Suffragettes100: The day women knew the right to vote was on its way
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To mark the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote on Tuesday, next week’s paper will be a special women’s edition. To kick-start the celebrations, Jon King looks back at the Ham&High’s coverage.
A century ago something seismic took place following a decades long struggle.
Following years of campaigning and struggle a law was given Royal Assent on February 6 1918 which transformed the United Kingdom by granting women the right to vote.
Before the Representation of the People Act women had been barred from voting in elections. But the Act itself only extended the franchise to women aged 30 or over who were either tenants or the wives of tenants.
For readers of the Ham&High at the time, the moment passed with little fanfare. In the February 9 1918 edition the achievement didn’t even merit a mention.
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Instead a call for women to man air raid shelters, the account of a Mr W Butterworth detained at an internment camp near Berlin after visiting the Wagner music festival on the outbreak of the First World War, and the drowning of a soldier in the viaduct pond in Hampstead Heath, perhaps betray what preoccupied readers at the time.
It might also be the case of course that the arguments had long been won in Parliament. The main Bill had been passed the previous summer by a majority of 385 to 55.
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But historian Irene Cockcroft, co-curator of a forthcoming exhibition on the Suffragettes at Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, suggested misogyny ‘you could cut with a knife’ might explain it.
“It’s perhaps indicative of just how inconsequential men thought it was,” Ms Cockcroft said.
But the Act, which meant 8.5 million women would get a say over who represented them in Parliament, also benefited 5.6 million men after almost all voting restrictions based on property ownership were scrapped.
For St Pancras North’s Liberal Party MP Sir Willoughby Hyett Dickinson, a keen supporter of women’s suffrage, the Act was “one of the most important Acts that Parliament has ever passed”.
“It is the greatest step ever made towards the complete democratization of the British Constitution, and I believe that in this respect history will rank it at least on a par with the Reform Act of 1832,” he wrote in the January 19 edition of the Ham&High.
The Reform Act increased the number of voters from 500,000 to 1,000,000 whilst the 1918 Act saw it double from 8,000,000 to 16,000,000 according to St Pancras’s MP.
“It will sweep away all the old illogical and complicated franchises,” Sir Willoughby predicted before going on to explain how “women’s work” during the war had proved “helpful” in realising the Act.
“It has shown... how magnificently women can take their share in the national struggle,” the first Baron Dickinson explained.
But the right to vote was not extended to all women because absolute equality with men would have seen the female electorate greatly exceed the male.
The prospect of that was a step too far and “not likely to secure the support of Parliament” the MP said. As is often the case an Act’s passing was a case of compromise.
In January Sir Willoughby anticipated a re-elected Parliament strong enough to meet the challenge of rebuilding the country after the war.
However, in the March 30 1918 edition he issued a warning to women voters. After suggesting Britain’s decision would “revolutionize the standard of women all over the globe” he was reported as saying he hoped women would “record their votes with intelligence”. “Otherwise the Act might be a national disaster,” the report states.
On December 14 1918 13,904 women in Highgate and 14,391 in Hampstead voted for the first time in the first election following the Act’s passing. Equal voting rights had to wait till 1928, but an historic step had been taken.