To what extent did women receive the vote in 1918 as a result of their contributions to war work?

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Sean Stout
To what extent did women receive the vote in 1918 as a result of their contributions to war work?
‘The Nation Thanks the Women.’ This was the phrase sprawled across billboards throughout Britain in 1918 following the Representation of the People Act, which integrated certain women over thirty into the franchise. The government produced these posters as if to say that the contributions of women to war work had secured them the right to vote. Indeed, the act passed easily with a majority consensus of 385 for, as opposed to the 55 against. Many historians have proposed differing arguments as to why women received the vote in 1918, some such as Constance Rover and Arthur Marwick agreeing that the war was a central factor behind the enfranchisement, while others like Paula Bartley focusing on the political situation as a whole and the changes that occurred over time. Bartley is in fact one to contest this idea that war acted as a turning point, saying, ‘it would be naive to believe that women received the vote solely for services rendered in the First World War.’ In addition, the importance of the suffrage movement has been the focus of historians such as June Purvis, who argue it paved the way for the enfranchisement and determined the nature of the legislation in 1918. Social and economic changes were also occurring at the time, which allowed women to become more involved and accepted within society, thus it seemed they were now eligible for the vote.

This view that the war culminated in votes for women may well have been tactfully used by the government, however in order to establish political change as the decisive reason for reform, we must consider all the contributing factors.

During the Great War of 1914-1918, there was a sharp increase in female employment within the public world of work. While some aristocratic women ventured into government advisory roles, the majority undertook jobs that directly aided the war effort. Domestic service diminished by 400,000, as women took to non-combat military roles, the transport industry, agricultural activities and civil service positions. Some 40,000 women worked as nurses or female orderlies in Britain and in French field hospitals. Of course the biggest increase in female employment was within the munitions industry, which rose from 82,859 in July 1914 to 947,000 by November 1918. It was therefore due to this massive increase in female employment, which was vital for Britain in winning the war, that women were rewarded in 1918 with the vote, some historians argue. It is useful for use to look at what Constance Rover writes on the relationship between war and the vote:
‘The obvious effect was that women’s contribution to the war effort was seen and appreciated…public opinion became overwhelmingly favourable towards women. Besides these obvious changes, the war transformed the political situation. It was obvious that the campaign would recommence once the war over if nothing was done to enfranchise women.’
Rover’s argument here is based on the idea that admiration felt towards women for their contributions to war work, changed the public opinion to pro female-suffrage. Furthermore, she argues that politicians worried the suffrage campaign would resume in post-war years and they would have the awkward task of imprisoning women who had dutifully ‘done their bit’. It is true that politicians worried the suffrage movement would recommence with a more aggressive nature, and after witnessing the Russian revolution there were concerns of similar unrest in Britain. However, it can be argued the war factor was not the leading force behind the 1918 Act, and it did not fully transform the situation for women as Rover suggests. Indeed, the 1918 Act only applied to certain women over 30, which meant the majority of those who had worked in wartime jobs and contributed to the victory, were not actually given the vote. Moreover it was believed prior to the war that, should a Liberal government return in the next general election, this would increase the possibility of female enfranchisement, thus it is argued that the war may have postponed any immediate success for the suffrage campaign. We should also note that the total number of women doing waged work did not increase dramatically as has been suggested: in 1914, 5.9 million women were employed whereas by 1918 this figure was only at 7.3 million. Another argument to support the idea war was not beneficial for the movement, is made by historian Brian Harrison, who says, ‘the war seemed to confirm the Antis’ physical force argument- the idea that men and women had separate roles because women are, on average, physically weaker than men’. Harrison suggests that the war only elevated this traditional view of women, in that they should remain secluded and protected from the dangers of society and hence should not be included in public political matters. Of course this was really only an ideology yet it does oppose the argument that masculine perceptions towards women and their role in society changed following the war.
In order to assess the importance of the Suffrage movement as a whole, we must consider both branches of the campaign individually. While the campaign was split into those who believed non-violent methods were key to success, and those whose motto was, ‘deeds not words’, it can be concluded both Suffragists and Suffragettes were successful in bringing attention to the cause of votes for women and pushing for reform. Female historian June Purvis is renowned for pushing the Suffragettes to the forefront of this debate, saying:
‘The suffragettes contributed to the making of our modern democracy by bringing about a cultural change in the way in which women were seen. They aroused a passionate discussion about women's status and inequality in society so that men's ideological hold over women was never the same. No longer doormats, but assertive, strong-minded women, without their struggle the 1918 franchise act would not have been passed.’
Various historians have challenged this view, particularly Christopher Bearman who argues the Suffragettes were merely ‘lawless terrorists who delayed votes for women.’ It is important to note that there has been a significant divide in the way male and female historians consider the Suffragettes, masculine interpretations often more negative towards these militant tactics. During the initial stages of the militant campaign, some Suffragists actually showed their support including Millicent Fawcett, however as the violence became more radical and no progress was made, the divide became clearer. Fawcett later retracted her support, blaming the failure of the Third Conciliation Bill in March 1912 on the WSPU. However, as the research of historian Leah Leneman shows, many former Suffragists frustrated at the defeat of the Conciliation Bill actually joined the WSPU. Whilst the NUWSS undoubtedly had a larger membership, with over 600,000 member societies, and more than 100,000 members by 1914, the WSPU continued to grow in size, gathering £28,000 in subscriptions between March 1913 and February 1914.

Although there is definite weight to the argument suggesting that violent tactics harmed the campaign, providing an excuse for politicians to prevent enfranchisement, it can be concluded that these tactics were vital in bringing attention to the cause and, as June Purvis says, integrating a necessary cultural change that otherwise may not have occurred.

The Suffragist movement was clearly an influential force behind the 1918 Representation of the People Act. Formed in 1897 under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett, the Suffragists used peaceful tactics in their campaign, employing strategies such as non-violent demonstrations, petitions, and the lobbying of MPs. Indeed, as the campaign grew in prestige it attracted the support of leading political figures, including Keir Hardie of the Labour Party and Lloyd-George of the Liberals. Sandra Holton argues the case that Suffragists were highly successful, saying:
‘What can confidently be asserted is the importance of women’s suffragists’ own efforts, especially the efforts of the democratic suffragists…the political alliances the democratic suffragists had formed in support of their demand had ensured women would have to be included in any future reform bill.’
Holton is arguing that the democratic Suffragists played a major role in securing the 1918 Act since they successfully negotiated with political parties. In fact, it has been noted that whilst women in France also played an important role in war work, they were not given the vote until 1945. It would therefore suggest the nature of the suffrage movement in Britain, which was vital in capturing the attention of the nation and highlighting the importance of their cause, ultimately led to the vote in 1918. However, it can be argued that the most significant factor behind the act was political change.
The end of the war in 1918 marked a time for franchise reform. It was undoubtedly necessary that those men who had risked their lives on the western front and fought bravely for King and Country, should all be entitled to vote, regardless of residence qualifications. With this general acknowledgement, the case for female suffrage was also made stronger. Paula Bartley writes on the issue, saying:
‘There were a number of changes in Parliament which altered the balance between those who opposed and those who were in favour of votes for women… In May 1915, the Liberal government became a Coalition government. The old fears that one party might benefit from women’s suffrage were laid to rest…Lloyd George, who was sympathetic to women’s suffrage, replaced Asquith as Prime Minister in December 1916… Britain was merely reflecting an international trend towards full democracy. It would have been a peculiar embarrassment if the mother of democracy, Britain, lagged behind other countries.’
Bartley here focuses on some key arguments that prove the factor of political reform was the most significant in gaining some women the vote in 1918. Firstly, she speaks of how in May 1915, the Liberal government formed a war coalition with the Conservatives, which therefore eradicated any political advantage or disadvantage that was to be had through the granting of female suffrage- in 1910 the Conciliation Bill, which was devised to give property-owning women the vote, was rejected by the Liberal government who felt that it would only benefit wealthy Conservative supporters and therefore have a negative effect on the Liberal party. It was during the time of the war-coalition that the Suffragists became most instrumental in forming political alliances, some even promoted to Cabinet, which obviously brought their campaign closer to victory as discussed previously. Paula Bartley also speaks of how Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister from 1908-1916, was replaced by David Lloyd George who was known to be more sympathetic towards female suffrage. It has been noted that Asquith in 1920 claimed women were, ‘a dim lot, for the most part hopelessly ignorant of politics’. This evidence would certainly suggest that the change from such a leader was beneficial for women in their campaign. Another aspect which reinforces this line of argument is the fact that women in New Zealand, Australia, Finland, Denmark and Norway had already been enfranchised, which perhaps motivated British politicians to concede and follow the route of other countries. This was particularly true for Britain since she claimed to be the ‘mother of democracy’, and, as Bartley argues, it would have been embarrassing for such a ‘great nation’ to fall behind other countries on the global democratic scale. These arguments are superlative in the case for long-term political change since the influence of other countries would have had a significant impact on Britain’s own politics, while it was becoming increasingly progressive through new leadership and new attitudes. There is also the teleological point of view to consider, which argues that long-term political change was inevitably going to result in votes for women.
The final factor that we must address is the social and economic changes that were occurring at the time and how these influenced the campaign for female suffrage. Historian Arthur Marwick argues for this case, however we must acknowledge this view is based on the idea that these changes stemmed from the war, and therefore this aspect could be considered as an extension to the war factor and the impact it had. Marwick writes of the changes, saying:

‘But two further changes are also critical: the increased sense of their own capacity and increased self-confidence on the part of women themselves: and, on the other side, the total destruction of all the old arguments about women’s proper place in community…Women also gained a measure of economic independence. And, whatever the intentions of law-makers, they had gained new self-reliance and new social freedoms.’

This argument is interesting in the way that it directly opposes with Brian Harrison’s view of how masculine perceptions towards women did not change following the war. Marwick on the other hand believes that the war totally destroyed any of the old arguments about a women’s ‘proper place’ in society. Indeed this really had been a long-term change as girls of all classes had been integrated into the education system since the 1850s. The increase in female education clearly had a knock-on effect in terms of female employment, and so over time women were continually becoming part of the working world. It was the rise in employment that gave women an increased sense of their own ‘capacity and self-confidence’, Marwick argues. More women would now have to pay taxes since they were earning, thus strengthening the argument women should be entitled to vote on the same terms as men. The period of 1880-1914 was definitely one which saw considerable advances in the social status of women, introducing new cultural trends and fashions which would in turn reduce the gender inequality traditional of Britain. The status of women was changing since the late 19th century, which, coupled with female contributions to war work, stressed the need for parliamentary reform.
In conclusion, a number of factors influenced the Representation of the People Act in 1918, which allowed certain women the vote, yet it can be argued the most prominent factor was political change.

I would agree that the war was instrumental in changing masculine perceptions of women, as many took dutifully to war work, consequently nullifying any argument that women could not manage political responsibilities. However, since the 1918 Act only benefited women over 30, the majority of those who actually contributed to the war effort were neglected, and so I agree with Paula Bartley’s statement, ‘it would be naive to believe that women received the vote solely for services rendered in the First World War.’ Secondly, the suffrage movement prior to the war was highly successful in bringing the necessary attention to the campaign and increasing the rate at which the enfranchisement occurred, yet, there is the argument that the militant campaign actually harmed the cause and delayed any immediate victories that were to be had through peaceful negotiations. The social and economic changes that occurred were also important in bringing women to the forefront of society and allowing them a stronger market position, with increased self-confidence and more social freedoms. From these changes the case for female suffrage was made stronger since women were now a fundamental part of society and therefore deserved to be included in the politics that ran their lives. Nonetheless, I would confidently conclude the most influential force behind the 1918 Act had to be political change. The new coalition meant there were no tactical gains or losses to be made through the granting of female suffrage, Lloyd George replaced a sexist prime minister who acted as a barrier to the campaign, and Britain, the ‘mother of democracy’, seemed to be falling behind other countries on the democratic scale. Perhaps more importantly though, the political change was a long-term factor and therefore the ultimate enfranchisement of women was something that occurred from every minor gain that was made. When discussing the origins of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, we must be careful not to over-simplify matters by relating it to one, single factor. The reality is that it was a combination of the war, the suffrage movement and social and economic changes that together pushed for this political change, and therefore one could argue they all combined to elevate the issue of votes for women.


-Paula Bartley- ‘Access to History: Votes for Women.’

-Michael Willis- ‘How much did women’s position change from 1851 to 1914’

-BBC Bitesize

-The National Archives

-Humanities and Social Sciences Online (H-Net)

-June Purvis- We owe them the vote: The Guardian

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