100 years of votes for women

The Representation of the People Act, passed on 6 February 1918, gave women the right to vote in the UK for the first time. Birkbeck academics celebrate this centenary and look at how we can make further strides towards equality.

Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the British suffragette movement, addresses a crowd. Source: Hulton Archive - Getty Images

A century ago, women first gained the right to vote with the passing of the Representation of the People Act, provided they were over 30, were a property owner, or were married to a property owner. It also extended the franchise to men over the age of 21. While it would still be another decade before women could vote on the same terms as men, this centenary is something to celebrate, representing a hard-won battle by suffragettes and suffragists and an important step towards universal suffrage.

Professor Sarah Childs from the Department of Politics has looked at the representation of women in parliament extensively in a blog and made recommendations for how the cause of gender equality can be further advanced in the political sphere.

She says: “The most effective strategy to increase the numbers of women MPs is quotas. They may not be to everyone’s taste but follow the evidence: quotas deliver women into political office. The success of Labour’s All Women Shortlists and the Republic of Ireland’s quotas demonstrate this. In the Irish case, as Fiona Buckley has shown, the number of women candidates increased by 90% and the number of TDs elected – 35 (22%) – represents a 40% increase on the previous election.”

Childs was also a recent guest on Birkbeck Voices, the College’s podcast, to discuss the benefits of equal gender opportunity in parliament and a report she has authored, recommending a change to the law on job-sharing for MPs. 

Marina Warner, Professor of English and Creative Writing and President of the Royal Society of Literature, was invited to nominate six women writers towards a list of the 100 most influential women of the past century for the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme.

She said: “I struggled, I struggled, I made lists, long lists. Literature is such a vast field and women have excelled in it. Professions which require official qualifications often excluded women, but writing takes place in private… In the end, I placed Virginia Woolf first – it felt impossible not to. She combines both activism and lyricism; her forthright attacks on inequality and on militarism made her the obvious first choice.”

Today, the Mayor of London has announced that the names of 59 people who were instrumental in fighting for women’s right to vote will be etched on the plinth of a new statue of Millicent Fawcett, the first monument to a woman to stand in Parliament Square.

Some politicians are also calling for a formal pardon of the 1300 women that were arrested as part of the suffragette movement - for crimes including property damage and a refusal to pay taxes – while others say that to pardon them would be to diminish their radicalism: that they knowingly broke the law to prove an important point, and to further the rights of women across the United Kingdom.

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