The Representation of the People Act 1918
By Claire Pannell (with thanks to Pat Gawler)
Today marks the centenary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act on the 6th February 1918. What did that mean? Why is it important? Well, if you haven’t been following the radio, the news and social media today and yesterday, it reformed the electoral system in Great Britain and Ireland after years of campaigning. For the first time some women were granted the right to vote, as well as all men over the age of 21. However, only women over the age of 30 were allowed to vote. Another 10 years had to pass before working class women over the age of 21 were granted that right.
It’s unimaginable today, but to be eligible to vote in 1918 a woman had to not only be over 30, but also be either a member of, or married to, a member of the Local Government Register; or be a property owner, or a graduate voting in a university constituency. Perhaps this was because women outnumbered men (due to losses of male lives in WWI) and it was feared that a specific women’s party might emerge if they were all granted the vote at once?
Although not equality, where would women be now if it hadn’t happened at all, I wonder? I’m sitting here musing on just how lucky women in the UK are; that we have the right to vote, and also upon the struggles and sacrifices my predecessors went through. Suffragettes were ridiculed in the press, imprisoned, beaten, and force fed when they went on hunger strike. Gender inequality still exits and we are still fighting it, but at least we have the right to vote and we don’t have to resort to such violent struggles and sacrifices to get our voices heard.
The act passed in 1918 was the 4th Reform Act, each Act building on the one before. The first reform Act in 1832 increased the Scottish male electorate from 4,239 to 65,000. Although the 3rd Act allowed 5 million men the vote but a few years later was considered a ‘charter of slavery rather than enfranchisement’. It only allowed 60% of men over 21 the vote and millions of soldiers returning home after the First World War would still not have been entitled to vote!
We have a fascinating marching banner in the collection that was once owned by reform campaigners in Musselburgh over a hundred years ago. It has been exhibited in the John Gray Centre in Haddington.
Despite violent agitation, including local acts such as the burning of Whitekirk church in 1914 to protest at the force-feeding of female prisoners in Edinburgh, Suffragettes put their protestations on hold during the First World War when women assisted the war effort by doing ‘men’s work’. Granting the vote to women was to be recognition of their contribution during the war.
East Lothian women had been making an important contribution to growing female inclusion in the social and political scene. The prominent suffragette, Catherine Blair from Hoprig Mains, founded the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute (SWRI) in Longniddry in 1917, to bring women together and try to remedy the isolation many women felt living in the countryside. Their mottos were ‘For Home and Country’ and ‘Deeds not Words’. The SWRI movement grew rapidly and by 1922 there were 22 branches in East Lothian alone.
Catherine also set up the Mak Merry pottery, believing that the lives of women in the countryside could be enriched through arts and crafts and the teaching of those skills. Today the SWI continues that tradition and has over 16,000 members across Scotland.
We must never forget the bravery and determination of all of those women that came before us in the fight for equality, and we must never take our rights for granted.
To not vote, in my opinion, is to devalue those brave women who came before us and the men who supported them. #100years #Votes100 #Suffrage100