6th February 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918. It was this legislation that enabled all men and some women over the age of 30 to vote for the first time and paved the way for universal suffrage 10 years later. Marian Pallister, vice chair of Justice and Peace Scotland writes this weeks blog and reflects on how the memory of this time has passed down the generations of her family.
My mother had several very vivid memories of her first five years. Born in 1913, she lived in a world at war, and while her parents were not directly involved, one of those childhood memories was telling someone that ‘if the Germans come, I’ll stick darning needles in their eyes’.
In 1918 the war was still being fought, but in the February (her birthday month) something very positive happened. She may not have known it then, but it was one of the best birthday gifts that any child could receive – the right to a future in which she (or he) would have the right to determine the course of the country by exercising their vote.
The vote was not given to all women in 1918, but there were 8.5 million of them who met the qualifications of the Representation of the People Act. My grandmother was one of them. She was over 30 and owned property. Another of the qualifications was to be a graduate voting in a university constituency, but those women were few and far between – even though my grandmother was a teacher, she couldn’t claim that criterion to get inside the ballot box.
And of course, there were also 5.6 million men who were also enabled to vote. For them, the voting age was dropped to 21 (there would have been a revolution had the young survivors of the war not been given the vote) and the property qualification for men was abolished.
My mother had very Victorian parents who had married late in life. My grandfather was born in 1853, his wife in 1876. He owned a haulage business and despite being married, she was allowed to continue teaching in the local school because so many male teachers were away fighting. It would have been very natural for a couple then already aged 65 and 42 to let such new fangled laws pass them by.
But according to my mother’s most vivid childhood memory, when they opened the doors of the polling station in December 1918 for the first general election in which she was entitled to cast her vote, my grandmother was in the vanguard. Perhaps more importantly, she took her little daughter with her. My mother, who died at the age of 84, never forgot the feeling of how important that occasion was.
Nor did she ever miss the opportunity to vote. And when I was a young woman in the 1970s welcoming the new equality laws, she was as emotionally overwhelmed as she had been as a child watching her mother making that giant leap for womankind.
And yet, as I drove home tonight the main news story on Radio 4 was inequality of pay. The ‘Me Too’ campaign has revealed a disdain for women that just shouldn’t exist a century after women were given the right to take part in the democratic process.
Voting rights for women were staggered throughout Europe. In the UK, women younger than my grandmother waited another decade for the vote: those over 21 did not get the vote until 1928. The Scandinavian countries were ahead of Britain (Finland as early as 1906, Denmark and Iceland in 1915). Dutch and American women were enfranchised at the end of the First World War but in France, universal suffrage came in 1944 and in Italy, Romania, Belgium and the then Yugoslavia women had to wait until 1946.
And of course, in many countries, universal suffrage is still to be fought for, and very fundamental women’s rights must still be won.
I don’t quite know what I’d say to my grandmother as we celebrate a century of suffrage this February. I’m a bit ashamed that I’ve not spoken more loudly to decrease the very long list of what must still be achieved in the name of gender equality here and around the world – because the justice of universal suffrage leads to peace.