1918 Qualification of Women Act

In May 1916 Millicent Garrett Fawcett wrote to Herbert Asquith that women deserved the vote for their war efforts. In August he told the House of Commons that he had now changed his mind and that he intended to introduce legislation that would give women the vote. On 28th March, 1917, the House of Commons voted 341 to 62 that women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or graduates of British universities. MPs rejected the idea of granting the vote to women on the same terms as men. Lilian Lenton, who had played an important role in the militant campaign later recalled: "Personally, I didn't vote for a long time, because I hadn't either a husband or furniture, although I was over 30." (1)

Sylvia Pankhurst was highly critical of the proposed Representation of the People Act. She published a letter in The Call newspaper explaining why: "(i) A woman is not to vote until 30 years of age, though the adult age is 21. (ii) A woman is on a property basis when enfranchised. (iii) A woman loses both her Parliamentary and local government vote if she or her husband accept Poor Law Relief; her husband retaining his Parliamentary and losing his local government vote if he accepts Poor Law Relief. (iv) A woman loses her local government vote if she ceases to live with her husband, ie. if he deserts her, she loses her vote, he retains his. (v) Conscientious Objectors to military service are to be disenfranchised." (2)

Sylvia Pankhurst
Sylvia Pankhurst at a public meeting (c. 1914)

In 1917 Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst formed The Women's Party. Its twelve-point programme included: (1) A fight to the finish with Germany. (2) More vigorous war measures to include drastic food rationing, more communal kitchens to reduce waste, and the closing down of nonessential industries to release labour for work on the land and in the factories. (3) A clean sweep of all officials of enemy blood or connections from Government departments. Stringent peace terms to include the dismemberment of the Hapsburg Empire." (3)

The Women's Party also supported: "equal pay for equal work, equal marriage and divorce laws, the same rights over children for both parents, equality of rights and opportunities in public service, and a system of maternity benefits." Christabel and Emmeline had now completely abandoned their earlier socialist beliefs and advocated policies such as the abolition of the trade unions. (4)

The Representation of the People Act was passed in February, 1918. The Manchester Guardian reported: "The Representation of the People Bill, which doubles the electorate, giving the Parliamentary vote to about six million women and placing soldiers and sailors over 19 on the register (with a proxy vote for those on service abroad), simplifies the registration system, greatly reduces the cost of elections, and provides that they shall all take place on one day, and by a redistribution of seats tends to give a vote the same value everywhere, passed both Houses yesterday and received the Royal assent." (5)

The Act extended the franchise in parliamentary elections, to men aged over 21, whether or not they owned property, and to women aged over 30 who resided in the constituency or occupied land or premises with a rateable value above £5, or whose husbands did. At the same time, it extended the local government franchise to include women aged over 21 on the same terms as men. As a result of the Act, the male electorate was extended by 5.2 million to 12.9 million. The female electorate was 8.5 million. Women now accounted for about 39.64% of the electorate. (6)

The Representation of the People Act also deprived Conscientious Objectors of the vote whereas other men had two votes. Seven percent of the population enjoyed a plural vote in the 1918 election, mostly middle-class men who had an extra vote due to a university constituency (this Act increased the university vote by creating the Combined English Universities seats) or by occupying business premises in other constituencies. (7)

The First World War ended in November 1918. Millicent Garrett Fawcett lost "no fewer than twenty-nine members of her extended family, including two nephews" in the war. Whereas the WSPU "were prepared to accept votes for women on any terms the government had to offer... the NUWSS continued to press its old case for equality with men". She was urged to stand for Parliament in the 1918 General Election, but aged seventy-one, she decided to retire from politics. (8)

Sylvia Pankhurst argued that class divisions were not only protected but further entrenched by the qualified vote. Sylvia pointed out it was working-class women, particularly the young, grafted during the First World War and since the 1880s young women had formed the activist base for women's suffrage. Despite this, it was primarily middle-class and aristocratic women who benefited, and those with some education or property. Middle-class women, it was hoped, would provide a bulwark against advancing threats of social unrest. Rachel Holmes explained how Sylvia had good reason to fear the impact of this legislation: "Voting patterns demonstrated this to be the case. Between 1918 and 1928, newly enfranchised women overwhelmingly voted Conservative." (9)

After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act the first opportunity for women to vote was in the General Election in December, 1918. Seventeen women candidates that stood in the post-war election. Christabel Pankhurst represented the The Women's Party in Smethwick. The Conservative Party candidate agreed to stand down so it would be a straight fight with the representative of the Labour Party. Christabel accused the Labour candidate, John E. Davidson, of being a Bolshevik. Davidson replied that far from being "corrupted and led by Bolshevists' the Labour Party stood for social reform along constitutional lines "without breaking a single window, firing a single pillar-box, or burning down a single church." Davidson beat Pankhurst by 775 votes. (10)

Constance Markiewicz served fourteen months of her sentence at Aylesbury Prison before being released in the general amnesty of June 1917. She was immediately elected to the executive of Sinn Fein. Soon afterwards she was imprisoned again for her part in the campaign against the conscription of Irish men into the British Army. After the passing of the passing of the Qualification of Women Act, Constance, while in prison, stood as the Sinn Fein candidate for the St. Patrick's division of Dublin. She was the only woman who was successful in the 1918 General Election. However, like the seventy two Sinn Fein MPs, she did not attend the House of Commons in London. (11)

Waldorf Astor was a member of the Conservative Party and represented the Sutton division of Plymouth in the House of Commons. On the death of his father in 1919, Astor became a member of the House of Lords. His wife, now became the party's candidate in the resulting by-election. She beat the Liberal Party candidate, Isaac Foot, and on 1st December 1919 became the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. Astor, who had not been part of the suffrage campaign and was accused her being a member of the "upper classes" and "out of touch" with the needs of ordinary people. (12)

Primary Sources

(1) Annie Kenney, Memories of a Militant (1924)

In 1917 the question of granting the vote to women was discussed in Parliament. It was admitted by friend and foe that British women had played and were playing a unique part in the war… There was great rejoicing among all sections of women. What a relief to think that once peace was declared abroad peace on a modest scale would be declared at home. The agitation was at last drawing to a close…On February 6th, 1918, Royal assent was given to the "Representation of the People Act." Women were voters. And so my Suffrage pilgrimage was ended… I left the Movement, financially, as I joined it, penniless. Though I had no money I had reaped a rich harvest of joy, laughter, romance, companionship, and experience that no money can buy.

(2) The Manchester Guardian (7th February, 1918)

The Representation of the People Bill, which doubles the electorate, giving the Parliamentary vote to about six million women and placing soldiers and sailors over 19 on the register (with a proxy vote for those on service abroad), simplifies the registration system, greatly reduces the cost of elections, and provides that they shall all take place on one day, and by a redistribution of seats tends to give a vote the same value everywhere, passed both Houses yesterday and received the Royal assent.

(3) In March 1918, Isabella Ford celebrated women over the age of thirty being granted the vote.

It is indeed wonderful when one wakes up in the morning to remember that now, at last, one is considered to be a real, complete human being! After thirty years of endeavor to make men understand they were only half the world… the price we have paid for our enfranchisement is too heavy, some of us find, to allow us to rejoice in the light-hearted, happy fashion we used to picture in old days, but we are filled with a deep and earnest thankfulness.

(4) Norah Dacre Fox (Norah Elam), Fascist Quarterly (1935)

I preferred to stand as an Independent, going down with all the other women candidates on this occasion, save one. The exception was the Sinn Fein Countess Markievicz, who though a notorious and avowed enemy of Britain, found it a perfectly simple matter under the democratic system to secure election to the Parliament of the country which she had openly boasted that she would destroy, disintegrate and discredit. She was if I remember rightly, returned unopposed. The next example was hardly more encouraging, for the first woman to be elected for an English constituency was an American born citizen, who had no credentials to represent British women in their own parliament save that she had married a British subject.

(5) Constance Lytton, letter to Major Neville Bulwer-Lytton (January 13th, 1918)

The women who fought for it - some giving their lives, others mutilated for life, others coming through after much suffering, all greater than mine - have won the victory now for women in Great Britain, and very soon in the four corners of the earth - in America, Canada, South Africa, in the other countries of Europe, in India (though very slowly, I fear, there), in China.

(6) In 1919 the Women's Freedom League held a public meeting to celebrate women over thirty obtaining the vote. One of the speeches was made by eighty-three year old Charlotte Despard.

I have seen great days, but this is the greatest. I remember when we started twenty-one years ago, with empty coffers… I never believed that equal votes would come in my lifetime. But when an impossible dream comes true, we must go on to another. The true unity of men and women is one such dream. The end of war, of famine - they are all impossible dreams, but the dream must be dreamed until it takes a spiritual hold.

(7) Margery Corbett Ashby stood as the Liberal candidate for Ladywood in Birmingham. She explained what happened in her Memoirs (1997)

I hoped to get the women's vote and that of the new and inexperienced voters. The women were the most sympathetic to me. The result of the election was a resounding victory for Lloyd George and the coalition government, but I had the satisfaction of polling as many votes as did the nine Liberal candidates in neighbouring constituencies. Being a woman was neither an advantage or disadvantage.

(8) Olive Schreiner, speech to meeting in commemoration of John Stuart Mill (July, 1918)

We are meeting today to commemorate a man whom I believe to be the noblest of those whom the English-speaking race has produced in the last hundred years. John Stuart Mill laboured for the freedom of women. But he did more. He laboured for human freedom. Women can best show their gratitude to him by studying his writings.

Many women have now the vote, and are part of the governing power of their nation - all will have it soon. If we wish to use our power to its noblest end, we shall have to learn the lesson Mill taught - that the freedom of all human creatures are essential to the full development of human life on earth. We shall have to labour, not merely for a larger freedom for ourselves, but for every subject race and class, and for all suppressed individuals. To do this is to lay the best tribute we can at the feet if John Stuart Mill.

(9) Evelyn Sharp, Unfinished Adventure (1933)

When militants and non-militants alike hastened to offer war service to the Government, no doubt many of them felt, if they thought about it at all, that this was the best way of helping their own cause. Certainly, by their four years' war work, they did prove the fallacy of the anti-suffragist' favourite argument, that women had no right to a voice in questions of peace and war because they took no part in it.

Personally, holding as I do the enfranchisement of women involved greater issues than could be involved in any war, even supposing that the objects of the Great War were those alleged, I cannot help regretting that any justification was given for the popular error which still sometimes ascribes the victory of the suffrage cause, in 1918, to women's war service. This assumption is true only in so far as gratitude to women offered an excuse to the anti-suffragists in the Cabinet and elsewhere to climb down with some dignity from a position that had become untenable before the war. I sometimes think that the art of politics consists in the provision of ladders to enable politicians to climb down from untenable positions.

(10) Norah Dacre Fox, The Blackshirt (22nd February, 1935)

What woman is there amongst us who made that fight, who does not today feel disillusioned? Where are the great leaders of those days? Look through the names of the women who climbed to Parliament on the efforts of the suffragettes, and see that not one leading women of that day has ever sat in the House of Commons. Democracy had killed them politically, and today they are forgotten as though they had never been.

What happened was that by the time women were given the vote, the democratic system was crumbling and falling into decay.... Turning to various political parties, full of vigour and enthusiasm to play their part in the new world as liberated citizens, they found themselves bound and fettered by the party caucus and chained to the party system...

No woman who loves her country, her sex or her liberty, need fear the coming victory of Fascism. Rather she will find that what the suffragettes dreamt about twenty odd years ago is now becoming a possibility, and women will buckle on her armour for the last phase of the greatest struggle, for the liberation of the human race, which the world has yet seen.

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United States: 1920-1945


(1) Lilian Lenton, BBC Radio interview (5th Fenruary 1955)

(2) Barbara Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst from Artist to Anti-Fascist (1992) page 100

(3) David J. Mitchell, Monstrous Regiment: The Story of the Women of the First World War (1965) page 75

(4) The Manchester Guardian (7th February, 1918)

(5) Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts (2001) pages 340-343

(6) Harold L. Smith, The British Women's Suffrage Campaign 1868-1928 (2009) page 95

(7) Derek Heater, Citizenship in Britain: A History (2006) page 145

(8) Fran Abrams, Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003) page 192

(9) Rachel Holmes, Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel (2020) pages 512-513

(10) David J. Mitchell, Queen Christabel (1977) page 275

(11) Melanie Phillips, The Ascent of Women (2003) page 307

(12) Diane Atkinson, Rise Up, Women!: The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes (2018) page 521