How women won the right to vote

By Rosemary Collins, 6 February 2018 - 12:46pm

The campaign for women to be given voting rights in parliamentary elections took decades. Jad Adams explores the milestones along the way, and crucial victories in the struggle

Confectioners shop
Suffragettes in prison clothing after their release wave joyfully to the crowds. Credit: Museum of London/ Heritage Images/ Getty

February 2018 marks 100 years since women over 30 received the parliamentary vote.

However, your female ancestors voted in other ways long before that, and their names can be found on electoral registers.

The full version of this article appears in the February 2018 issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine

Before the parliamentary vote, women voted in local elections for parishes, borough and county councils, and for school and Poor Law boards.

The earliest records are polling books, which note that a person has voted and the candidate they voted for.

This may seem curious to people brought up believing in the sanctity of the secret ballot, but until the 1872 Ballot Act a vote was a public declaration.

In fact there was considerable debate about whether it was constitutional to have secret voting at all.

It was argued that a person should have the courage of their convictions, and declare their electoral allegiances openly.

Sheriffs were responsible for compiling 
a record of the poll in county elections from 1696; 15 years later the residence and freehold (ownership of property) had to be included on that register too, and the record had to be preserved.

These early polling books were in a clerk’s manuscript hand, but they later came to be printed lists looking something like the modern electoral register.

Archival vandalism

Unfortunately the national collection of poll records is no longer with us – in what has been described by Jeremy Gibson, a historian of voting records, as an “unbelievable act of archival vandalism”, the entire collection of manuscript poll books was destroyed in 1907.

A little detective work will recover those that have survived in local holdings, however, and your county archives may well have some.

Fortunately there were usually multiple copies of printed lists because they were printed by private contractors.

These were sold to those involved in politics, and to people who wanted to trade in a particular town and needed to know the names and locations 
of, say, jewellers or bootmakers in the area.

A typical list would have the name, trade or profession and address of the voter, and a column to say who they had voted for (this would have the names of candidates at the top, to be filled in by the clerk when they voted).

Sometimes religious affiliation such as “Catholic” or “Dissenter” are included, and in one case the recipients of bribes paid during an election are noted.

Helpfully for researchers, registers used to be in alphabetical order of voters’ names in each polling district.

It was not until 1884 that the registers began to list voters in street order.

Some of these records show clear evidence of women voting, which they qualified for because the right to vote was related to the ownership of property or the payment of Poor Law rates.

The situation in Scotland was 
similar to that in England and Wales, although there the franchise was narrower: an elector had to own a property with a higher rateable value.

Women also held office for a range of local bodies, including overseers of the poor, surveyors of the highway and constables as well as for parish offices, such as sexton or beadle.

It is as well to remember that many people did not consider civic duties as a right and a privilege, but as a chore to be avoided if possible.

Historian Sarah Richardson quotes the Northern Star from 1843 about a vestry meeting in Birstal Church to elect a churchwarden: “At the time appointed, the wife of the assistant overseer entered the Vestry with the parish book in which the usual entry is made 
on such an occasion, and after waiting nearly an hour and no person making his appearance, either lay or clerical, the good dame took her departure and budged home with the book under her arm.

"On entering her dwelling, her husband eagerly enquired who was appointed warden, to which she replied, ‘Why me to be sure’ – ‘Thee’ ejaculated the astonished official, ‘Yes, me,’ reiterated the wife, ‘for there has [sic] not been another living soul at the meeting, therefore, I suppose, I must be the churchwarden.”

Genealogists might come across poll books for parishes such as the one for St Chad’s in Lichfield in 1843 where 30 women voters are recorded including Grace Brown, who had such extensive land holdings that she was entitled to four votes.

Confectioners shop
A suffragette demonstrating in Whitehall, c1908. If she was on the pavement, she could face a charge of obstruction. Credit: Museum of London/ Heritage Images/ Getty

Before the 1832 Great Reform Act the franchise for parliament was varied, but usually payment of Poor Law rates guaranteed a vote, the so-called ‘Scot and Lot’ franchise.

This could equally well be a tax burden on a widow or spinster who owned land, and they are recorded as having voted in some areas.

The 1832 Act introduced the term “male persons”, when previously sex had never been specified.

In 1835 the phrase was similarly entered for local authorities in the Municipal Corporations Act, disqualifying many women who previously had voted for local councils.

It is likely that the stirrings of women’s political activism in the French Revolution and the discussions it provoked in Britain involving such people as Mary Wollstonecraft made legislators aware that there could be a gender challenge as well as 
a class challenge in politics.

In 1867 there was another ‘great reform’ of the electoral system, which put working-class ratepaying men who lived in cities on the electoral register.

MP and political campaigner John Stuart Mill argued that women should be admitted to the franchise on the same basis.

One third of MPs voting supported the motion – a very respectable number for a new proposal.

The campaigners for the women’s vote thought that there would be an incremental increase: more support every year until the vote was won.

What happened in fact was a fragmentation in which women received the vote for different offices: mainly in Poor Law provision and education, which were considered properly women’s sphere of activity, while national politics was not.

This means that you will see women’s names in some electoral registers and not others for the same area at the same time.

Early victory

There was an early victory for those who wanted women’s suffrage by parliamentarian Jacob Bright, who late at night entered an amendment to the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 to enable female ratepayers to vote for municipal councils.

Now all women who paid rates had rights in the election of councillors.

However, the right of married ratepaying women to vote locally was snatched away in 1872 when the case of Regina vs Harrold limited the franchise to unmarried women ratepayers.

The case had been brought because a man standing for Sunderland Borough Council had been beaten by just one vote.

He went to court saying that as two of the voters were married women, they were not entitled to vote and their votes should therefore be disregarded.

The court agreed that the Act permitting women to vote could not override the legal principle of coverture – that women’s rights were subsumed into those of their husbands once they married.

When you see a woman’s name in an electoral register from this period, she is a widow or a spinster with her own property.

The democratic argument was that there should be no taxation without representation, and as women’s property rights developed, with laws in 1870 and 1882, it became glaringly unfair that they should pay rates on property that they owned without having a vote.

'A Brave Lady', cartoon satirising female voters, in an 1872 issue of Punch. The image was drawn by one of the journal's first female artists. Credit: The Cartoon Collector/ Print Collector/ Getty

Women were given the right to vote for – and stand for – school boards in 1870 in England and Wales and in 1872 in Scotland.

This was not bitterly resisted by those who opposed women’s suffrage.

Their arguments relied on what were assumed to be the natural differences between men and women.

Women were felt to be suited to the education of children as a birthright.

Consequently women voted for and went on school boards; women representatives were responsible for introducing pre-school kindergartens, and such curriculum developments as physical education and pianos for teaching music.

The progress of women’s appearance on electoral registers and their role as political volunteers went with their increased representation on official bodies.

Women ratepayers had a right to vote for Poor Law boards; at one time it was uncertain whether women could also stand for the boards, until one just went ahead and did it.

This was Martha Merington, who in 1875 put herself forward as a candidate for the Kensington board of guardians and was elected.

Local voting rights were regained in the 1894 Local Government Act, which again allowed married women to vote if they fulfilled the property requirements.

This was part of a series of reforms in England, Wales and Scotland in the late 1880s and early 1890s where women got the right to vote in borough, county council and parish elections.

Your female ancestors may well have been electors, but make sure that you are looking at the correct list: some electoral districts had three voting registers representing different eligibility for different elections.

Manners and masculinity

Elections were becoming less vulgar and raucous affairs as the century neared its close, with a decline in mob violence and heavy drinking.

This was part of a general amelioration of manners in society which meant that the traditional view that politics was too rough and masculine for women held less weight.

Your ancestors might have been part of the Conservatives’ Primrose League which was founded in 1883 and was 50 per cent women, or the Women’s Liberal Federation which was established in 1887.

In 1906 the new Labour Party established the Women’s Labour League.

Women had become an essential part of the political process in registering voters and canvassing.

In 1900 women comprised almost 14 per cent of the local government electorate – more than one million women are to be found on electoral registers in all sections except parliamentary voters.

For example in the one street of Ennismore Gardens in Westminster in the 1909–1910 register there are 20 women electors.

So we know that Miss Eliza Mitchell, at number 69, owned a house she shared with Amelia and Mary Gurney.

They all voted, as they paid rates separately.

Less affluent areas might have fewer female electors, because fewer women would have owned property or been liable for local authority rates.

A number of independent women’s businesses are apparent in these pre-First World War registers.

For example Mary Louise Jackman, who owned a shop, is listed in the 1907–1908 register at 4 Argyll Place, Holburn.

Some women were registered voters because they paid rates on a ‘workroom to a dwelling house’ or a ‘workshop’, while others did not have a vote where they lived but at another location.

For instance Maud Carter of 149 Grove Lane, Denmark Hill, had a vote in Arundell Street, where she had an office.

One of the effects of the First World War was to accelerate changes in electoral registration.

The life of the parliament ran out in December 1915 and an election would have to happen as soon as possible.

However, many of the men who qualified as householders with 12 months’ residency lost their place on the register of voters because they were fighting overseas or doing essential war work far from home.

An electoral register from 1899 listing women voters.


Unfair treatment

It was obviously iniquitous that the country should encourage people to leave their homes in the national interest then penalise them with the loss of civic rights for doing so.

This conversation within the Cabinet opened up the question of women’s suffrage again, particularly as so many women were also doing war work.

How could it be fair to deny them the vote when many men who had not volunteered to fight were enfranchised?

The Cabinet found the problem insoluble, so passed it over to an all-party conference.

They found a compromise via the local government electoral lists.

Women would be enfranchised who were local government electors, or who were both the wives of local government electors and aged over 30.

On 19 June 1917 the Commons approved women’s suffrage by 387 votes to 57.

This led to a female electorate of 8,479,000 – 40 per cent of the female population – compared with almost 13 million men.

In 1918 the Representation of the People Act introduced an annual electoral register – in some periods two registers were produced per year – although people sometimes avoided electoral registration in the hope of evading family commitments or the police.

The existence of the electoral register standardised the elections of parliament, borough councils, county councils, urban and rural district councils, boards of guardians, parish councils and metropolitan borough councils.

Although this list of authorities may be baffling, the point for family historians is that one standard franchise and therefore one list was established.

So from February 1918 there is only one search to do.


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