It has been just over two years since the celebrations of Vote 100 – a year of events, talks and the unveiling of new statues; celebrating the centenary of the Act of Parliament that granted the first women the right to vote. The Representation of the People Act was given royal assent on the 6th of February 1918, and gave women aged 30 and over who met the property qualifications, as well all men aged over 21, the right to vote.
The act was the result of a long campaign fought by suffragettes, suffragists and male allies, starting as early as 1832, when the first women’s suffrage petition was presented to parliament. However, the act excluded a large proportion of women from voting. Women aged 21-29, poorer, and working-class women of all ages, would have to wait another 10 years to be granted the same right, and another year after that to exercise their right to vote in a general election.
Looking at newspaper headlines, and reading interviews from 1918 onwards, it is clear that the general feeling was that it would be only a matter of time until the right to vote was extended to women on the same basis as men. Why then, did it take ten years to achieve? There was a consensus in 1918 that women would outnumber men at polling stations due to the loss of men during World War One, and this decade long gap was therefore seen by some at the time to be necessary, allowing the numbers of men eligible to vote to recover, leading to a more equally balanced vote between the sexes.
Another theory that dominated politicians’ minds, both during the suffrage movement pre-1918 and after, was the concern as to how the women would vote. A large majority of those who had to wait for the right to vote were women aged 21-29, the women who would become known as ‘flappers’. They had seen their positions and freedoms in society change during the war, with laws passed before and since.
These women had more job opportunities; more independence; the right to both their own property and the money they earned; and were able to determine how to spend it. Therefore, it was felt by those in the Liberal and Conservative parties that these women would be more inclined to vote for the newly formed Labour Party. However, even without the so-called ‘flapper vote’, the Labour Party did see success in the December 1923 General Election – they formed a minority government with the support from the Liberal Party, which lasted 10 months.
As the 1920s wore on the calls for equal suffrage continued, and with a general election on the horizon, discussion in parliament started to centre once again around women’s suffrage. The Equal Franchise Act became law on the 2nd of July 1928, passing 387 to 10. This resulted in the 1929 general election, which was held on Thursday 30th May, being heralded by newspapers as the ‘Flapper Election’, as many believe that the newly enfranchised women would in fact determine the outcome.
Unfortunately, there have been too few studies done into the subject, to determine whether extending the suffrage to all women actually shaped the result of the 1929 General Election. Campaign posters from the three main parties during this time show that they were all trying to appeal to these newly enfranchised women. However, key fights in the election arguably favoured the Labour Party, topics such as the rising unemployment that affected both men and women and the general strike of 1926 where at the forefront of the public’s mind.
In any case, the 1929 election resulted in a hung parliament showing that the ‘flapper vote’ did not automatically mean the success of the Labour Party. Though they did win the most seats (287 to conservative 260) in the House of Commons for the first time since the creation of the party, and increased its share in the votes, the Conservative party actually won the popular vote, receiving 38.1% to Labours 37.1%. The Labour party were 21 seats short of an overall majority, but Ramsay MacDonald formed a minority government with support once again from the Liberal Party. This Labour Government contained nine female MPs and saw the appointment of the very first female Cabinet Minister: Margaret Bondfield as Minister of Labour.
Therefore, whether or not the ‘flapper vote’ determined the election, the 1929 General Election should still be noted for being the first election in which all women on the same basis as men, in the United Kingdom were able to vote – making it a culmination of a hard fought battle for equal suffrage, and a triumphant moment in Women’s History.
About the Author:
Becky is a London born historian who, whilst studying history at university, began tour guiding around the CIty of Westminster using her knowledge of London and history to share the many tales the city has to offer.
5 years have passed since her first tour and in that time she has helped research and design a variety of tours around London and in its museums. Including launching her own tour company, Women of London in 2018. She now spends her time researching the stories of women for future tours, hosting collaboration events, organising the social media pages and just generally trying to increase the visibility of women in history.