Only 40% of British women actually won the right to vote in 1918. Who were the women who missed out and, 100 years on, how universal is suffrage today? WebRoots Democracy’s Fahmida Rahman explores...
Who actually benefited from the Representation of the People Act in 1918?
The 1918 Representation of the People Act was a watershed moment in voting history. After a long and arduous fight lasting well over 80 years, the right to vote was finally extended to women, providing they were over the age of 30 and either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register, a property owner, or a graduate voting in a University constituency.
The act enfranchised around 8.4 million women, but women weren’t the only beneficiaries. It also enfranchised around 5.6 million working class men aged over 21, or 19 if they served in the military.
Prior to the passing of the act, only men who satisfied certain property qualifications could vote. As such, this was not just a story of men and women, but one of elite men and the rest of society.
Which groups of women were excluded by the Act?
Due to the qualifications needed to be eligible, only 40 percent of women got the vote in 1918. And these were almost entirely middle class women. As such, those excluded were women that faced the double disadvantage of being both working class and female. But many of these working class women had actually been at the forefront of the suffrage movement.
Discussions about the suffrage movement most often focus on middle class women, but the cause actually garnered much support from working women. In fact, some of the first supporters of the suffrage movement were from the northern labour and trade union movement. This included Annie Kenney, the Oldham mill worker, who would be imprisoned 13 times for her efforts, and Selina Cooper, a textile worker who, from the age of 10 and as the first working class woman to stand for the Independent Labour Party, used her position to argue for women’s suffrage at party conferences.
When the act was passed these women were denied the same rights as their middle class
counterparts, and because the 1918 act included the extension of the vote to all men aged over 21, and serving military personnel aged over 19, the balance of voting power remained tipped towards men. Moreover, because only middle class women were given the vote, the overall balance of voting power also remained tipped towards the elite.
Why is equal, accessible, and intersectional suffrage important?
Our votes are our currency, and we spend it at the ballot box. In an equal democracy, we come together at election time to have our voices heard. Those who vote, get heard. This is why equal, accessible and intersectional suffrage is important.
The concept of intersectionality recognises how different forms of oppression come together to not only reinforce inequality, but to create very specific problems for those affected. While a woman faces certain obstacles as a result of her gender, for working class women these obstacles are compounded by issues specific to working people. This was very much reflected in people’s motivations for joining the suffrage movement in the early 1800’s. For working women the suffrage movement was fought alongside the labour movement, with many mobilising around equal pay and working conditions.
But intersectionality isn’t just about class and gender, it deals with all kinds of oppression. Race is a key example. Even today, most people of colour are working class, but the struggles that we face are very much compounded by racial discrimination. And for women of colour, these struggles are threefold. Post-1918, this demographic would have also been excluded from political discourse. It was only 10 years after the initial act, in 1928, that universal suffrage was established and that women received votes on the same terms as men.
After 100 years, which women are still missing from the political picture?
The journey towards equal suffrage did not end in 1918, nor did it end in 1928. 100 years after the initial act, many women, and men, who are vision impaired or disabled are still unable to cast an independent, secret ballot, as is their right under the Human Rights Act 1998. Many voters with motor disabilities, vision impairments, and cognitive disabilities struggle to cast a ballot without the aid of another. Some may not be as fortunate to have a significant other, or a carer to help them do so.
For the homeless, the ability to register without a fixed address means that in theory they should be able to do so. But the additional requirement to print off a form, instead of registering online,
creates a significant barrier for many. Until very recently many survivors of domestic violence were also prevented from registering to vote because doing so meant that their names and addresses would appear on the public electoral roll.
Although it was possible to do so anonymously, the evidence required to be eligible was very difficult to obtain for most. On March 7th 2018, 100 years after the first women were able to vote, this was relaxed with the intention to make voting more accessible, but we are yet to see the outcomes.
Democracy isn’t just about the physical act of voting, it is about involvement in political decision making. But many groups feel alienated from this. A large part of this is due to the lack of representation within parliament. Even today, only 32 per cent of British members of parliament are female, and only 7.8 per cent are BME - compared to 14 percent of the population. For large swathes of the working class and BME populations this lack of representation translates into feelings of voicelessness and disenfranchisement - an outcome that is visible through low turnout figures among these groups.
What work still needs to be done to make democracy more equal?
In an equal democracy, all voters should have the right to cast an independent, secret ballot, and we should ensure they have the ability to exercise that right.
Barriers to registration must be broken down. For survivors of domestic violence, great strides have already been made. But it mustn’t stop there. Practicalities should prevent no one, including the homeless, from voting.
For voters with disabilities and vision impairments, a secure, remote online voting option would provide a means to vote secretly and independently. We have done a lot of work at WebRoots Democracy to draw attention to this issue and, alongside numerous disability charities in the UK, have called for pilots of remote online voting. The technology is currently due to be piloted in both Scotland and Wales.
And of course, efforts need to be made in order to make the entire political process more representative and accessible to all members of British society.