Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
The Representation of the People Act of January 1918 is, rightly, the most celebrated of the women’s suffrage Acts. It broke the legal barriers to women voting in general elections (some women had voted in local elections since 1870).
But the 1918 RPA is one of several steps, and was incomplete. The women’s franchise was on a limited basis, thanks to divided opinion in the Speaker’s Conference of 1917. It was designed to maintain a male majority in the electorate, and was only from the age of 30 rather than 21 for men (and 19 for war veterans).
Some women over 30 were still disqualified for lack of property; teachers living in furnished rooms, carers living with parents, and domestic servants were all left out.
The 1918 RPA did not actually enable women to become MPs, which was instead the consequence of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, passed in November 1918 less than a month before polling day. This lesser-known Act was the one that led directly to Constance Markievicz being elected in December 1918 for the Dublin St. Patrick’s constituency, though she exercised her mandate in the First Dáil of Ireland rather than Westminster, and then Nancy Astor taking her seat after the Plymouth Sutton by-election in November 1919. A more general Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 opened the professions, the civil service, and jury service to women.
Oddly, from 1918 to 1928 women aged 21 to 30 were eligible to serve in the House of Commons, and therefore cast votes on legislation, but not to vote to choose their MPs. This was not as bizarre at the time as it seems now, because before 1918 the qualification to vote was complicated and the legal rules for membership and voting had not previously been aligned. But it was obviously absurd given the aspiration to a fully democratic franchise.
At the same time as the House debated the franchise in 1928 there was a by-election in Linlithgowshire in which the Unionist (Conservative) candidate defending the seat was the 28-year-old Margaret Kidd. Kidd was an eminent woman: the first to be called to the Faculty of Advocates (the Scottish Bar), which she accomplished at the age of 23 in 1923, and was later the first woman to give evidence before the Lords and a parliamentary select committee. Kidd lost, but the first ‘flapper MP’ appeared before the first ‘flapper voter’, when Jennie Lee was elected Labour MP for North Lanarkshire in February 1929.
In the historical record, there is an air of inevitability about the next reform, the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of July 1928 which sorted out the anomalies of the 1918 Act. But the reputation of the 1928 Act is unfairly overshadowed,. Nor did it seem inevitable at the time, so we often neglect to celebrate the campaigners of the 1920s such as Margaret Haig Thomas, otherwise Lady Rhondda, who kept the pressure on for an equal franchise. She was undeterred by the advice of Emmeline Pankhurst that the time was not right.
There have been plenty of occasions in British history in which a temporary solution that everyone at the time recognised was flawed has become a lasting settlement – the composition and powers of the House of Lords after 1911, and the electoral system after 1917 for example. But it did not prove the case with women’s votes.
The door that Lady Rhondda and her colleagues were pushing against was not locked. There were 12 Private Members’ Bills for franchise equality in 1919-27. In the 1924 election campaign, the Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin had stated that ‘The Unionist Party is in favour of equal political rights for men and women,’ but Baldwin was good at expressing views but then deciding that the time was not right.
However, in February 1925, in a debate on Labour MP William Whiteley’s Bill, the Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks announced that the Prime Minister’s pledge mean that ‘at the next election no difference will take place in the age at which men and women will go to the poll.’ This went beyond what Cabinet had agreed, and it is possible that Joynson-Hicks might have been mellowed by a few drinks. The Cabinet subsequently (against the strenuous objections of Winston Churchill and Lord Birkenhead) decided to stand by the Home Secretary’s words.
The Government had argued against the Whiteley Bill in 1925 on the grounds that there should be an inter-party conference on the franchise, but Joynson-Hicks did nothing to convene such a conference and the women’s movement geared up to renew the pressure. On 8 March 1927 a deputation led by Nancy Astor, Eleanor Rathbonem and Lady Rhondda met Baldwin and Joynson-Hicks, and on 13 April the Government announced that it would legislate for the simplest and most radical reform, equalising the voting age at 21 in time for the 1929 election.
The Government Bill appeared in March 1928 and received widespread support. It was introduced by Joynson-Hicks (‘Jix’) with a generosity of spirit that is most unusual in his parliamentary and governmental career. At other times as Home Secretary he was busy trying to suppress London nightclubs and clamping down on literature such as the very restrained lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness. But he did seem to be a true believer in franchise equality and made an effective, moving speech in favour when introducing the Bill.
The details of the 1928 Act included provisions to bring forward electoral registration so that the newly enfranchised women could cast votes in the general election due before October 1929, but also the preservation of elements of plural voting that the opposition wished to see ended by a new franchise Bill.
Opponents felt constrained from using the argument that they probably really believed in, that women were not capable of using the vote wisely and should not have it, so they had to use some pretty inventive material. Some of the arguments deployed at the time seem so preposterous that it is hard to imagine that they were seriously ventured in the House of Commons. The Conservative MP for Enfield, Reginald Applin, thought it was a bad idea because he believed it would offend Muslims throughout the Empire. Labour’s Ellen Wilkinson pointed out that the Raj had been ruled by a British Empress, and that women had the vote already in representative assemblies in India, so the backlash from young women getting the vote would probably be manageable.
Opponents also got themselves in a complete muddle about whether women would vote as a bloc or not; either the franchise reduction was pointless because they would not, or dangerous because they would. The argument that had the most potential was that the voting age should be equalised at 25; this would redeem the promise of an equal franchise but also supposedly make the voting population more responsible. By delaying the Bill, the government had closed off this option, as it would surely have needed the cover of a Royal Commission to take the vote away from men who had the legitimate expectation of voting in 1929. To the credit of Baldwin and Joynson-Hicks, they did the job properly rather than begrudging it as a necessity. Only 10 MPs voted against on second reading.
An equal franchise was only one of the demands of the 1920s women’s movement. Lady Rhondda and her colleagues campaigned for material equality such as equal pay for equal work, family allowances paid to the mother, and an end to moral double standards between men and women. They had the support not only of Labour women like Ellen Wilkinson, but some Conservative men such as (the Seventh) Lord Balfour of Burleigh, who addressed Lady Rhondda’s National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship and moved a resolution ‘to secure a real equality of liberty, status and opportunity between men and women’ in March 1927. But contrary to some hopes (and fears), the majority female electorate that was established in 1929 did not lead to rapid further progress on the wider goals.
The principle of equality had been won for the House of Commons in 1918 (though in practice the proportion of women MPs did not reach 10 per cent until 1997). The Lords remained all-male, although only by chicanery. Lady Rhondda was one of a handful of peeresses in her own right, having inherited the peerage in 1918, and had a good case to be admitted to the House of Lords. The Committee for Privileges heard her case in March 1922 and ruled that she should indeed receive a Writ of Summons.
However, the Lord Chancellor (Birkenhead again) was a male chauvinist even by 1920s criteria and used procedural guile and specious argument to keep women out of ‘his’ House of Lords, despite what the 1919 Act might say about non-disqualification.
Lady Rhondda died in 1958, living long enough to see Royal Assent to the Macmillan government’s Life Peerages Act, which forty years after equalisation of rights to sit in the House of Commons created a category of peers in which men and women were equal. It was not until 1963 that the injustice Lady Rhondda had suffered personally was undone, as peeresses in their own right were recognised as being entitled to sit in the Lords. It was only at this point that Britain was able to sign the United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women.
There were a few pieces of formal political inequality that lasted until very recently. Women were still disadvantaged in relation to the position of head of state until the Succession to the Crown Act 2013. There was still a category of legislator not open to women, namely the 26 peers drawn from among the diocesan bishops of the Church of England, who until 2015 were all male. The Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015 changed the seniority rule for bishops being appointed to the Lords so that new women bishops could be ‘fast tracked’. The first woman bishop in the Lords, Rachel Treweek, became Bishop of Gloucester in 2015 and made her maiden speech on 7 March 2016.
The process of gaining formal equality of opportunity in parliamentary representation had taken just short of a century, and all these steps had taken place under Conservative or Coalition governments; Labour’s legislation has focused more on social than political equality, from family allowances in 1946 to equal pay law in the 1970s and the Equality Act 2010. But, as Lady Rhondda said in 1927,
“I wonder how many generations are going to use up their lives before we can put the whole thing behind us, and forget that there was ever any difference of status, freedom or opportunity based on the difference in sex.”
Angela John, Turning the Tide: the Life of Lady Rhondda (Parthian, 2013)
Nan Sloane (ed.), A Great Act of Justice: The Flapper Election and After (Centre for Women and Democracy, 2009)