest numbers since the sixteenth century, this created the problem of many women remaining unmarried and having to support themselves financially. Women who had been widowed or had absconding husbands had little or no chance of remarrying and as the problem escalated women looked to the government to provide measures for this problem. Insurance was designed to benefit men and families but not for widowed women or single parents. However without a political voice these issues would not be high on the priority list for some time.Many MP’s had pledged to give support to women’s suffrage and may have been sincere in their beliefs however women’s suffrage was never included in any of the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 or 1884, the last of which gave the right to vote to nearly all men. Neither was it on the manifesto of the bold Liberal election campaign of reforms in 1906. One MP named John Stuart Mill was not only a supporter but an active campaigner. Going against the views of the society of the time Mill published a paper called ‘The Subjection Of Women’ in 1869 to express his views,”I deny that any one knows or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. Until conditions of equality exist, no one can possibly assess the natural differences between women and men, distorted as they have been. What is natural to the two sexes can only be found out by allowing both to develop and use their faculties freely.”While Mill may not have been successful in his petitions to parliament it certainly raised the profile of the campaign. Many more petitions followed in time with no success and it is easy to see why the women’s suffrage movement became disillusioned and frustrated with the progress.One of the first organised suffragist groups formed in 1897 was ‘The National Union of Women’s Suffrage’, led by Millicent Fawcett their view was a liberal approach and followed on from previous attempts at gaining MP’s support, which they believed was the only way to get their political voice heard. In some respects they did make some limited progress and were able to take on small Governmental roles such as Guardian of Poor Laws. The suffragists were keen to build on their experience of their limited governmental roles and progress, however progress was painstakingly slow.Out of the growing frustration at the lack of any radical changes a new organisation going by the name of ‘The Woman’s Social and Political Union’ and more commonly known as ‘The Suffragettes’ was formed in 1903. A radical movement led by Emmeline Pankhurst, their tactics were direct and included, heckling MP’s, vandalism and protest marches and often led to imprisonment. So important was their cause, one suffragette named Emily Davidson threw herself in front of the Kings horse at the Derby in 1913. These radical tactics were not supported by everyone and lost them many previous supporters, both in public and Government. Although the suffragette movement undoubtedly got their voice heard it is clear that this radical approach done them no favours and was a major factor in slowing down female suffrage.The campaign was called to a halt as World War I in support and to take part in the war effort. Many women took on the normally male dominated jobs and were beginning to be seen as capable and responsible people able to contribute to society. This also had an effect on the women themselves; firstly it gave women a sense of independence as they moved away from small firms and domestic work into large firms and institutions like the civil service. Secondly it pushed women into having more of a political voice with unions being forced to accept more female members as their ratio in the work place soared. Thus, the increase in female trade union membership soared from only 357,000 in 1914 to over a million by 1918. This represented an increase in the number of unionised women of 160 per cent, compared with an increase in the union membership of men of only 44 per cent.For the first time women were seen as serving the nation and with a political voice in the unions there can be no doubt that this had an impact on the politicians of the time.Another issue of suffrage was to give the millions of returning soldiers that had fought for their democracy their right to vote. The Government realised as the war ended an election would need to be called and this presented several problems in itself. Firstly the requirement that only men who had been resident in the country for 12 months prior to the election were entitled to vote, this effectively disenfranchised a large number of troops who had been serving overseas. This dilemma was the pressing issue that forced a revision of the franchise and combined with pressure from women’s groups and by drawing attention to the work of women during the war, persuaded the Liberal leader, Asquith, to grant a minority of women the vote. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to all adult males over the age of 21 and some women the right to vote providing they were over 30, householders or married to householders. Although almost all MP’s who passed the motion said it was for the good conduct of women’s work during the war, many historian argue that the age set for female voters excluded the many women who would have worked during the war effort. Even with the restrictions in place women still equated to 43% of the electorate due to the losses in the war and to give women equal suffrage to men would have gave them the majority of the vote. Most historians agree that this is the real reason for the restrictions set in 1918 and why it took until 1928 to be extended.Although the 1918 act went through both the House of Commons and House of Lords with surprising ease, its history was not an easy one. Female suffrage was a slow gradual process and took a long time to gain momentum and support. The radical campaign may have raised the profile but it clearly had a detrimental effect on the cause and only encouraged opposition from both men and women. However there is no doubt MP’s such as Mills and the middle class suffragists made a more positive impact on the campaign and it could be argued that if the issue of female suffrage had been taken serious in political terms, the more radical sides would not have formed. Even without women’s suffrage there had been a gradual progression in women’s career opportunities and education and it could be argued that this progression would have continued.On the other hand radical groups argued that the liberal approach was not enough. It could also be argued that to create universal male suffrage to the returning soldiers of the war was and the abolition of property requirements was the real reason women obtained the vote when they did and therefore the main reason why they had not did so previously. Although most historians would agree that these factors indeed played a part it was a combination of not only political factors but also social views of women’s roles in society and the negative suffragette campaign that took women so long to obtain the vote.


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