Looking Back: 1918, The first election with women’s suffrage

In the run up to International Women’s Day, THSH is diving into the archives to explore Birmingham Town Hall’s rich history as a hub of speechmaking, protesting, and campaigning in the suffragette movement, which won the vote for most women 100 years ago last year.

The Representation of the People Act, 1918

1918 was a hugely important year in the struggle for women’s suffrage in the UK. 50 years after the founding of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, and almost 90 years after the first Representation of the People Act in 1832, some women won the right to vote.

The 1918 Representation of the People Act expanded the vote in two ways. First, to all men over 21. Before, male voters had to own a certain amount of property, but the concession was a response to the huge sacrifice and loss of life of ordinary working people in the First World War, people who fought and died in a war started by people they couldn’t vote for.

Lse Reform Act 1918

          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library

The Act also expanded the vote to women over 30 who owned a house or were married to a homeowner. This age and property rule left out almost 3 in 5 women in the UK.

The law came after decades of suffragist campaigning and years of militant suffragette activism, and a wartime economy in which women needed to take a lot of jobs that were traditionally held by men, to replace those who had gone to Europe to fight.

Other Suffragettes, like Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst, had demonstrated their fierce patriotism. Emmeline went on a speaking tour of the UK to promote the war effort – a poster from 1916 calls on people to ‘come in your thousands’ to hear Mrs. Pankhurst address a ‘Great Patriotic Meeting’ in Town Hall, Birmingham, on Wednesday 29 November.

The difference in ages – men over 21 but women over 30 – is due to the huge loss of life of the First World War of young men, which lead (male) politicians to worry that men would be a minority of the voters. The vote was equalised to all women and men over 21 in the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, 1928.

Christabel Pankhurst and Smethwick constituency

The election of 18 December 1918 was the first election in which female candidates could stand for election in parliamentary constituencies – and stand they did. Christabel Pankhurst stood at Smethwick, West Midlands, as a candidate for the Women’s Party, newly created by herself and her mother Emmeline.

Christabel was endorsed by Prime Minister David Lloyd George for the election in the working-class constituency. Though she lost, she got 47.8% of the vote, losing by only 775 votes to the Labour candidate.

Lse Christabel Pankhurst Procession

          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library

Among other female MPs to stand in the West Midlands was Mary Macarthur, a Scottish trade unionist and suffrage campaigner who stood for election in Stourbridge.

During the early 1900s she had been involved in women’s strikes around the UK, fighting for better wages and working conditions for women workers, while also campaigning for universal suffrage for women and men.

Lse Mary Macarthur

          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library

In the campaign for the 1918 election Mary had visited Smethwick constituency to campaign against Christabel Pankhurst who she viewed as too right wing, and in favour of the Labour candidate.

In her own seat of Stourbridge, Macarthur lost by around 6% of the vote to the experienced Liberal candidate, John Wilson, who had been an MP since 1895. After that defeat she continued to work in the Women’s Trade Union League and the Trade Union Congress until her death in 1921.

Other Female Candidates in 1918

The only woman elected in 1918 was Constance de Markievicz in Belfast St Patrick’s, which at the time was still part of the UK. As a Sinn Feinn MP, she did not take her seat, instead serving in the Dáil of the Irish Republic, which declared itself independent from the UK in 1919. At the time she was in Holloway Prison for campaigning during the First World War and later De Markievicz fought for the Republicans in the Irish Civil War. In 1922 Ireland became official independent and Belfast St Patrick’s was therefore abolished as a UK parliamentary seat.

Back in the West Midlands, an NUWSS candidate stood in the constituency which represents Town Hall. Mrs. Cobbett Ashby, daughter of a former liberal MP, stood in Birmingham Ladywood, though she lost to future-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain by a significant margin. She had been secretary of the NUWSS from 1907, and after her defeat in 1918 became president of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in 1923, and stood as a Liberal MP candidate in elections a total of 8 times between 1918 and 1944.

Lse Margery Corbett Ashby

          Image sourced from LSE Women's Library