How the hard-earned vote had been fought for
The 6th February 2018 marked 100 years since women first gained the right to vote, but that was not the first, nor the last reform to voting that has occurred over the last 200 years. Even now, there are an increasing number of calls for the right to vote, or franchise, to be extended to 16 and 17-year-olds as has already been done in Scotland.
Before 1832, only 4% of the country could vote. Only men who were over the age of 21 and owned property over a certain value were given the right to vote. The first change to this was the 1832 Great Reform Act, which despite its title, was not so great, and only gave the right to vote to 2% more people. In 1872, secret ballots were introduced to stop corruption and bribery influencing voting. By 1884, the franchise had been given to most working men over the age of 21.
No improvements were made to voter suffrage for another 34 years after this. Finally, in 1918, some women were given the right to vote, however they had to be aged over 30, and have a university degree. Furthermore, conscientious objectors – those who refused to fight in World War One on a moral basis – were stripped of the vote and this was not changed until 1926. In 1928, men and women were given equal rights to vote, as all adults over 21 were given the right to vote, with the voting age reduced to 18 in 1969.
However, the fact that women were given equal voting rights did not mean they were granted complete political equality. For example, in 1957 Margaret Thatcher was rejected becoming a candidate by the Conservative party, being told that “Parliament is no place for a woman.”
How have women impacted politics? Even before 1918, women played a large role in politics, as they were permitted to vote, and stand for election in local government. This is because local government wasn’t viewed as party political until the late 19th century. In addition, women were involved in pressure groups, and they were fundamental in the anti-slavery movement. Women have obviously had a much greater role in recent political history, with the first female MP, Viscountess Astor, elected in 1919 and the first female PM, Margaret Thatcher, elected in 1979. Interestingly, Thatcher only appointed one woman to Cabinet. Despite these successes, women are still underrepresented in politics, making up only 32% of Parliament. To anyone who doesn’t believe that matters: rape inside marriage was only made illegal in 1992.
Women have substantially changed the course of British politics. The Conservatives won four elections between the end of World War Two and 1979; however, what is amazing is that if women had not been given suffrage, the Tories would not have won a single election until 1979. This is because, for a multitude of reasons, women historically have favoured the Conservatives much more than men have. Women also appear to be a lot more pessimistic with their outlook to politics. In 2003, just 9% of women believed the economy would improve within five years, compared to 20% of men. There is no plausible explanation for this.
Overall, the right to vote and the participation of women in politics has improved drastically over the course of the last 200 years. Everyone aged over 18 can now vote and stand for election in Parliament. Two main issues now remain around voting rights: increasing the diversity of Parliament to make it representative of the country it serves, and potentially reducing the voting age to 16.