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THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY of victory for British suffragettes is celebrated in the February 2018 issue of BBC History, though the magazine notes that this victory was a nuanced one. To put the U.S. in perspective, the women’s vote came later, in 1920. Other countries already giving women the vote by then, in one sense or another, included Armenia, Australia, Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, the Soviet Union, and BBC History’s subject for this article, the United Kingdom.
At the other extreme among holdouts was Switzerland granting women’s suffrage in federal elections in 1971; one canton held out on local issues until 1991. Saudi Arabia granted female suffrage only three years ago; beginning in June 2018, women will be allowed to drive cars there too.
Here are some tidbits from BBC History’s “Votes for Women—100 Years” special section, February 2018.
When First Did Brit Women Have Voting Rights? Prior to 1832, some British women owning property had the vote in parliamentary elections. Then along came the 1832 Great Reform Act, an odd name indeed: It specified voting for male persons only.
From then on, it was slow going for Brit feminism. In 1857, women were granted the right to sue ex-husbands. In 1865, a Women’s Suffrage Committee was formed. By 1882, married women could have property of their own.
Why Suffrage in 1918? BBC History notes, “In 1916, it became clear that thousands of men who had volunteered to fight had lost the right to vote by default, since the law stated that those absent from their houses were to be disenfranchised.”
This led to the Brits’ 1918 Representation of People Act, its principal purpose to extend the vote to all men 21 and older, whether at home or not. Up until then, for one reason or another, 40 percent of men did not have the vote.
BBC History observes, in something of an afterthought, “… the government also decided to reward women for their vital war work by giving some of them the vote.”
Some? To vote, a woman had to be a householder, or wife of a householder, or an occupier of property with an annual rent of at least £5, or be a graduate of a British university—and be at least 30 years old.
BBC History notes, “The official reason that women had to wait nine years longer than men was that they were said to be too immature to vote. The truth was somewhat different: If enfranchised on equal terms with men, women would have outnumbered male voters in the electorate—a bewildering proposition to many people.”
Gad. We can’t have that, can we?
Reactions? “ ‘When we got the vote, it was a sort of an anti-climax actually,’ said suffragette Mary Philips, who had served five months in prison, during which she had been force-fed.”
Another suffragette confided, “I didn’t vote for a very long time because I hadn’t either a husband or furniture.”
Standing for Parliament. A separate enactment in 1918, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, allowed women to stand for membership in parliament. (Brits “stand” for political office, not our Yanks’ unruly “running.”)
The first woman to be elected was Constance Markiewicz, who represented Sinn Féin, the Irish left-wing movement. She won her Dublin constituency with 66 percent of the vote. At the time, according to BBC History, she had recently been reprieved from a death sentence and was in stir for her part in the 1916 Easter Uprising. When released, she followed Sinn Féin’s policy by refusing to serve.
Nancy Astor and Winston Churchill. On December 1, 1919, Lady Nancy Astor became the first female MP to serve in the House of Commons. Hardly a suffragette, she stood for the office when her husband quit the House of Commons to take his late father’s seat in the House of Lords.
Lady Nancy and Winston Churchill loathed each other, much to the retrospective amusement of us all. So one story goes: “Winston, if I were your wife I’d put poison in your tea.” “Nancy, if I were your husband I’d drink it.”
On firmer quotability, Churchill said, “I find a woman’s intrusion into the House of Commons as embarrassing as if she bursts into my bathroom when I had nothing with which to defend myself, not even a sponge.”
In time, he would have needed plenty of sponges. BBC History notes, “Twenty-four female MPs were elected to parliament in the general election of 1945, the year that Astor finally quit her seat. By 2017’s general election, that number had risen to 208.”
Thus, 32 percent of the 650 members in the British House of Commons are women. By contrast, the U.S. has 83 women among the 435 Congressional Representatives; 22 of its 100 Senators. This works out to 20 percent.
You vote, grrl! ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018