My supervisor and I shared a moment of somewhat nerdy joy today. Her current research focus is Charles Dickens and today marks the bicentury of his birth. However, this February marks 94 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed and I was pleased to see that today the Guardian published the article about the Act from its archives.
As the news report notes, the Act did not extend to franchise to all women, and not on the same terms as men; men could vote from the age of 21 and without property restrictions, but women had different restrictions in place. From the introduction to the Act:
As regards the Parliamentary franchise for women, the Act confers this only on women who have attained the age of 30. In constituencies other than university constituencies there are two alternative qualifications which are as follows :
(1) the woman must be entitled to be registered as a local government elector in respect of the occupation of a dwelling-house (irrespective of value) or of land or premises (other than a dwelling-house) of a yearly value of not leas than 5/. ; or
(2) she must be the wife of a man who is entitled to be so registered.
The university franchise is conferred on all women of the requisite age who have obtained a degree, or, at Oxford or Cambridge, have passed the final examination and kept the necessary residence.
So women had to be over 30 and either have a degree (not easy to come by for a woman then) or own, rent or be married to someone who owned or rented property in order to vote. It wasn’t equal franchise but this Act did pave the way for the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, which gave women and men equal voting rights.
The Guardian article is rather lovely in its optimism and I can’t resist sharing this section:
We may mourn for what we had hoped for and have not got, but that need not prevent us from rejoicing at the gains which have been won. The adoption of women’s suffrage is the signal victory of an electoral struggle stretching over two generations and represents the greatest triumph in our day of a generous good sense. It is much more than political victory. Measured by purely political results, it may prove to be of less effect than either its friends or its opponents anticipated, though in certain directions, and particularly on all that concerns the position and interests of women before the law and in the State, it is bound to tell, and in time to tell heavily. But beyond that it will modify the whole attitude and outlook of women in society. It will in a real sense bring spiritual as well as political emancipation. Women will realise themselves a little differently and will be differently regarded by others. We are a political people, and the recognition of political equality is the first step to the recognition of equality in every other field where nature has not set up her own barriers.
Of course it’s a product of its time and there’s stuff in there that’s dated by 21st century standards, but it’s amazingly progressive compared to some of the stuff it was contemporary to.