Celebrating 100 years of Votes for Women
Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act on the 6th February 1918, which saw the extension of voting rights to some women.
Whilst the Act only gave the vote to some women, such as those over 30 who had property, it was, nonetheless, a momentous staging point in the struggle for equality which had spanned several decades and was fiercely resisted by the Establishment of the time.
The Suffragist movement actually began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century with the formation of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1872. In 1897 the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed. In 1903 disagreement over the wish of some activists to take more direct action led to the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union, or the Suffragettes, as they came to be known.
Both groups campaigned actively to change the opinion of a male dominated society. They held marches and large meetings across the UK. They formed constituency level groups at General Elections to campaign for candidates who supported votes for women. In the early 1900’s this was an extraordinary feat of organisation, achieved without all the benefits of modern technology we take for granted today.
There were very active Women’s Suffrage groups throughout Scotland, with the Scottish Headquarters of the Women’s Social and Political Union, (WSPU,) based in Glasgow.
The direct action taken by the Suffragettes is well documented. Whether it was chaining themselves to railings, breaking windows or throwing eggs at Churchill, they aimed to raise the profile of their cause and many were arrested and Jailed. A darker side of the campaign came when imprisoned campaigners went on hunger strike and were force fed. On release from jail some activists were banned, under the terms of their release, from addressing or attending meetings.
One of the most prominent members of the WSPU, Helen Crawfurd, a Minister’s wife, who joined the organisation in Rutherglen in 1910 and was known to break a window or two herself. In fact, she was jailed for a month after one such protest in London.
Helen also formed part of the bodyguard that smuggled the famous Suffragette leader, Emily Pankhurst, into a large rally in Glasgow in 1914. At a protest the following day she broke more windows at a rally and was sentenced to another month in Duke Street Jail. Helen went on hunger strike and, following protests outside the jail, the authorities relented and released her after eight days.
Whilst the contribution of women to the war effort is largely credited with securing change, it is important that we do not forget the impact efforts of the Suffragists prior to 1914 had on changing public opinion.
The 1918 Representation of the people Act was only a partial victory though, and was still far from the goal of delivering equality of suffrage. We had to wait until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 before all women, and all men, were allowed to vote at the age of 21.
Another important milestone 100 years ago, in 1918, was the passing of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, which allowed women to become MPs for the first time. 100 years on we have a female First Minister, a female Prime Minister and women leading Council Administrations.
We are also making progress in other areas and it was good to see the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Bill passed earlier this month. As the title suggests, the bill sets an objective for 50% of non-executive members of public boards to be women. It also requires steps to be taken to encourage women to apply to become non-executive members of public boards.
Politicians from all parties came together last Tuesday in the Scottish Parliament to mark this important day with a debate on the Women’s Right to Vote Centenary. This was a very consensual debate which celebrated how far we have come, but also noted that, with only 35% of MSPs being women, how far we still have to go. And that is true, not just for political representation, but for the continuing campaign for gender equality at all levels of society.
To mark the Centenary, and to help tackle this imbalance in political representation, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out measures that will see grants provided for grassroots and local projects across the country to empower more women into politics.
This includes £500,000 funding from the Scottish Government to support projects around Scotland aimed at celebrating and commemorating the centenary of women’s suffrage and improving women’s representation in politics. Projects that will be supported include the Glasgow Women’s Library programme of activity to mark the suffrage centenary.
As a woman in politics I see it as my mission to encourage other women and girls to get involved and help secure gender balance in representation and the equality across society that our grandmothers fought for.
Sent along with the below photo of female MSPs taken to mark the anniversary.