On 6 February this year we celebrated the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, giving some women - who were now finally classed as 'people' - a voice in Parliament. They were not able to use that voice, however, until election day on 14 December 1918. Here's an extract from Hearts and Minds explaining what happened that chilly Saturday exactly 100 years ago...
Contrary to popular expectation, the turn-out among women was high (although the overall figure for the election was only 57.2%). In many constituencies a woman was the first person to cast her vote in the morning, with some ceremony, and there were more women than men throughout the day. A Daily Mirror journalist estimated that 70% of electors in London were women; it was 75% in Chelmsford and 80% in Leicester. Emily Phipps had the bright idea of running a crèche for those mothers forced to bring their children to the polling station; at one stage in Stourbridge, a supporter of candidate Miss Macarthur who had rashly offered to mind voters’ children ended up with 60 babies in her care. Dozens of women in Hull queued up before the station opened its doors in the morning. In Caernarvonshire the polling clerks (who could now be women) were forced to think laterally and commandeer some oil drums to be used as ballot boxes when the ones provided filled up; when the same problem arose in Dundee, they turned to empty shell cases from a local munitions factory.
Only the most confident of women turned up alone. Many came with their husbands or in groups of friends, giving each other courage. Those who had voted already offered to accompany anyone unsure, to show them what to do. ‘‘Don’t be frightened,’ said a Battersea housewife to an obviously nervous friend she met at the Polling Station. ‘I’ve just voted and it’s the easiest work I’ve done for many a day.’’ When a splendid motor-car drew up outside the station in Rotherhithe, onlookers were astonished to see four venerable old ladies disembark and disappear inside to cast their votes. The youngest of them was 85; the others were 86, 90 and 94. Emily Davies voted, naturally: she was one of the few to do so who had signed John Stuart Mill’s 1866 Petition. So did Annie Ramsay, the ‘old lady’ of the Land’s End Pilgrimage: she was so delighted by the opportunity that she almost skipped to the ballot box. The oldest woman on the electoral register was Mrs ‘Granny’ Lambert of Edmonton, north London, at 105. Come 14 December, however, she claimed to be feeling ‘too tired’ to walk to the Polling Station. She had never heard of Mr Lloyd George, she said; if she had chosen to vote (and it was gratifying to have that choice) she would have gone for anyone who promised to have ‘that beast of a Kaiser shot.’
Like Granny Lambert, some people declined their right to vote. One rather snooty lady was overheard telling a neighbour that she would not be going to the Polling Station because she wished to remain respectable. The implication was – as it had ever been – that active participation in politics was unfeminine and vulgar. One assumes that members of the Anti-Suffrage League also abstained. Someone called Margaret Willoughby, writing for the Daily Mirror, explained why. ‘We love to be bossed,’ she confessed coquettishly, ‘but not by our own sex… You’ll never get us women interested in political affairs as a live, red-hot issue. We’re more interested in sleeves and hat-shapes.’ How depressing. The last ever issue of the Anti-Suffrage Review, published in April 1918, was considerably less chirpy. ‘The Cause has been lost. Sentimentality won the day… We have drifted into Women’s Suffrage as we drifted into war, because no-one had the courage to cry ‘Halt!’’ A lady in Gloucester said she had never wanted the vote. ‘I didn’t ask for it and I shall not use it.’ The Suffrage Societies, together with the Mothers’ Union, Women’s Institute and other groups, held meetings before the election to try to combat this mixture of apprehension and apathy, and were largely successful.
The Press could not resist sharing with its readers some of the day’s light-hearted moments. Several virgin electors, on being asked by the polling-clerks to confirm their addresses, loudly announced the name of the person for whom they wished to vote. Some boasted that they were not going to vote for the same person as their husbands. At Bristol, a group of nurses arrived and refused to believe that they were not eligible. They hadn’t realised that they could only vote if their names were entered on the electoral register, and theirs were unlikely to be there as they neither owned their own homes – or furniture – nor, in most cases, were they old enough. Factory workers turned up in their thousands, however, either early in the morning before their shift began, or in the rainy twilight when in parts of Lancashire they voted by candlelight because the gas-workers were on strike.
One lady carefully filled in her ballot form, then folded it up, popped it in her handbag, and left, quite satisfied. Another posted her paper in the ballot box and then asked where she collected her fee for doing so. Others told husbands or clerks their choice of candidate before enquiring doubtfully whether that was the ‘right’ person to have gone for. It tickled journalists that most women appeared to have taken this momentous step in their capable stride, turning up in numbers, casting their votes (parking the children/dog/shopping bags somewhere while they did so) and then leaving to carry on the business of the day ‘smilingly and with a subdued air or triumph.’
Happy birthday, votes for women.