50 Years Ago: The Suffragettes

In January 1918 Punch signalled the end of the struggle for female suffrage, which had provided it with so much material, with one last cartoon. There was a woman, looking like Joan of Arc, holding a banner with the words “Women’s Franchise”. The caption read simply “At Last”.

In February that year an amendment to the Representation of the People Act gave the parliamentary vote to those women over thirty who held a £5 occupation qualification, or were householders, the wives of householders, or graduates. That was the beginning; in 1928 the Baldwin government, despite one or two diehards still resisting from the last ditches, conceded the vote to everyone over the age of twenty-one, man and woman.

The campaign for the vote was part of a great surge of female discontent which had gathered its force at the end of the nineteenth century. At that time, the full effects of industrialisation were being felt; the old type of home life had been undermined and women had been forced onto the labour market in competition with men. Wherever they could —in the craft unions and, for the better off in the so-called professions—the men organised to resist this competition.

For most women, the one hope of escape from the labour market was by marriage which, since it involved the exchange of conjugal rights for some sort of livelihood, was sometimes stigmatised as legal prostitution. Marriage, in any case, had its problems; the old melodramas about wife beating were based on more than the authors’ imagination. (….)

If women are to do something about their place in society, they must first face the fact that most of them are workers, with labour power to sell, just like the majority of men. They must realise that their vote has solved nothing, changed nothing, because—again like the majority of men—it is a vote not backed by an understanding of society. But with that understanding the vote can do more than any Suffragette ever dreamed of — it can bring “. . . the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.”

(Socialist Standard, November 1968)