Political trail-blazers: the fight for women’s suffrage equality in the 1920s

by Louise Quick

We all know the story of the Suffragettes – it’s a great one! Over 100 years ago women weren’t allowed to vote so some female campaigners got angry, they protested, they petitioned, they smashed windows, and were rewarded for their efforts with the vote in 1918.

However, the story doesn’t end there. The fight for women’s voting rights is a tale that runs into the 1920s. While 1918 saw the first women able to vote, it wasn’t until 1928 that all women could vote and true voting equality was achieved. 

 ‘The eight women Members of Parliament’, 1924. L-R: Dorothy Jewson, Susan Lawrence, Nancy Astor, Margaret Wintringham, Katharine Stewart-Murray, Mabel Philipson, Vera Terrington, Margaret Bondfield. (Credit: National Portrait Gallery)

It’s true that the 1918 Representation of the People Act was momentous. It added 8.5 million women to the electoral register, but only those who were over 30 years old and met certain property qualifications. Meanwhile, the very same act gave almost all men over 21 the vote.

It took another ten years of struggle until the 1928 Equal Franchise Act finally saw women’s voting rights match men’s. After that, essentially all adults over 21 could vote, regardless of gender. 

This was a historic moment. In just over a decade women went from representing zero per cent of the British electoral register to holding the majority at around 53 per cent. Even Milicent Fawcett, the first leader of the NUWSS, was present in Parliament for the occasion in 1928.

So how did this act come about? How did the fight for voting equality manifest itself in the 1920s? Well, now that women had fought their way into the system they promptly set about changing it from the inside.

That’s thanks to another lesser-known but equally-powerful act passed in 1918, which allowed women to stand as MPs for the first time. Of course, many suffrage alumni wasted no time in running as political candidates for the 1918 general election. Sadly, however, only one woman was successful and she wasn’t able to take her seat in the House of Commons. 

Her name was Constance Markievicz. She was elected as a Sinn Fein MP and, in line with the party’s Irish nationalist aims, she refused to take her seat. That explains why the title of first female MP to actually take her seat in Parliament falls on Nancy Astor, who won a by-election in 1919.

After decades of suffrage campaigns, Astor was rather a shocking – and somewhat contentious – female MP. That’s namely because she had not been remotely involved in the fight for female suffrage. In fact, up until her election, she was known as an American-born socialite, famous for hosting glamorous parties for Britain’s influential elite, alongside her husband who became a Viscount.

It was actually the moment her husband became Viscount that saw Astor dive into politics. He’d been serving as the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton but, upon inheriting his Viscountcy, had to renounce his seat in the House of Commons and, instead, promoted Nancy as his replacement. 

Margaret Bondfield, Labour MP and first female cabinet minister.

Initially seen as a temporary fix, Astor won with a healthy percentage and served in Parliament for a whopping 25 years. Fortunately, once in Parliament, she championed several women’s issues, inducing equal employment rights and widows’ pensions. 

More than anything, her value was in proving that female MPs could be elected and, simply put, the world wouldn’t implode. Also, it encouraged other political parties to catch up.

The British Liberal Party answered that call when Margaret Wintringham was elected as the MP for Louth in 1921. Wintringham took a stronger stance on women’s issues and is the first example of a female MP who pushed for women’s voting age to be lowered to match men’s. 

It was the 1923 general election, however, that brought a wave – ‘wave’ is too strong a word so perhaps a ‘splash’ – of female MPs into British Parliament. Like Wintringham, many of these politicians supported greater political and social reforms for women.

Dorothy Jewson, for example, had actually campaigned for women’s suffrage and even joined the WSPU before becoming Norwich’s first female MP. Female voting equality was an issue close to her heart – in her inaugural speech as an MP she argued for extending voting rights to young women – among other women’s issues, such as greater access to birth control.

 Nancy Astor, Viscountess and first female MP to take her seat in government

Similarly, fellow Labour MP Margaret Bondfield – who went on to become the first woman in a Cabinet position in 1929 – was an active supporter of equal voting rights. While Bondfield’s earlier trade union activism had brought her into the same circles as prominent suffrage campaigners, she never hung her hat on one specific suffrage organisation. 

In fact, she once spoke out against the WSPU’s plans for limited voting rights for women. Bondfield believed that anything other than equal voting rights would negatively impact on Britain’s working-class women. 

Other female MPs elected in the 1923 splash include the formidable Susan Lawrence who had spent time in prison defending Poplar’s poorer inhabitants; Vera Terrington, who supported mothers’ rights as well as animal welfare; Katharine Stewart-Murray, Scotland’s first female MP; and Mabel Philipson, the actress-turned-politician who replaced her husband as MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed.

With at least some female politicians inside Parliament and Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald elected in 1924, hopes were high that equal voting rights for women were just around the corner. Sadly, those hopes were dashed by an old-fashioned government that wasn’t ready to give women the electoral majority.

Strangely, it was under a Conservative government that the act to lower women’s voting age finally gained some traction and was passed in 1928. 

While women should have just been given equal voting rights to men in 1918, the silver lining to having limited voting rights, at least, was that it gave women the seat at the table they needed to push for change from the inside. Without the pressure and influence of those early political trail-blazers it’s likely the story for true voting equality would still be on-going. 


Recommended reading:

Women get the vote, UK Parliament – https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/overview/thevote/

UK Vote 100 – https://ukvote100.org/ 


Suffrage Pioneers 1918-2018 – https://www.suffrage-pioneers.net/


About the Author:

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Louise Quick is an experienced multimedia journalist, content writer, and proud history nerd.

She completed her Public History MA from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2018. Her MA project featured a YouTube cookery series, recreating Edwardian vegetarian recipes in a bid to highlight the little-known fact that many of Britain’s Suffrage campaigners were vegetarians. The project was called ‘Suffrage Eats’, (a pun she is far too proud off).

Before her MA, Louise worked as a lifestyle journalist in Dubai, but returned to the UK to pursue her love of history. She has since written forThe Guardian and All About History, and produced educational video series for Historic Royal Palaces and History Bombs.

 

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