Franchise Centenary: A Very Limited Democracy

 Centenary of Votes for All Men and Some Women

The demonstrations in June to mark the centenary of the coming into force of the Representation of the People Act 1918 (which was obviously a good thing) didn’t tell the whole picture. It is quite well-established now that the Suffragists (constitutionalists) and the Suffragettes (direct actionists) were both campaigning not for votes for all women, but only for votes for women on the same terms as men, votes for ‘middle class property-owning women’ (see:

As about a third of men didn’t have the vote before 1918, this would have left an even higher proportion of women without the vote. Hence the criticism of both the Suffragists and Suffragettes for standing for ‘Votes for Ladies’ and ‘Votes for
Rich Women’.

Actually, already before 1918, Ladies had the vote, but only for local elections. Bebel describes the position in the 1910 edition of his Women and Socialism:

     ‘In regard to municipal administration, woman suffrage in Great Britain is constantly expanding. In the parish councils tax-paying women have a voice and vote as well as men. Since 1899, women in England have the right to vote for town, district and county councils. In the rural districts all proprietors and lodgers – including the female ones – who reside in the parish or district are entitled to vote. All inhabitants who are of age may be elected to the above-named bodies, regardless of sex. Women vote for members of school boards, and, since 1870, are eligible to stand on the same terms as men. But in 1903 the reactionary English school law deprived women of the right of being elected to the school
board in the county of London. Since 1869 independent and unmarried women have the right to vote for the privy councils.
Two laws enacted in 1907 made unmarried women in England and Scotland eligible to district and county councils. But a woman who may be elected as chairman of such a council, shall thereby not hold the office of justice of peace that is connected with it. Women are also eligible to parish councils and as overseers of the poor. The first woman mayor was elected in Aldeburgh on November 9, 1908. In 1908 there were 1162 women on English boards of charity and 615 women on school boards. In Ireland, tax-paying women have had municipal suffrage since 1887, and since 1896 they may vote for members of boards of charity and be elected to same.’

The Mayor of Aldeburgh, a town on the Suffolk coast, was Elizabeth Garret Anderson, the first woman doctor and sister of Millicent Fawcett, the Leader of the Suffragist National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, whose statue outside Parliament was unveiled in April.

Tristram Hunt in his (hostile) biography of Engels notes that in the 1876 elections to the London School Board Engels gave all his 7 votes to the woman candidate. This was Alice Westlake in the Marylebone ward, who topped the poll.

She was a Suffragist who was later a member of the central committee of the NUWSS. And like Fawcett a Liberal.

What, it might be asked, was Engels doing voting for a Liberal? Presumably he wanted to make the point that socialists stand for woman’s political and social equality. In which case, he was wrong for the right reason. Socialists do stand, and have always stood for women’s equality.