From Words to Deeds: how female suffrage has transformed policy in the UK

Women MPs Dr Edith Summerskill (Labour), Patricia Ford (Conservative), Barbara Castle (Labour) and Irene Ward (Conservative) campaigning for equal pay in 1954. Source: The Telegraph


100 years ago, in February 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed into legislation, giving (some) women the right to vote for the first time in British history. Although the act only applied to white propertied women over 30, and it took another 10 years before the policy of equal suffrage was conceded, it was a momentous milestone in the history of the women’s movement.

Many words have been written, spoken and tweeted on the symbolic nature of this anniversary, but there has been considerable inattention to the concrete advances in policymaking that were engendered by suffrage. All too often, ‘Votes for Women’ has been presented as an end rather than a beginning, a talismanic trophy to be venerated and sanitised rather than an organic stage in the messy process of women’s struggle to make their voices heard. Similarly, the radical nature of the demands of the suffragists and suffragettes [1] has been diluted by the willingness of public figures to appropriate the historical success of suffrage, whilst skimming over the substantive injustices that inspired it (notably class inequality). This dilution is encapsulated by the proposal for the suffragettes to be pardoned of their law-breaking activities. But as Caroline Criado-Perez puts it, ‘These radical women didn’t want a pardon. They didn’t want a pat on the head. They wanted equality’ [2]. That demand for equality is one that has had a huge impact on policy and on the lives of working women across the UK.


A suffragette demonstration by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) outside Queen’s Hall in London. Source: Evening Standard


The vote was sought by suffragists and suffragettes for both intrinsic and instrumental reasons. Of course, it was fundamental that women should be regarded as the political equals of men on the intrinsic grounds of principle and equality. But the urgency of the struggle was motivated by the fact that women were regular victims of abuse, discrimination and subordination. The vote was primarily seen as instrumental to legislation for equality, and to the transformation of women’s political rights. In the celebrated film Suffragette, Carey Mulligan’s character, a working-class woman who joins Emmeline Pankhurst’s militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), encapsulates the motivation behind the suffrage movement in a moment of poignancy and raw pragmatism: ‘We break windows, we burn things, because war is the only thing men listen to.’ Analogously, women voted and stood in parliament, not just for reasons of principle, but because political power was the only thing that men listened to.

The vote has done just that – it has made (predominantly male) politicians listen to women. In Hanna Pitkin (1967)’s seminal The Concept of Representation, she emphasises that the etymology of the word ‘representation’ – literally ‘making present again’ – is instructive to its meaning [3]. The vote was seen by suffrage leaders as the key to making women present again in a man’s world of politics. And the impact of that vote, through its pressure on the strategies of political parties, was to make women’s concerns present again – to represent them – in British policymaking. Since 1918, targeting the female electorate has been a prominent method in the bid for electoral relevance by the main parties. After the Labour landslide in 1945, the Conservatives made a strategic bid to woo women voters away from Labour. In 1949, the party published a Women’s Charter, and in the 1950 Conservative manifesto, they expressed commitment to implementing equal pay for women in the civil service. They pitched themselves especially towards housewives, many of whom had become disillusioned by the continuance of rationing and price controls under Labour. One of the Conservative pamphlets alleged that Labour ‘forgot to ask about Mum’ [4]. This political strategy proved fruitful when they were returned to power in 1951. Then, at the beginning of 1954, with the Conservatives having failed to follow through with equal pay, Labour committed to its immediate implementation if they won the next election. Within a couple of months, the Conservatives announced the immediate implementation of equal pay in the civil service. In this way, the power of women voters had a direct impact on policy formulation through the strategic competition of political parties.


A suffragette being detained in a 1910 march. At the time they were treated like common criminals not political prisoners. Source: The Times


Suffrage also led to representation in a more literal sense, with the gradual introduction of women MPs into the House of Commons. These women MPs have fought tirelessly to implement the policies that had been envisaged by the suffragists and suffragettes. In 1920, the first two women MPs (Nancy Astor and Margaret Wintringham) managed to pass legislation for the equal guardianship of children. In 1943, a cross-party coalition of women MPs pressured the wartime government into implementing equal compensation for men and women civilians who had been injured during the war. In 1945, Eleanor Rathbone MP’s continual lobbying for Family Allowances (payments to mothers to contribute to the costs of children) became a reality; today, her legacy continues in the form of Child Benefit. And in 1970, Barbara Castle – the first woman to become Secretary of State – legislated for the Equal Pay Act in response to the Dagenham machinists’ strike. These are just some of the many policy achievements that have been won by the pressure of women’s suffrage and women MPs: others include the legislation of abortion (1967), the establishment of SureStart centres under New Labour, the 2010 Equality Act, and the 2015 Modern Slavery Act.

It is easy to bask in nostalgic reflection on the symbolic significance of suffrage, but this must not eclipse an emphasis on its practical significance in producing policies to tackle gender inequality. The radical policy demands of the suffragists and suffragettes were just as, if not more, important than the symbolic power of the vote. Those demands should never be whitewashed by the loftiness of anniversaries and symbolism.

/1/ While the suffragists campaigned for the vote through constitutional methods and political lobbying, the suffragettes embarked on militant acts of civil disobedience to pressurize the government.

Mary Reader is a first year MPA student at LSE, originally from the UK. She received a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford. Prior to LSE she worked as a Researcher for Rachel Reeves MP for her book on women and parliament.



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