Smart Thinking

100 years on, there’s still more to do for equality

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Today marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act passed, but the job's not done yet

A hundred years ago today, 5.6 million men and 8.4 million women won the right to vote.

It was a time of unprecedented change. Europe was never going to be the same again. We were debating what kind of nation we wanted to be for the new century. Sound familiar?

I often wonder what remarkable legacy will come out of the turbulence of Brexit. Back in 1918, the First World War gave rise to extending the franchise. The Second World War led to the founding of the NHS and a comprehensive welfare state.

The passing of the 1918 Representation of the People Act should give us hope. It was a landmark piece of legislation, remembered mostly as the moment when the franchise was extended for the first time to include women.

The start of the century had been filled with the daring exploits of the Suffragette movement, and the steady, less sensational campaigning of the Suffragists. Terrible things were done to these women. Many were arrested and, when they went on hunger strike in prison, had rubber tubes forced down their throats (inserted through their noses) to feed them.

I remember being particularly haunted by an illustration of this I saw in a history textbook at school. How was it possible that such methods were being brought to bear in my country less than 100 years ago?

“Everyone had contributed to the war effort equally, everyone had lost, and everyone deserved a say about the new future Britain faced.”

In the end, it was the fallout of the First World War, and society’s grief for the massive, pointless loss of life that convinced the powers that be to extend the franchise. Today, it rings hollow that the derring-do, petitioning, persistence, protest and imprisonment of those behind the suffrage movement was overshadowed by such a tragic event in our history.

Following the war, it was impossible not to give the vote to working class men, who had served their country in the armed forces, but had previously been disqualified due to their earnings or lack of property. Everyone had contributed to the war effort equally, everyone had lost, and everyone deserved a say about the new future Britain faced. It was also impossible to ignore the immense contribution of women to the war effort.

The Home Secretary of the time, George Cave, in his speech introducing the Bill to Parliament said: ‘War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise.

Of course it wasn’t perfect. The franchise was only extended to women aged over 30, who could vote if they were member of or married to a member of the Local Government Register, if they owned property, or if they were a graduate voting in a University constituency. Had the franchise been extended on fully equal terms, there would have been a female voting majority, due to the vast loss of male life.

Some say this was why the age of 30 was settled on. It would have been interesting to know how legislation might have been different had there been a female voting majority – would there be more equality now? We can only speculate.

On the cusp of another sea change today, a 24 hour hunger strike will be held outside Parliament to commemorate the Representation Act’s anniversary and to call for proportional representation. There is still so much to do in pursuit of equality, and many underlying prejudices left to challenge. ‘The old class feeling’ that Cave challenged might not be responsible for exclusion in quite the same way as in 1918, but there are plenty of ingrained social assumptions keeping all kinds of women and men from enjoying a truly egalitarian life.

Like the Parliamentarians of 1918, we too are debating the future of our country, what we want it to be, and who gets to contribute. I for one hope that, in Cave’s words, men’s eyes continue to be opened, and misunderstandings on all sides removed as we continue to pursue equality together.