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Women and the 1918 Election
Votes for women banner of a suffrage newspaper from 1911 Photo: London School of Economics

Women and the 1918 Election

By Dr Leeann Lane

In 1867 the all-male House of Commons at Westminster rejected John Stuart Mill’s amendment to 1867 Franchise Reform Act to allow women the vote on the same property terms as men.

The dismissal of this amendment led to the establishment of formal suffrage societies across England and Ireland. While the early suffrage campaign was constitutional in its methods, by the first decade of the 20th century militant societies had formed. In England, the Women’s Social and Political Union was established in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Sylvia and Christabel. In 1908 Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins formed the Irish Women’s Franchise League.

By the time the Representation of People Act came into effect on 6 February 1918 the issue of votes for women had then been before the public for over five decades generating much debate and engendering a large degree of trepidation, even alarm. Anti-suffrage cartoons depicted female activists in pursuit of the vote as mannish, shrewish and barren; they were women who turned to politics because they had missed their vocation as wife and mother. While humour was deployed to belittle the claims of women to political equality, these cartoons also indicated the establishment fear of women who acted outside the dominant domestic paradigm. The potential of the female voter to destabilise the political status quo loomed large. A number of these cartoons depicted women armed with hammers or carrying paraffin oil while in close proximity to a voting booth. ‘When she gets it, what will she do with it’ read the caption to one such cartoon in the Saturday Herald in 1918.

The spectre of the woman voter loomed large.

An angry looking suffragist with a hammer, paraffin and a bomb (Image: The Lepracaun Cartoon Weekly, National Archives of Ireland, CSO RP 1914/7527)

Political parties were highly apprehensive as to how women would cast their vote. Moreover the female vote would strike, many believed, at the heart of the family, damaging the relationship between husband and wife and putting the future of children and consequently the wider societal order at risk. The fear that granting women the vote had the potential to subvert the patriarchal status quo was at the core of the arguments made by anti-suffragists who were heavily influenced by the ideology of separate spheres under which men and women were accorded different roles in society. Rev. David Barry, writing in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in 1909, addressed the possibility of a woman ‘casting her vote for the candidate that is opposed …to her father and husband’. A woman was, Barry wrote, supposed to be ‘shielded by her male relatives from most of the hardships and disabilities of citizenship’. In the domestic sphere the final word was that of the husband. Why then, he wrote, should she ‘be accorded an autonomy in outside affairs that is denied her in the home?’ A wife who disrespects her husband’s authority threatens the unity of the ‘domestic kingdom’ and in that way children ‘are disedified’. ‘But how much worse’, he continued, ‘would these evils be intensified if the bickering and contentions became public; if they appeared on opposing platforms and denounced each other’. In 1910 the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage was formed. This organisation represented a merger of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, founded in July 1908, and the Men’s National League for Opposing Women Suffrage established in January 1909. An Irish branch of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League was founded in Dublin in 1909. Lord Curzon, who became joint President with Lord Weardale of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage in 1912, echoed Rev. Barry’s strictures on the granting of votes to women.

In 1909 Curzon issued a pamphlet entitled ‘Lord Curzon’s Fifteen Good Reasons Against the Grant of Female Suffrage’. Women’s ‘highest duty’ was, he declared, ‘maternity’. To grant women the vote would be to ‘break up the harmony of the home’. Moreover, women did not have the ‘calmness of temperament or the balance of mind’ to ‘qualify them to exercise a weighty judgement in political affairs’. Women’s innate natural abilities, and indeed, weaknesses, were then incompatible with parliamentary suffrage. Curzon believed that the granting of women’s suffrage would disrupt and damage British society not just at the familial level but also nationally. The country’s position as a pre-eminent imperial power would be undermined.

The First World War was the central context to the passing of the Representation of People Act, 1918. One of the reasons put forward for the eventual granting of a limited parliamentary franchise to women in 1918 was the manner in which they had contributed to the British war effort during the First World War. Writing in the Ladies Home Journal in 1916, the novelist H. G. Wells noted the manner in which women ‘gallantly’ faced the possibility of wounding and even death while working in munition factories during the war. Such experiences, he declared, ‘have killed forever the poor argument that women should not vote because they have no military value’. However, in granting a property-based franchise to women, legislators were also influenced by the war weariness that began to permeate British society as the war dragged on. There was little appetite for a return to the suffrage protest and militancy that had marked pre-1914 Britain. However, female suffrage was not in any way the primary concern of those who framed the Act. There was a strong concern within government circles in the final years of the war that without electoral reform many soldiers and sailors would return to a country they had defended but in which they did not have a vote. The corollary of this thinking was that a bill to enfranchise all men on the basis of active service must also include women who had served their country during the war but this did not occur without much debate and handwringing. Given the anxiety about the unknown impact of the female voter which percolated through the male Houses of Parliament and through the press, it was determined to limit the female franchise. Granting votes to women under the same terms as men in 1918 was a vista that could not be contemplated by a majority of MPs and those within the House of Lords. The Act granted universal male suffrage over the age of twenty one and enfranchised women over the age of 30 subject to a property qualification. Men who had seen active service could vote from the age of nineteen. For the first time in the history of franchise reform dating from 1832, the property qualification was removed in the context of the right to exercise the male parliamentary vote. Yet a property qualification was introduced on the first grant of votes to women. Females over the age of 30 could vote if they were university graduates, if they were householders, meaning that they were on the local government register, if they were the wives of householders or occupiers of land or premises (not being a dwelling-house) of a yearly value of not less than five pounds.

A number of observations can be made here. Women were still defined in terms of their husbands; the wives of householders received the right to vote but single women over the age of 30 who did not hold the necessary property qualification were debarred. Many young women who worked in the Land Army, on the buses and in the munitions factories during the war were not enfranchised. Many of these women in 1918 who were over the age of 30 were sharing flats or other rental accommodation and found themselves outside the necessary property qualification. Many young women and older single women who were active in the suffrage cause still found that they were classed as unfit for to exercise the parliamentary franchise. In Ireland in 1918, Waterford suffragist Rosamond Jacob, although 30, did not have the necessary property qualification to vote. Dorothy Macardle, a university graduate, could not vote because she was under the age of 30.

Lord Curzon (Image:Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. USA)

The granting of this partial female suffrage did not occur without hostility in the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. There were attempts to amend the bill to remove the sections granting the parliamentary franchise to women. In a debate on such an amendment in the House of Lords on 10 January 1918 the Lord Chancellor, Lord Finlay, declared that the decision to grant limited female suffrage had only been reached at a very late stage in the debates during the cross-party conference on franchise reform which was convened in October 1916 with the report issued in January 1917 after 26 sittings. Moreover, Finlay stated, the proceedings at that late stage in the conference ‘were not attended very largely’ and ‘the ultimate resolution that was reached was arrived at only by a narrow majority’. Finlay argued that the ‘matter of woman suffrage is quite separate from the rest of the Bill’. It could be removed and ‘yet leave a Bill which is complete in itself’ He refused to accept the argument that to dismember the bill in this way would be ‘an insult’ to women. Parliament should, he declared, ‘say “We do not think that the time has arrived for making a change of this kind,” it is only leaving matters as they are’. While praising female contributions to the war effort, he continued that ‘the argument should never have been used that the work that has been done entails the consequence that the vote should be conferred upon women’. Indeed, Finlay noted that the majority of work in munitions factories had been done by women under the age of 30 who would not receive the vote. In response to Finlay, the Earl of Selborne declared to the House: ‘I suggest to you that if you pass this Amendment, it will be rejected by the House of Commons almost unanimously’. He went on to assure the House that the safest cohort of women would be enfranchised; women of property with a stake in the orderly running of the country and married women. These women represented a ‘stable element in the state’. They were ‘the mothers of families, the married women … I consider that the married women are an immense assurance against the foreboding and the dangers which are inseparable from any extension of the franchise’.

Lord Curzon, similarly to Selborne, declared that if any women were qualified to exercise the vote it was married women. Unlike Selborne, however, Curzon did not think that even married women should exercise a political voice at parliamentary level. He had a long history of colonial service and he feared that the granting of votes to women would weaken Britain’s status as a pre-eminent imperial power. On the basis of his service as Viceroy of India, 1899-1905, he felt he had the authority to declare in 1912 that female enfranchisement would be ‘a source of weakness’ in that country. If women had been enfranchised on the same terms as men in 1918 female voters would have outnumbered males. There were politicians who saw the spectre of the balance of power passing into the hands of women voters in the near future. In the House of Commons debate on 19 June 1917, the Unionist MP, William Burdett-Coutts, declared: ‘With all the great Indian Empire, with all the other great nations with whom we are brought into contact all over the world, how will the position be when they know that the sovereign power of this country, which from time immemorial, ever since the nation was a nation, has been in the hands of men, has passed into the hands of women?’ Curzon in no uncertain terms outlined the manner in which granting of the parliamentary vote to women had the potential to undermine Britain as a ‘great’ imperial power. In making ‘the experiment’, the ‘results of failure would be tremendous’. Indeed, he stated, granting female suffrage could not be treated as an experiment ‘since if suffrage were once granted, it could never be cancelled or withdrawn’.

Reference to the granting of female suffrage as an experiment was a common trope of the debates. Lord Finlay outlined the franchise reform acts of 1832, 1867 and 1885 and stated that no parallel could be drawn between such extensions of the franchise to male voters and what was proposed in respect of women in 1918. The present proposal was a ‘giant experiment’ and a ‘leap in the dark’. Women, he declared, ‘cannot become men’. Moreover, the palpable risk involved in the endeavour was deemed manifestly more dangerous ‘at this time of crisis in the country’. Finlay feared the influence of the women voter in the context of the peace negotiations which would conclude the war. War weariness, the loss of husbands and sons as casualties of the conflict and the rationing and other privations that women as managers of family budgets were forced to endure, might, he believed, result in the female voter being ‘ensnared by pleas for peace, by specious terms which seem to give something but really gave nothing, by proposals for peace which really would be no peace at all, a peace which would leave Prussian militarism really unbroken’. Some women in favour of the female vote also voiced a fear that it would negatively influence the first ‘peace election’. A ‘woman voter’ in the Leinster Express stated on 14 December 1918 that the war will have been fought in vain if ‘Germany be allowed escape justice’. She stated that women voters through ignorance of the political methods of ‘political job grabbers’ may record their vote in the wrong direction.

There was also the realisation amongst many that the next step after partial enfranchisement was the demand to allow women candidates stand for parliamentary election. A number of MPs shuddered at the thought. Curzon stated that once the vote was granted women ‘would then demand the right of becoming M.P.’s [sic] Cabinet Ministers, Judges, etc.’ In the debate in the House of Commons on 19 June 1917 Sir Frederick Banbury, a member of the Conservative party, envisaged the subversion of the natural patriarchal order that would ensue: ‘It is a matter that has to be faced, and it will be extremely difficult for this House to carry on its work if we have in your place, Mr. Whitley, a lady instead of yourself. It is quite clear that once you have women Members of the House, they are not going to stop as Members of the House’. Women were not eligible to stand for election under the terms of the Representation of People Act. Instead the very short Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, 1918, comprising 27 words, granted that right on 21 November. Notably, women over the age of 21 were entitled to stand for election although they could not vote until they were 30. Mr Herbert Samuel, Liberal Party MP, who proposed the Bill stated that it was the logical consequence of the Representation of People Act.

In the debate on the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Bill the type of woman who might be elected came into play. Much of this discussion revolved around the belief that certain cohorts of women, notably older and married women, were more likely to support the status quo. An opponent of the Bill, the Scottish Unionist, Henry Craik, feared that if female candidates were permitted to stand for election to the House of Commons it would be militant suffrage activists who would put themselves before the voting public rather than a more acceptable face of British womanhood: ‘Will not the militant suffragette, who is no great favourite one side or the other, be in that position, and do you think the women of England want to be represented by them?’ He continued by asking if such female candidates would be ‘worthy to represent the womanhood of England? What opportunity had the vast mass of women – women of wisdom, of moderation, of calmness, who have exercised in other spheres a very strong and an effective influence – what chance have they of showing what part they can play in public life?’

Women’s perceived physical frailty and weakness was brought up in the context of this debate. Richard Hazleton, Irish Parliamentary Party MP for Galway, declared that women should not have to undergo the long hours of the House of Commons. The Liberal politician, Herbert Samuel, in proposing the Bill stated that the Representation of People Act rendered the old dogma of women’s domestic role defunct. However, later in his parliamentary speech he indicated his belief that women’s interests and expertise in the area of politics would be gender specific. The inference was that women’s interests would not lay in issues of foreign policy but in domestic affairs. The next parliament after the 1918 general election would, he announced, deal with post-war reconstruction and it was in the areas of ‘home policy and social reform’ that ‘the assistance of women would be of especial advantage’. Even in this area of politics the thinking was that women would not drive policy but would assist male politicians. The gendering of political action at parliamentary level after the passing of the Representation of People Act, 1918, and the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, 1918 can be seen in much of the discourse around the December general election of that year. Lloyd George sought to appeal to women voters with proposals for better housing during the post-war reconstruction. The Cork Examiner declared on 12 December 1918 that ‘even though women as a class may not be deeply interested in party questions, it is fair to assume that they are personally interested in securing better dwellings for themselves and their children. In a word women voters may be expected to be more immediately interested in the government’s domestic policy than in the League of Nations, or the Freedom of the Seas, or questions of the kind …’

Christabel Pankhurst (Image: London School of Economics)

17 women stood for election in 1918, with two of those standing in Ireland: Countess Markievicz for the St Patrick’s Ward in Dublin and Winifred Carney for the Victoria Ward in Belfast. Both Scotland and Wales had one female candidate, Miss Eunice Murray and Mrs Millicent MacKenzie respectively. A number of women candidates who stood in mainland Britain did not challenge the prevailing assumption that the female politician had different interests and concerns than the male. While the two female candidates in Ireland stood for Sinn Féin and its republican election manifesto, in mainland Britain women campaigned on different grounds. Mrs Corbett Ashby, Liberal candidate for Ladywood, who stood in opposition to the Conservative, Neville Chamberlain, identified herself in relation to her husband and campaigned on issues relating to soldiers’ wives and widows. She was supported by the Association of Discharged Soldiers as well as the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society. Her election posters emphasised her role as wife and mother, showing her with her young son and also featuring a photograph of her husband, Captain Ashley, under the heading ‘A Soldier’s Wife for Ladywood’. Certainly Mrs Oliver Strachey, Independent Coalition candidate for Brentford and Chiswick, stated that no one should vote for her because she was a woman but rather ‘because you think I’d be a good representative for you’. However, the election statements of other women standing tended to be more gendered. Miss Emily Phipps, Independent and Progressive Candidate for Chelsea, declared that even ‘the best intentioned man cannot exactly see from a woman’s standpoint’. Mrs Janet McEwan, standing for the Liberal Party in Enfield, called on women to vote for her to ensure ‘reforms affecting specially women and children, and healthy homes’. Mrs How Martyn, Independent candidate in Hendon, Middlesex, stated that women wanted to make the world safe for their children and ‘raise the moral level’.

Female candidates faced a number of unique obstacles. On 14 November it was stated that the election would be held one month later on 14 December. The Act that allowed females to stand for election, however, only received royal assent on 21 November, leaving women little time to organise their campaigns. On 2 January 1919 the Cork Examiner reproduced a Daily Express article entitled ‘Why the Women Failed’. The lack of time that women faced to be ‘formally acknowledged and to establish themselves with the electors’ was mentioned. Moreover, while the election was called on 14 November there had been talks in the summer of 1918 in the context of mainland British politics. The 1918 election is sometimes referred to as the coupon election. Certain candidates received a coalition coupon which comprised a letter endorsing their candidacy. The Daily Express article referring to women candidates on the British mainland stated that only Christabel Pankhurst had a ‘first class organisation’. Moreover, she was the only female candidate who ‘dared to say openly that she thought she would win’. Murray, the female candidate in Scotland, did state that she ‘met no treatment that would not have been dealt out to a man candidate’ while she praised her ‘woman agent’ who ‘mapped out the campaign in a masterly fashion’. Bizarre rules applied in certain constituencies. The trade-union activist Mary MacArthur contested Stonebridge for the Labour Party. She claimed that she lost by being forced to use her married name – Mrs W. Anderson. There was no legal requirement in this regard as Violet Markham for Mansfield was permitted to stand under her maiden name. However Markham, the Daily Express correspondent declared, had no faith in herself and was ‘rather inclined to laugh at the high hopes of those outside the division’. Charlotte Despard, who stood for North Battersea, was loved as a social worker but her socialist political views alienated many as being ‘too advanced’.

Irish female candidates, of course, campaigned in a different political environment. If the female candidates on the British mainland argued that they did not have enough time to canvass effectively, it is clear that from June 1918 Cumann na dTeachtaire the Sinn Féin League of Female Delegates, were planning for future local government and parliamentary elections. In Ireland, the issue was not the peace but the republic established in name in 1916 and the battle between the newly reconstituted Sinn Féin and the almost moribund Irish Parliamentary Party. Markievicz was in Holloway prison during the election campaign, having been arrested on 17 May 1918 charged with conspiring with the German enemy. As an internee Markievicz faced the issue of censorship of mail in and out of the prison. However, she declared that this did not deter her; ‘our records and principles are so well known’. On 5 December 1918 the Irish Independent paraphrased a letter from Markievicz to Jennie Wyse Power in which she stated that it did not matter that she was not able to write to the people of Dublin as they knew her so well’. According to Wyse Power, members of Cumann na mBan in Dublin spoke at every public meeting during Markievicz’s election campaign while members of the Irish Women’s Franchise League also supported her candidacy and that of Carney. The latter organisation also conducted a campaign to ask parties to nominate female candidates.

Sinn Féin pictures celebrating Constance Markievicz's victory in the St Patrick's constituency in Dublin (Image: National Library of Ireland)

Markievicz, as the only woman elected to the House of Commons in 1918, had the advantage of a strong republican pedigree. She was second in command to Michael Mallin in Stephen’s Green in 1916. She was sentenced to death along with the other officers of the rebellion, her sentence commuted to life imprisonment consequent on her gender. Her bona-fide republican credentials were augmented by jail time. Moreover, her work during the 1913 Lockout on behalf of the families of striking workers had endeared her to many. In short, she had that visibility that other female candidates for the most part lacked. Christabel Pankhurst, of course, had a visibility as a key figure in the WSPU. Markievicz, however, operated in an Irish political climate that had witnessed a whole-scale shift in public opinion in favour of a republican solution to the Irish national question. Such a political environment, coupled with her own republican profile, created a set of unique circumstances allowing her to triumph. By contrast Carney’s programme for a workers’ republic found no traction in Belfast. Sinn Féin was not interested in proposing female candidates and Cumann na dTeachtaire encountered much opposition. Kathleen Clarke claimed that male collusion and manoeuvrings prevented her selection while Hanna Sheehy Skeffington declined to fight an unwinnable seat.

Markievicz was elected Minister for Labour in the first Dáil Éireann on 19 January 1919. By the time the second Dáil was convened on 16 August 1921 Markievicz’s Labour portfolio no longer had Cabinet status, a harbinger of future attitudes to workers’ rights and the concept of the female politician in independent Ireland. Meg Connery’s letter to Sheehy Skeffington during Markievicz’s campaign was prescient. She wrote of the lack of support for the latter’s campaign during the lead up to the election: ‘The very nerve of Sinn Fein sets my teeth on edge. The one woman that they have thrown as a sop to the women of the county has her interest neglected …’ Female candidates and voters were feared in 1918; once the fear had been faced and had been seen to be groundless, women voters and aspiring female politicians in Ireland were ignored and elided by the mainstream political parties. It said much that Éamon de Valera did not feel it necessary when requested to meet a deputation of female activists while writing the 1937 Constitution but, as Rosamond Jacob drily noted, ‘he could receive the German footballers alright’.

Dr Leeann Lane lectures in the School of History and Geography, Dublin City University


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