Female MPs and members of the House of Lords gathered in Britain’s Houses of Parliament, in the Palace of Westminster on Tuesday to celebrate 100 years since women secured the vote. Theresa May and more than 100 of her law-making colleagues posed alongside the original copy of the Representation of the People Act, which was passed in February 1918.
Mrs. May, Britain’s second female Prime Minister, posed alongside several female cabinet ministers, including Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt. Harriet Harman, who has twice been interim leader of the opposition Labour party, stood alongside May. Angela Eagle, who campaigned to become Labour leader instead of incumbent Jeremy Corbyn, also posed for the photo. Other notable faces include former cabinet ministers Priti Patel, Justine Greening, and Nicky Morgan, former minister Margaret Hodge and Labour MP Jess Philips, a prominent backbencher.
Women’s suffrage (also known as female suffrage, woman suffrage or women’s right to vote) is the right of women to vote in elections; a person who advocates the extension of suffrage, particularly to women, is called a suffragist.
One hundred years ago, eight million British women secured the right to vote after a long struggle by the Suffragette movement. Women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom was a movement to fight for women’s right to vote. It finally succeeded through two laws in 1918 and 1928 when it became a national movement in the Victorian era.
It formally granted women the ability to participate in UK democracy for the first time, though only to those who were aged 30 or over, and who met minimum property qualifications. The law also extended the franchise to millions of poorer men who had previously been excluded. Voting ages would remain unequal until 1928.
The lawmakers assembled were a fraction of the total number of women in political office at Westminster. Currently, 208 of 650 MPs in the House of Commons are women, and, by coincidence, also 208 women in the House of Lords. There are 793 members of both houses in total.
Women were not explicitly banned from voting in Great Britain until the 1832 Reform Act and the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act. In 1872 the fight for women’s suffrage became a national movement with the formation of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage and later the more influential National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).
As well as in England, women’s suffrage movements in Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom gained momentum. The movements shifted sentiments in favour of woman suffrage by 1906. It was at this point that the militant campaign began with the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
It was not until a decade later that universal suffrage was introduced, but the 1918 Representation of the People Bill was still a major step forward that put the country ahead of other nations, such as France. However, Britain was not the first to make that step.
The Pacific island nation, then a self-governing colony of the British Empire, was the first country to allow all women to vote in parliamentary elections. Women were not allowed to stand in the elections until 1919.
New Zealand elected its first female Prime Minister last year.
Australia (1902): The Australian Constitution extended voting rights to non-Aboriginal women across the country. Women in Southern and Western Australia had been able to vote in federal elections since the previous year. However, Aboriginal women and men were barred from voting in national elections until 1962.
Finland (1906): The Nordic state, then part of Russia, blazed a trail for gender equality by becoming the first in the world to five women unrestricted rights to both vote and stand in parliamentary elections. Nineteen women became MPs in elections the next year.
Norway (1913): Middle-class women had won the right to vote in parliamentary elections in 1907. Six years later a motion to introduce universal suffrage was passed unanimously by MPs.
Denmark (1915): Danish women won the right to vote in parliamentary elections following decades of increasingly disruptive campaigning. Suffrage was extended at the same time to women in Iceland, which was then part of the Kingdom of Denmark.
Russia (1917): The government gave women the right to vote following months of suffragist rallies, including a 40,000-person march on the Tauride Palace.
The 1918 bill was a triumph of the female suffrage movement, which spent decades campaigning for women to be granted the vote. Towards the end of the campaign, the suffragette movement adopted more militant tactics, including throwing bricks through windows and setting fire to buildings.
Some leading campaigners were imprisoned, including suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst. Today groups including the Labour party argue that women imprisoned in the course of campaigning for the vote should be granted posthumous pardons.
Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, told Cosmopolitan.com/UK: “Although there is much to celebrate on the anniversary of partial women’s suffrage in the UK, we must remember that appallingly some women around the world still don’t have equal access to voting and political participation. To prevent half the population from accessing this right is to label them second-class citizens.
“Discrimination against women, stigma, a lack of education and financial inequality all act as barriers that can silence women from public life. These barriers must be broken down and women’s voices must be listened to if we are to build a more equal and fair world for all. Even though most countries today claim equal voting systems for men and women in law, the reality is often extremely different.”
To think a significant breakthrough in equality happened over 100 years ago, we still have a long way to go in the fight for political gender equality worldwide. But in the meantime, we celebrate this ground-breaking milestone and the women who made a way by standing their ground.
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