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British women would have waited far longer for the vote without World War I

Millicent Fawcett speaking in 1913. PA/PA Archive

At the outbreak of World War I, British women had tried and failed to push through suffrage legislation almost 20 times. Women had been utterly excluded from all the major reform bills of the Victorian era, and frustration had mounted to the point where Emmeline Pankhurst and her supporters adopted a militant campaign that got more and more violent in the years before the war.

Drawing on tactics demonstrated by Russian anarchists, the WSPU (known as the suffragettes) vandalised shops, slashed paintings, and burned abandoned buildings in an attempt to gain public attention and force the government to sponsor suffrage legislation. This militant group only made up a small part of the movement as a whole, which was generally avowedly pacifist. The largest women’s suffrage organisation, the NUWSS, was led by Millicent Fawcett and had more than 53,000 members by 1914.

Despite these differences, the two groups were unanimous in their response to the outbreak of war. They considered that nations’ reliance on war was due to women’s exclusion from full citizenship. So on the day Britain declared war on Germany, Emmeline’s daughter Christabel was in her Parisian flat avoiding arrest and penning a scathing denunciation of the European War. As Christabel wrote her anti-war diatribe in Paris, Millicent Fawcett was speaking at an anti-war meeting in London, urging suffragists to support an “honourable peace”.

But the pacifist principles of both Britain’s largest suffrage organisation and its most flamboyant were to be swept away by the drama of the war.

Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst with other WSPU leaders in 1908. PA Archive

Within weeks, the WSPU declared a “truce” with the government. Hunger-striking suffragettes were released from Holloway Prison, where they were being force-fed by doctors intent upon preventing suffrage martyrdom. The NUWSS also changed its tune. Fawcett famously declared: “Let us show ourselves worthy of citizenship whether our claim to it be recognised or not.”

This “truce” with the government has often been characterised as a “suspension” of suffrage activity for the duration of the war. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The women were aware that vocal patriotism would only help their cause. Within weeks of the declaration of war, Christabel had returned from hiding in Paris and was giving scathing anti-German speeches in venues ranging from the London Opera House to Carnegie Hall. These speeches were notable for their strident nationalism. And Emmeline Pankhurst was appearing at recruiting rallies, while her deputies organised a vast campaign demanding war work for women.

Soon the WSPU paper, The Suffragette, emerged as a new pro-war feminist organ called Britannia and claimed to represent the nearly 1m women who had gone into munitions factories by the end of 1916. Meanwhile, the NUWSS funded and staffed women’s field hospitals and ambulance units, made comforts for the soldiers, and purged its ranks of those pacifist members audacious enough to support an International Women’s Peace Conference in The Hague. But at no time during the war did either group abandon their claim to full citizenship.

During the war, anti-suffrage arguments that suggested women were unfit for the vote because they were not fighting came to the fore. This so-called “physical-force” argument rested on the idea that laws passed by parliament were enforced by police presence and military threat. Should those laws be violated, it would fall upon men alone to see that they were upheld. And so women remained soundly barred from the parliamentary vote.

Christabel Pankhurst at a mock-up vote, 1909. PA/PA Archive

But the issue of suffrage reform came roaring back onto the national agenda in 1916, not concerning women, but men. Outraged legislators noted that enfranchised men were losing their votes when they went to war. This was because of a series of registration restrictions that barred 40% of the eligible male population from actually voting. The most potent of these restrictions was one requiring continuous residency at a single address. This catch not only prevented transient workers from voting, but accidentally disenfranchised men moving into military barracks or to distant munitions centres.

The issue of soldiers’ disenfranchisement prompted Conservative lawyer Sir Edward Carson to demand a “soldiers vote”. Little did he imagine that he would open the way for women’s suffrage. In the parliamentary wrangling over new voting laws, women’s heroic war work, their loyal sacrifice of sons, and the patriotic service of suffrage organisations would be evoked again and again by male legislators explaining their “conversion” to the cause of women’s suffrage.

Female patriotism was key to securing the vote. Since rising casualties caused women to outnumber men, legislators restricted the female franchise to women of property over the age of 30. Despite this restriction, the principle of allowing women to vote was won during the franchise debates that raged in 1916 and 1917.

The same bill that granted the vote to women disenfranchised conscientious objectors and enfranchised under-aged soldiers who had seen action at the front. The Representation of the People Act (1918) enshrined the idea that citizenship should be conferred upon those who served their country. And as both the suffragists and the suffragettes went to great lengths to show, women had undeniably done just that.

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