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Vote100: Remembering the fight for women's suffrage

Suffragettes Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst
Suffragettes Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

To mark the centenary of the Representation of the people act that gave some women in the UK the vote for the first time, we’ve interviewed three suffrage scholars on why February 6th 1918 is a date none of us should forget.

One hundred years ago today, the Representation of the People Act was brought into UK law, giving the right to vote to 13 million men and women. Universal suffrage wouldn’t occur for another decade, but in expanding the electorate to include a substantial new section of the population, the act set the UK on a path that would lead to suffrage being extended to every law-abiding citizen in the UK.

For Professor Krista Cowman, Director of Research for the College of Arts, University of Lincoln and women’s suffrage historian, remembering the Representation of the People Act should be about more than just marking the 100 years since the event.

“We’re in a bit of a centenary moment aren’t we?” she says “This has actually been going on for quite a while. The major centenary is the anniversary of the First World War, but as a women’s historian I think it’s really important that we don’t lose sight of all the other important histories that were going on at the same time.”

Her project, What Difference did the War Make? World War One and Votes for Women, looks at how the more than 50 suffrage societies that existed in 1914 used the war as a major opportunity in the fight for suffrage.

These societies may have had a very similar goal, but their methods for getting there, Cowmen tells us, were quite different: “The thing that many people remember is the story of how Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst really got behind the country and the war effort with this very jingoistic and patriotic campaign. And there was also the National Union for Women’s Suffrage Societies who were the constitutionalists who saw the war as a really good opportunity for demonstrating women’s abilities and women’s talents including at women’s work bureaus.”

But for some suffrage societies, demonstrating women’s skills and talents wasn’t enough. Some were also determined to keep up the campaign for suffrage: “The Church League for women’s suffrage for example is one that says to it’s members whenever you’re doing war service work, to wear your suffrage badge,” Prof Cowman says. “The societies that take that line talk a lot about keeping the suffrage flag flying.”

A meeting of suffragettes in 1908 in England
A meeting of suffragettes in 1908 in England

It’s hard to overestimate the effect this campaigning had on getting votes for women. But for Cowman, by the time 1918 rolls around, women’s suffrage was more or less inevitable. She notes that the “act was as much if not more about votes for men as it was about votes for women, but by 1918 Britain had got itself into such a position with 60 years of constitutional suffrage campaigning and 12 years of militant suffrage campaigning in different shapes and guises that the idea of extending votes for men and not extending it to women is just impossible.”

As much as the centenary of the act is a great moment for people to familiarise themselves with the story of women’s suffrage, Prof Cowman takes an alternative view: “I do have some mixed feelings about centenaries,” she says.  “They can be a really good opportunity to get new and sometimes quite complicated ideas out to a wider audience. But they can also be an opportunity for people to just repeat the same old tired clichés which were wrong 40 years ago and are still wrong now.”

“I’m keeping a little running tally of the number of times people say suffragette when they mean suffragist or the other way around.”

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