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Vote100: What the vote meant for ordinary people

Emmeline Pankhurst is arrested outise Buckingham Palace
Emmeline Pankhurst is arrested outside Buckingham Palace

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.

The road to universal suffrage was a long one, with many protests, acts and societies along the way. For Adrian Bingham, historian of political, social and cultural history of twentieth-century Britain, the legacy of the Representation of the People Act is clear: “In terms of becoming a universal democracy, 1918 is the most important step,” he says.

“It’s not the final step, because not all women get the vote until 1928. But it’s a real watershed moment. And I think most people knew that once people had accepted the principle that women deserve the vote, it wouldn’t take very long before equality (of suffrage) was established.”

“It’s the biggest single leap in terms of the number of people who obtained the vote at any one time (the electorate was expanded from eight to 21 million people) and it transforms the nature of the electorate completely.”

For the ordinary citizen, Bingham explains that gaining the vote was often about how people perceived themselves.

“I think the main change is that being a citizen changes your view of yourself and how you fit into society more generally. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that people become instantly fascinated with Westminster politics. But in a society that was stratified by class and beset by inequality the fact that you have a vote and the fact that no one’s vote has more importance than yours changes the way you see yourself and the way you see society.”

For many, gaining suffrage meant very real changes as well. Having the power to vote meant politicians were forced to take the issues of women and working class men seriously.

“Before 1918, politicians could be fairly dismissive of the concerns of certain sections of society,” says Bingham. “This was often done privately, but sometimes quite publically as well. But in the 1920s, we see politicians making gestures towards female voters, feeling that they had to come up with policies that engaged or won them over.”

Emmeline Pankhurst is arrested outise Buckingham Palace
Children holding copies of pro women's suffrage paper The Suffragette

With hard fought campaigns like the fight for universal suffrage, it’s easy to look back at in the first half of the 20th Century as a time when people were more politically active, with clearer ideological positions, but for Bingham it’s not quite that simple.

“Many people look back at that and see very different times and it’s true that the party situation has become more fluid and we have stronger nationalist parties. It’s easy to think that modern times are more difficult and that everything’s more complex now, but there was much more complexity behind that simple picture of the 1940s and 50s.

“People are actually having to deal with very complex issues: ‘Do you appease Hitler or not appease Hitler? How do you reconstruct a society after the war?’ These are hardly simple questions. And just because popular culture was more respectful of politicians, doesn’t mean people on the street were.”

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