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How far did attitudes to women change after they secured the vote in 1918?

Miss Susan Lawrence, left, Labour Party Vice- President, is heading a group of women who ask for the right to vote for Women above 21, circa 1920 in London, United Kingdom.

Churchill and the long build-up to the Representation of the People Act in 1918

Winston Churchill became a Member of Parliament in 1900, around the same time that the women’s suffrage movement began to gather momentum. For the previous 30 years, women’s suffrage groups had been campaigning for the vote by constitutional means. Even though some countries, like New Zealand, had already allowed women’s suffrage the idea still seemed alien and dangerous to many, and a long way off to most. Consequently, in 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union was set up to take more direct action. Led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Sylvia and Christabel, these activists (collectively known as Suffragettes) carried out a wide range of militant acts. Historian Fern Riddell has shone a light on the Suffragette movement’s actions, highlighting their use of bombs and guns. The violence which characterised the early years of the Suffragette campaign gave some politicians, like Churchill, a reason to justify reducing their support for women’s suffrage. For more information on whether the Suffragettes helped or harmed the cause of women’s suffrage, see the Investigation on the 1918 campaign.

In 1914, the First World War broke out and gave women the opportunity to work in vital jobs which had previously been done by men and demonstrate how they were responsible, equally valuable members of British society. The role of women during the war undoubtedly affected Churchill who remarked in 1918 that unlike the militant actions of the suffragettes, the contribution of women to the war effort had now proved them responsible ‘to use the privilege [of voting] rightly’. In February 1918, for the first time in British history, some women were given a vote in General Elections.

The Representation of the People Act, 1918

This Act stated that almost all men over the age of 21 could vote, and so could all women over the age of 30 who owned property. About 8.5 million women (about two thirds of the female population) met the property-owning condition. Interestingly, while most people celebrate this as a progressive move, at the time some saw it as a measure by the government to counter the electorate expanding to include millions of working-class men. The fact that younger women, often poorer women, still could not vote, meant that several politicians calculated that women’s suffrage was necessary to maintain the status quo in society. As Churchill’s daughter, Lady Soames, recalled ‘Papa supported votes for women when he realised how many women would vote for him’. It is clear that the Act in 1918 was the result of many different arguments and motivations, which all contribute to the disputed impact of the Bill in the years that followed.

The impact of the vote

At the centenary of women achieving the vote in Britain in 2018, the event was celebrated as a key turning point, an event that changed the societal status of women in Britain forever. It is important to note, however, that the suffrage movement had been a campaign about women’s political status, not about women’s role in society. The famous writer, George Bernard Shaw had predicted in 1914 that the vote alone would make ‘limited impact’ without a significant change to the make-up of public authority. Indeed, the vote did not lead to a large increase in female elected representatives – between 1918 and 1931, only 1.5% of Conservative candidates were women, while Labour did not do much better with only 3.9% of candidates being women. On top of this, those that did stand were less likely to win.

One immediate problem that women faced after achieving the vote in 1918 was the pressure for work to be found for men who had fought in the First World War and were now returning home. The movement to replace women with men found political support with right-wing and left-wing politicians. Even as the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed, thus making it illegal to discriminate women in job recruitment, the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act gave men priority over women in the workplace. There was even evidence of violence against women who remained in their jobs; as can be seen in Bristol in 1920 when a group of ex-servicemen attacked the city’s trams and female conductors.

Another issue which limited the changes to women’s position in society was the conservatism of many women. One of the first female MPs, the Duchess of Atholl, had previously been an opponent of women’s suffrage, while even Emmeline Pankhurst, a prominent campaigner for women’s suffrage, stood as a candidate for the Conservative Party in 1927; a party that was experiencing division over whether to allow more women the vote. The British political landscape was to remain essentially a man’s world for some time: even Lucy Baldwin (wife of the future Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin) considered the House of Commons to be ‘essentially a man’s institution evolved…by men to deal with men’s affairs in a man’s way’.

circa 1940: Pauline Gower, officer of the Air Transport Auxiliary's No 5 Ferry Pilots Pool Women's Section based at Hatfield, Berkshire. (Photo by Harold Clements/London Express/Getty Images)

Widening the franchise to all women

By 1927, the issue of universal suffrage was a prominent topic of discussion. As with the Act in 1918, it was hotly contested, even if the motivations and argument were often different. Many people within the Establishment were very concerned about allowing millions of women, many of whom would be working-class, to vote. For a year between 1927 and 1928, Lord Rothermere, the owner of the Daily Mail, who was later a prominent British supporter of the Nazis, led a smear campaign against the idea of widening the franchise to include more women. One example of the arguments used against women’s suffrage a decade after women first got the vote, is Sir Basil Pato’s claim that giving more women the vote ‘ignores biological…facts’. The debates over whether the law should be changed were echoed in the Cabinet, where Churchill argued against wider women’s suffrage, and in Parliament, where the Conservative MP Sir Charles Oman gave a speech which Stanley Baldwin later described to the King as ‘gloriously medieval’ in its hostility towards giving more women the vote. In spite of the criticisms and opponents, in 1928 the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was passed which gave women the same voting rights as men. The matter was not as simple as one Party introducing it and their majority securing them the votes; the Conservative Party in government was so divided on the issue that they relied on Liberal and Labour votes to ensure it became law.

Women during the 1930s and 1940s

By the 1930s the enfranchisement of women on the same terms as men increasingly became enshrined in the fabric of the British constitution. Even though progress could be perceived as slow, it was noticeable that after 1918 there was a distinct anti-feminist movement across Europe and North America. While politicians debated women’s suffrage in the late 1920s, France (with strong Catholic traditions) withheld the vote for women until 1945, while Switzerland only allowed women’s suffrage in 1971. Furthermore the rise of Fascism and Nazism in the 1930s saw the popularisation of the view that women should first and foremost play a domestic role (looking after children and home). In 1934 the London and National Society for Women’s Service concluded that the Nazis’ views on women were a ‘set-back to civilisation’ which could spread over to Britain. In spite of this, there was never a concerted anti-feminist movement in Britain, no political party ever put opposition to women’s suffrage in their manifesto, and even politicians who did not change their views on women after 1918, such as Herbert Asquith (former Liberal Prime Minister), rarely felt they should voice these views in public.

During this period there were a number of meaningful changes for women with more education, employment and social opportunities. The trend was accelerated with the Second World War (1939-1945) when women again demonstrated the valuable contribution they make to society. There are countless examples of women taking the roles of men both in Britain and overseas. Historian Andrew Roberts has celebrated the participation of women during the war while also highlighting Churchill’s advocacy of their equality. For instance, he argues that it was Churchill who gave the approval in 1941 for the 93rd Searchlight Regiment of the Royal Artillery to recruit women, a regiment which had previously been reserved for men. One of the Royal Artillery’s roles was to station searchlights on British beaches and spot enemy bombers.

While women did see a number of improvements to their status following the 1918 Act, it was by no means the gateway to immediate equality. It was not until the 1950s that birth control became respectable in Britain, and it was only in 1957 that the House of Lords was reformed to admit women. It was noticeable that as the issue of allowing women another measure of political equality was discussed, the same the same objections surfaced with the Earl of Glasgow arguing, 39 years after the first steps toward political parity, that women ‘are not…suited to politics’.

➜ Investigation page

➜ The sources

➜ Notes for teachers

Find out more

A historical overview of women in Britain in the 20th century
A historical overview of life for women in Britain during the 20th century
Information on the life of Nancy Astor, the first woman MP
Millicent Fawcett on the passing of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act
A newspaper comment piece on how much has changed for women since 1918
Voice & Vote: Women's Place in Parliament exhibition
Churchill and Women, by Paul Addison
Women and Social Change, by Lucy Noakes

Books and Articles

  • Harrison, Brian. Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women's Suffrage in Britain. Oxford: Routledge, 2012.
  • Murray, Jeni. Votes For Women!: The Pioneers and Heroines of Female Suffrage. London: Oneworld Publications, 2018.
  • Purvis, June. Women's History: Britain, 1850-1945: An Introduction. Oxford: Routledge, 1997.
  • Riddell, Fern. Death in Ten Minutes: The forgotten life of radical suffragette Kitty Marion. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2018.
  • Smith, Harold L. “British feminism and the equal pay issue in the 1930s”. In History Review, 5:1, 97-110. 1996.
  • Thane, Pat. “What Difference Did the Vote Make?” in Women, Privilege and Power: British Politics, 1750 to the Present edited by Amanda Vickery, 253-288. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.
  • Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina. Women in Twentieth-Century Britain: Social, Cultural and Political Change. Oxford: Routledge, 2001.