1928 Equal Franchise Act

After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act in 1918 the WSPU disbanded. 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." (1)

Women had their first opportunity to vote in a General Election in December, 1918. Several of the women involved in the suffrage campaign stood for Parliament. Only one, Constance Markiewicz, standing for Sinn Fein, was elected. However, as a member of Sinn Fein, she refused to take her seat in the House of Commons. Later that year, Nancy Astor became the first woman in England to become a MP when she won Sutton, Plymouth in a by-election. Astor, the wife of the former Tory MP for the constituency, had not been involved in the suffrage campaign. Rachel Strachey said she was "lamentably ignorant of everything she ought to know". Norah Dacre Fox, one of the leaders of the Women's Social and Political Union pointed out: "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 save that she had married a British subject." (2)

In 1919 Parliament passed the Sex Disqualification Removal Act which made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their sex. Women could now become solicitors, barristers and magistrates. In the 1924 General Election several women were elected including Dorothy Jewson, Susan Lawrence, Margaret Winteringham, Katharine Stewart-Murray, Mabel Philipson, Vera Terrington and Margaret Bondfield. (3)

Woman MPs in October 1924. Left to right, Dorothy Jewson, Susan Lawrence,Nancy Astor, Margaret Winteringham, Katharine Stewart-Murray, Mabel Philipson,Vera Terrington and Margaret Bondfield.
Woman MPs in October 1924. Left to right, Dorothy Jewson, Susan Lawrence,
Nancy Astor, Margaret Winteringham, Katharine Stewart-Murray, Mabel Philipson,
Vera Terrington and Margaret Bondfield.

The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies became the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC) in March 1919. Eleanor Rathbone succeeded Millicent Fawcett as president of the new body. Later that year Rathbone persuaded the organization to accept a six point reform programme. (i) Equal pay for equal work, involving an open field for women in industry and the professions. (ii) An equal standard of sex morals as between men and women, involving a reform of the existing divorce law which condoned adultery by the husband, as well as reform of the laws dealing with solicitation and prostitution. (iii) The introduction of legislation to provide pensions for civilian widows with dependent children. (iv) The equalization of the franchise and the return to Parliament of women candidates pledged to the equality programme. (v) The legal recognition of mothers as equal guardians with fathers of their children. (vi) The opening of the legal profession and the magistracy to women. (4)

The NUSEC had close links with the Labour Party and Ramsay McDonald and were bitterly disappointed when its 1924 minority government was unable to give the vote to women on the same basis as men. However, MacDonald did appoint Margaret Bondfield as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour, and the first woman to be given a post in government. (5)

Stanley Baldwin, wanted to change the image of the Conservative Party to make it appear a less right-wing organisation. In March 1927 He suggested to his Cabinet that the government should propose legislation for the enfranchisement of nearly five million women between the ages of twenty-one and thirty. This measure meant that women would constitute almost 53% of the British electorate. The Daily Mail complained that these impressionable young females would be easily manipulated by the Labour Party. (6)

Winston Churchill, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was totally opposed to the move and argued that the affairs of the country ought not be put into the hands of a female majority. In order to avoid giving the vote to all adults he proposed that the vote be taken away from all men between twenty-one and thirty. He lost the argument and in Cabinet and asked for a formal note of dissent to be entered in the minutes. There was little opposition in Parliament to the bill and it became law on 2nd July 1928. As a result, all women over the age of 21 could now vote in elections. (7)

A bill was introduced in March 1928 to give women the vote on the same terms as men. There was little opposition in Parliament to the bill and it became law on 2nd July 1928. As a result, all women over the age of 21 could now vote in elections. Many of the women who had fought for this right were now dead including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy, Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pankhurst.

Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the NUWSS during the campaign for the vote, was still alive and had the pleasure of attending Parliament to see the vote take place. That night she wrote in her diary: "It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20th, 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning." (8)

Primary Sources

(1) Margaret Rhondda, Time and Tide (14th May, 1920)

That the group behind this paper is composed entirely of women has already been frequently commented on. It would be possible to lay too much stress upon the fact. The binding link between these people is not primarily their common sex. On the other hand, this fact is not, without its significance. Amongst those to whom the need we have spoken of is apparent today are a very large number of women. Women have newly come into the larger world, and are indeed themselves to some extent answerable for that loosening of party and sectarian ties which is so marked a feature of the present day. It is therefore natural that just now many of them should tend to be especially conscious of the need for an independent press, owing allegiance to no sect or party. The war was responsible for breaking down the barriers which kept each individual or group of individuals in a watertight compartment. The past five years have taught the importance of that wider view which sees the part in relation to the whole.

There is another need in our press of which the average person of today is conscious, but which must specially weigh with women - the lack of a paper which shall treat men and women as equally part of the great human family, working side by side ultimately for the same great objects by ways equally valuable, equally interesting; a paper which is in fact concerned neither specially with men nor specially with women, but with human beings. It must be admitted that the press of today, although with self-conscious, painstaking care it now inserts "and women" every time it chances to use the word "men" scarcely succeeds in attaining to such an ideal.

(2) Editorial, Time and Tide (23rd May, 1922)

On December 23rd, 1919, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act passed into law, and for the past two years or more it has been gradually dawning upon women of all classes, ages and professions, that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act does not remove sex disqualification.

Let us examine this Act a little more closely. When it was passed it was presented by the Government as a Charter of Freedom. Henceforth women were to enjoy equal opportunities, equal chances, equal rights with men. It was a reversal of the customs of the ages. It was, as Mr. Talbot pointed out last Friday, a revolutionary piece of legislation. Incidentally it was the carrying out of a pledge made by the Coalition to the women just before the previous General Election and signed by Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Bonar Law: 'It will be the duty of the new government to remove all existing inequalities in the law as between men and women.'

Specifically, of course, the Act did not do a very great deal. It was quite short, consisting of four clauses only. The first clause dealt with the admission of women to the Civil Service, to which, for practical purposes, if not in theory, they had been admitted before; and to juries, which was a new departure. It also entitled women to become magistrates and to be admitted and enrolled as barristers or solicitors. The first sub-clause to clause I contracted out of the obligations of the Act to admit women on equal terms into the Civil Service by providing that all regulations dealing with this admission should be left to Orders in Council.

The second sub-clause to clause I gave power to a judge to order that a jury should be composed of men only or women only as the case might be, and that on application being made a woman might be exempted from serving in a case 'by nature of the evidence to be given or of the issues to be tried.'

The second clause dealt with the qualifications necessary to entitle women to be admitted and enrolled as solicitors on the same terms as men.

The third clause stated that nothing in the statutes or charter of any university should be deemed to preclude the authorities of such university from admitting women to its membership. It was as a result of this that in 1920 Oxford admitted women to full membership. The clause was, however, merely permissive, and Cambridge has elected not to act upon it. Women were already admitted to membership of every other university in the United Kingdom before this date.

The fourth clause was simply the short title and repeal clause usual in Acts of Parliament.

To sum up, what the Bill actually did was:- To admit women to jury service although not on the same terms as men. To allow women to become magistrates. To allow women to become barristers or solicitors. To grant power to Oxford and Cambridge to admit women to membership if they chose.

(3) Editorial, Time and Tide (17th October, 1922)

It is true that we have been most singularly fortunate in our first two women members. They have set a standard to which few could hope to attain. Nevertheless, even though we can scarcely hope that many future women M.P.'s will achieve so conspicuous a success as have the first two it is undoubtedly most desirable to add to their number. In the last Parliament Lady Astor and Mrs. Wintringham were doing the work often ordinary people. No human being can be expected to keep going indefinitely at such a pressure. We publish today the first of a series of three articles dealing in some detail with the chances of the prospective women candidates who have been adopted up to the present. It seems clear from a close scrutiny of the list of seats placed at their disposals that none of the Parties have been prepared to pay much more than lip service to the proposition that it is desirable to have women in Parliament. The Independent Liberals head the list so far as numbers are concerned, but even the Independent Liberals do not so far appear to have given their women candidates any safe seats. Perhaps, however, there was some excuse for the 'Wee Frees,' seeing that they had not many safe seats to give.

Few people who have closely followed the course of events in the last Parliament will be found to deny that there is need in the next for a greater representation of women. And this not only on the general grounds that it is desirable to have national political problems fully envisaged from every possible angle, but also and at the present time particularly because there are still today a certain number of subjects the importance of which tends to be underrated by many of the men in Parliament but is adequately appreciated by women. The value of Lady Astor and Mrs. Wintringham has lain not only in their contributions upon general political questions but also in the steady hard work they have put in over such matters as the Criminal Law Amendment Bill (whose passage was largely due to their efforts), the Equal Guardianship of Infants Bill, the Women Police question (that any Women Police at all have been retained in the London area is due almost entirely to them), and other matters of the kind. It has lain also in the fact that they could be trusted to understand the point of view of the professional and working woman.

(4) Editorial, Time and Tide (16th November, 1922)

Up to the time of going to press only sixteen women parliamentary candidates have been officially endorsed by their respective parties. It seems certain that more women candidates will be adopted almost immediately, but in most cases these will only be asked to fight forlorn hopes. We much doubt the desirability of women candidates accepting the party leavings. In fact, what the parties are doing is to fling to any women who are prepared to accept them - and in most cases to pay the greater part of their own expenses - constituencies which the average male candidate refuses to touch knowing them to be 'duds.' When the women get defeated, as in these hopeless seats they can only expect to be, the parties who have thus used them are the first to turn round and say: 'There is no use putting up women candidates, they only get defeated.' We are of opinion that women of any standing should refuse to be made use of in this way, their defeat only does harm to the ultimate cause they desire to serve. It should be remembered that there is no generosity in offering a woman the chance of fighting a hopeless seat on condition that she pays her own expenses. The party which does so is merely trying to get something for nothing by playing on the comparative innocence of women in the political game.

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

(2) Norah Dacre Fox, Fascist Quarterly (January 1935)

(3) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 149

(4) Ray Strachey, The Cause: A History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain (1928) page 370

(5) Austen Morgan, J. Ramsay MacDonald (1987) page 99

(6) The Daily Mail (28th April, 1928)

(7) Clive Ponting, Winston Churchill (1994) page 314

(8) Millicent Garrett Fawcett, diary entry (2nd July 1928)