Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on the legislation that finally gave the vote to at least part of Britain’s female population
In February 1918, the weather in London was mild, but misty and cloudy. The Great War was still casting its shadow on the capital, depleting resources, depriving families of loved ones and, through German air raids, causing mayhem and terrible fear.
On 16 February, for example, a 2,000lb bomb hit Chelsea Hospital; another was dropped on St Pancras station, causing many deaths.
But the 6th of that month was a day of deliverance for British women. It was the day the Representation of the People Act received royal assent, extending the vote to all men over 21 and at long last enfranchising females – although only those over the age of 30.
Isabella Ford, the social reformer and suffragist, was ecstatic. “It is indeed wonderful when one wakes up in the morning to remember that now, at last, one is considered a real, complete human being,” she wrote.
Some women, however, were too consumed by the sorrow of war to be uplifted. Feminist campaigner Vera Brittain hardly noticed what had come to pass. Her beloved fiancé, Roland Leighton, had been killed on the Western Front. Heartbroken, she became a nurse and immersed herself in her work.
In her poignant memoir, Testament of Youth (1933), Brittain wondered at her detachment: “Remembering the eager feminism of my pre-war girlhood and the effervescent fierceness with which I was to wage post-war literary battles in the cause of women… [I was] completely unaware that only a few days before my leave began, the Representation of the People Bill had been passed… The spectacular pageant of women’s movement, vital and colourful, with initiative, with sacrificial emotion, crept into its quiet, unadvertised triumph in the deepest night of wartime depression.”
The law would not have been passed had the war not taken away so many men, and if women hadn’t shown themselves capable of doing “masculine” jobs such as farming and munitions manufacture. Their posters, which few can have missed, carried messages such as: “We are Ready to Work Beside You, Fight Beside you, Die Beside You. Let us Vote Beside You.” Winston Churchill said their contribution was beyond all praise.
Yet even the historic victory of February 1918 was incomplete. Younger women were still without a vote. Some were bitter, and felt that their campaigning sisters should not have accepted (and celebrated) what was still a discriminatory law.
The suffragettes had been divided by the war, too. Some were adamantly against the military endeavour; others were for. Some who supported the war were patriots; others were astute strategists who believed that there would be high dividends for backing the war effort.
The anti-war camp included Alice Wheeldon, from Derby, a socialist and part of the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF), which secretly sheltered conscientious objectors on the run. She and others were entrapped by a government spy and she was imprisoned after being accused of plotting to kill the Prime Minister, Lloyd George. She was released in 1918, but died soon after. The Pankhursts, leading militants of the women’s movement, were split. Sylvia Pankhurst was anti-war; Emmeline and Christabel were pro-war. The latter two had by then been accepted by the Establishment and knew how to play insider politics. They must surely take much of the credit for persuading Lloyd George that the time was right for at least partial female enfranchisement.
But it was the contrasting responses, taken together, that won the concessions. Without fear of serious upheavals, the government would have held back from widening suffrage from 7.7 million to 21.4 million citizens.
In the end, though, we also have to acknowledge that British men with power had better sense, courage and instincts than, say, their counterparts in France, where women got the vote only in 1945.
The Great War had many unintended social consequences. Women were economically and sexually liberated: they formed football teams, went cycling and dancing on their own, went to cinemas and clubs. Right-wing papers called them “flaunting flappers”. They didn’t care.
If you read their pamphlets, diaries and meeting notes, you see that women were already thinking of state benefits to improve the lives of the poor. They were modernist and imagining a radical reshaping of their nation.
One wonders how they felt when, so soon after this bloody conflict ended, the Treaty of Versailles set up all the conditions for another war to break out within a few years. In the end, power still rested with men of a certain class.
But on 6 February 1918, British women broke through the blockades and won the first concessions in an unstoppable revolution, still unfinished. It was just a pity that such a momentous step had to be taken at a time of such grief and turmoil.
Tomorrow: The Spanish flu pandemic begins
The ‘100 Moments’ already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar