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Some British women got the vote in 1918! Thank you, New Zealand and Australia!

The dates re suffrage across Europe are telling. Switzer­land introduced universal male suf­f­rage in 1848, the same year as it came to France. Danish voting rights came to men 30+ of good reputation in 1849. The North German Confederation enacted suffrage for all adult males in 1867. Suffrage came to all men aged 25+ in Belgium in 1893 and in Austria in 1896. Full male suffrage in Norway arrived in 1898.

The women's suffrage campaign in New Zealand began as part of a late C19th movement for women’s rights that spread through Britain & its Empire, USA & Europe. The movement gathered momentum from the early 1880s, especially following the establish­ment of a New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union. This movement was shaped by two main themes: a] equal political rights for women a la John Stuart Mill and b] a desire for the moral reform of society!

Invigorated by the New Zealand suffrage victory in 1893, many NZWCTU activists travelled across the South Australian colony to obtain signatures for a suffrage petition. The NZWCTU suffragists were crit­ically important in this state campaign; women were able to vote in the South Austral­ia state el­ection as early as 1894! In a few years, Australian women could vote in both state and, post Federation (1901), in national elections as well.

So why did women in Britain have to battle for decades for equal votes? Perhaps the British government had never granted ANY reform without pain and conflict. So let us look right back into C19th history. Formal legislation was easy to track but Prof Pat Thane provided information on the events that happened outside Parliament.

The Great (1st) Reform Act of 1832 gave the vote to men meet­ing property qualification and redistributed Parliam­entary seats to represent urban areas properly. Alas the Act specified that only males could vote, excluding women with property who had been able to vote before then.

Procession to the 'Monster Meeting' in Hyde Park, 1908
Suffragettes holding a banner referring to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. 
Evening Standard

Chartism was a working-class movement for political reform across Brit­ain. The movement gained particular support in parts of Britain where workers were most egregiously exploited. The movement was strongest in 1838-48 when three Chartist petitions, signed by millions of workers, were presented to the Commons.

In Britain the issue of parliamentary reform deteriorated as the Chartists deteriorated. John Stuart Mill stood for office, supp­ort­ing female suffrage in 1865, but his 2nd Reform Bill to Parl­iam­ent failed. The National Society for Women's Suffrage was formed in 1867 and in that same year, Repres­ent­ation of the People (2nd Reform) Act extend­ed the vote to urban working men who met property qualifications. The secret ballot was introduced in 1872.

The very important Married Women's Property Act, passed in 1882, allowed married women to own their own property instead of it being automatically transferred to their new hus­b­ands. This Act would eventually change one crisis in women’s voting rights.

Representation of the People (3rd Reform) Act of 1884 successfully addressed the imbalance between men's votes across the electoral districts. But an amendment to this 3rd Reform Bill, to give women the vote, failed.

The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies/NUWSS, formed in London by Mil­licent Fawcett, was still trying to build legal supp­ort for the women’s movement in 1897. The NUWSS had 20+ national societies supporting its agenda.

But drastic action was increasingly needed. In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst, long associated with the militants’ campaign, founded the Women's Social and Political Union/WSPU. With her daughters Christ­abel and Sylvia Pankhurst, the WSPU’s tactics heated up and started to include hunger strikes, smashing win­dows and arson of unoccupied churches. Arrests followed.

Suffragette demonstration in London, 1910

In 1906 suffragettes carried banners during a demonstration in the House of Commons’ Ladies Gallery. The Prime Minister and many of the MPs were in favour of women's suffrage, but nothing chan­g­ed and des­p­eration set in. 500,000 supporters attend a mass rally in Hyde Park, but the new Prime Minister Herbert Asquith wouldn’t face the women. Not for the first time, the suffragettes smashed windows in the PM’s residence in Downing St and chained themselves to railings.

Shame, Asquith, shame :(  The Conciliation Bill of 1910, which would have given women the vote, was supported by a majority of MPs but the Prime Minister decided to block the legis­lation. Suffragette marches by the National Feder­at­ion of Women Workers continued and always ended up in court.

From 1910, the Labour Party boomed. It supported education and medical care for children, work for the unemployed, eight-hour workdays, fair wages for local authority employees, municipal hous­ing, slum clearance schemes and assistance for aged paupers. And Labour was the only party comm­it­ted to votes for all adults. Not all women supported the Suffragettes, but a fear of feminism and of worker power terrified the Conservatives.

Many Australian & New Zealand women found themselves in Britain between 1903-14, and offered their British sisters help, guidance and advice. Vida Goldstein exemplified this support when she visited England in 1911 as a guest of the militant Women’s Social & Political Union. Other Antipodean women gave rousing speeches across Britain.

The 1913 Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act was an attempt to stop suffragettes from becom­ing martyrs, by dying in custody. Sadly Emily Davison was knocked down by the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby, and died from her injuries!

Campaigning was muted during WW1 because national priorities chang­ed. In 1916-1917, the House of Commons Speaker chaired a con­fer­ence on electoral reform that recommended a war-time comprom­ise. This Represent­ation of the People Act was finally passed in 1918, all­ow­ing “women over 30 who met a property qualification” to vote. The Act also gave the vote to ALL males over 21, abolished property restrictions for men, and extended the vote to military-men who were 19. Yes there was still inequality between women and men, but for the first time since 1832, some British women could now vote. The granddaughters of the original New Zealand voters were joyous.

The Daily Mail campaigned against increased women’s suffrage be­cause, they said, “it may bring down the British Empire in ruins”. Cons­erv­ative PM Stanley Baldwin promised the vote to all women after the 1924 election, but he lied. Baldwin only allowed the Equal Franch­ise Act in 1928. Afraid that Labour would win the next election, the Act provided that women over 21 could now vote. Gender equality in voting at last!


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