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The Representation of the People Act 1918 (also known as the Qualification of Women Act) was an Act of Parliament passed to reform the electoral system in the United Kingdommarker. It is sometimes known as the Fourth Reform Act. This act was the first to lead to an inclusion of women in the political system.

Background

Following the horrors of World War I, millions of returning soldiers were still not entitled to vote. This posed a dilemma for politicians since they could not withhold the vote from the very men who were considered to have fought to preserve the British political system. By 1884 and the passing of the Third Reform Act, although 60% of male householders over the age of 21 had the vote, still only a minority (10%) of men could actually vote due to property legislation. The issue of a female right to vote first gathered momentum during the early years of the 20th Century based on the work of liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill. The Suffragettes and Suffragists had pushed for their own right to be represented prior to World War I but very little was achieved before the war.

The issue was raised by Suffragist Millicent Fawcett at the Speaker's Conference in 1916. She called for the age for voting to be lowered to 18 overthrowing the male majority. She also suggested that, if this would not possible, then 30-35 year old women should be enfranchised.

Terms of the act

The Representation of the People Act 1918 widened suffrage by abolishing practically all property qualifications for men and by enfranchising women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications. The enfranchisement of this latter group was accepted as recognition of the contribution made by women defence workers. However, women were still not politically equal to men (who could vote from the age of 21); full electoral equality wouldn't occur until the Representation of the People Act 1928.

The terms of the act were:
  1. All adult males gain the vote, as long as they are over 21 years old and are resident householders
  2. Women over 30 years old receive the vote but they have to be either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register
  3. Women can enter parliament on an equal basis to men
  4. Some seats redistributed to industrial towns
  5. Elections to be held on a decided day each year


Political changes

The size of the electorate tripled from the 7.7 million who had been entitled to in 1912 to 21.4 million by the end of 1918. Women now accounted for about 43% of the electorate. It is worth noting that had women been enfranchised based upon the same requirements as men, they would have been in the majority, due to the loss of men in the war. This may explain why the age of 30 was settled on.

In addition to the suffrage changes, the Act also instituted the present system of holding general elections on one day, (as opposed to being staggered over a period of weeks), and brought in the annual electoral register.

Votes

The bill for the Representation of the People Act was passed by a majority of 385 to 55 in the House of Commonsmarker in March 1918. This success surprised by the Suffragettes and Suffragists but it still had to pass through the House of Lordsmarker, the aristocratic part of the government who had traditionally opposed reform if they were able to. The Lords also had a reputation of being anti-Female Suffrage and it was therefore doubtful they would pass the bill. Lord Curzon, the president of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage did not want to clash with the commons and so failed to oppose the bill. Many other members of the Lords lost heart when he refused to act as their spokesman. The bill passed by 134 to 71 votes.

Aftermath

The first election held under the new system was the 1918 general election. Polling took place on 14 December 1918, however the vote counting did not start until 28 December 1918. The Equal Suffrage Act passed ten years later by the Conservatives against very little pressure, giving females the same rights as men electorally.

Several women stood for election for a seat in the House of Commons in 1918. However, only one, the Sinn Féin (subsequently Fianna Fáil) candidate for the constituency of Dublin St. Patrick's, Constance Markiewicz, was elected although she chose not to take her seat at Westminstermarker and instead sat in Dáil Éireann (the First Dáil) in Dublinmarker.. The first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons was Nancy Astor on 1 December 1919 having been elected as a Coalition Conservative MP for Plymouth Suttonmarker on 28 November 1919.

There were serious limitations to this act that was meant to change the face of British democracy. The act still did not create a system of one person, one vote. 7% of the population enjoyed a plural vote in the 1918 election: mostly middle-class men who had an extra vote due to a university constituency (this act increased the university vote by creating the Combined English Universities seats) or a spreading of business into other constituencies. There was also a significant inequality between the voting rights of men and women. Women could only vote if they were over 30 and either a local government elector through property qualification, or married to a husband who was so enfranchised, or entitled to vote for a university constituency.

Historical assessment

According to Eric J. Evans, a renowned parliamentary historian, "Britain was jerked into democracy by the horrendous discontinuity of the First World War."

See also



References

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