“Their contribution during world war one was the main reason why the majority of women gained the right to vote in 1918” How valid is this view?
Before 1918, women were considered to be very much within their own sphere of influence separate from men. Throughout the 19th century women had slowly been gaining voting privileges, but only in areas considered to be within their spheres such as the vote for school boards, the vote for poor law boards and the vote for county councils. Traditionally many historians have argued that the main reason for the enfranchisement of women in 1918 was their work during world war one. This view is being disputed on multiple levels; some argue that the war itself called for a rearrangement of the whole electoral system.
Alternatively other historians argue that the work of the women’s suffrage workers such as the suffragist’s and the suffragettes, who campaigned for women’s rights throughout the 19th century, was the most significant factor in gaining the vote for women. Women’s contributions during world war one significantly contributed to the cause for the enfranchisement of women. During world war one, women occupied the jobs of the men fighting in the army. Women worked in positions such as public transport operators, such as bus and tram drivers, night wardens and munitions factory workers. Traditionally the view has been that this work during the war was the main cause for the enfranchisement of women, as stated by Asquith himself, however now this view is being disputed. Bartley argues against this due to the fact that in 1918, the vote was only awarded to wealthy women over the age of thirty, despite that it was primarily working class women who did these jobs during the war.
Additionally, Bartley argues that working class women had always filled these positions so a sudden recognition of this would be unlikely to be the reasoning behind awarding the vote to women. Bartley also argues that men resented women filling their positions whilst they were fighting overseas and they were quick to kick them out of these positions once they had returned. Rover argues that the work of women during the war was very significant but not in the areas Asquith was referring to. Rover argues that women’s work as nurses both on the front line and in hospitals working alongside the Red Cross, was the primary reason for the enfranchisement of women. She believes this because she believes it caused public opinion of women to change and caused a crossing over between the spheres of men and women.
Rover agrees with Bartley’s argument that working class women had always worked as public transport operators, in factories and as night wardens therefore this was not the cause for change. Marwick, however, agrees with the traditional view that women’s work as public transport operators and so forth gained women the vote. He argues that the war was in fact a catalyst in the enfranchisement of women and not only gained them the vote but allowed the social liberation of women, allowing them to wear shorter skirts, to smoke and to go to pubs. Pugh disputes this by arguing that the war delayed the enfranchisement of women as he argues that in 1914 Asquith was already being swayed by the suffrage workers campaigning and the meeting with the working class women on 14th August arranged my Sylvia Pankhurst.
Bartley argues that the enfranchisement of women in truth had little to do with women’s contributions to the workforce or the war effort during world war one. Instead she argues that it was the necessary rearrangement of the whole electoral system that was the cause. The electoral system was determined to be unfair due to the six month permanent residency clause that required a home owning man to have lived at his property for at least six months in order to be eligible to vote. This clause meant that young men who had been fighting overseas during the war for more than six months did not meet this requirement and were disenfranchised. This caused public outrage and was seen to be completely unacceptable that young men were deemed ineligible to vote for the government of the country they had risked their lives fighting to protect. Bartley argues that due to the unjustness of this, the whole electoral system had to be rethought and this included women’s rights. Although the war and women’s efforts during the war were a significant factor in gaining the vote for women, the campaigning of the suffragist’s has been argued to have been of more significance.
The National Union of women’s suffrage societies or the NUWSS aka the Suffragists was an association composed of mainly middle class women who were well educated and brought up believing in equal rights for women. The reason there were very few working class women in the NUWSS was because they were generally not supported by their husbands as working class men believed that women should remain below them and did not believe in equal rights. The leader of the NUWSS was Millicent Fawcett; a middle class woman, married to a lawyer and was brought up believing in equal rights. Millicent Fawcett and the NUWSS employed peaceful tactics such as holding peaceful protests in the form of marches and wrote newspaper articles in order to campaign for women’s rights. There has been much dispute as to whether the peaceful tactics of the suffragist workers had much effect in the campaign for the vote. However, Pugh argues that the achievements of the suffragist’s has been overlooked and that they did in fact achieve a considerable amount. In 1904 anti – suffragist MPs ignored the women’s vote bill by placing complete focus on the rear headlights bill. However, by 1908 pro suffragist MPs were in the majority and views towards women’s rights were changing.
This changing attitude towards women can be seen through the conciliation bills and primarily the first bill – The Parliamentary Franchise (women) bill 1910. This bill was a proposal to enfranchise one million wealthy women and it managed to pass its second reading in the commons with a majority of one hundred votes. Unfortunately for the suffrage campaign, Asquith, the leader of the liberal party, who was anti – suffrage, suspended parliament in order to call a general election which mean that the third reading of the bill never took place. This showed that there was much less widespread opposition towards women’s rights. The third and final proposal failed due to opposition from the pro suffrage MPs who rejected it because they felt that it wasn’t going far enough as it was only enfranchising wealthy women. Some liberal MPs rejected the bill because they believed that these wealthy women would vote conservative. The few Irish MPs rejected the bill in spite because they felt the question of Irish independence was being overlooked in favour of this. Holton argues that the political alliances being formed at this point before the outbreak of world war one by the democratic suffragist’s ensured that women would have to be included in any future reform bill.
Other historians argue that the suffragist’s peaceful tactics had little effect and that it was the more militant suffragette’s that brought about the enfranchisement of women. Due to the slow progress of the suffragist’s, a new group formed in 1903 out of this called the Women’s Social Political union or the WSPU aka the Suffragettes. The WSPU was led by Emiline Pankhurst, another middle class, very well educated women also married to a lawyer who supported equal rights. The WSPU employed non – peaceful tactics in order to accelerate the campaign for women’s rights. They used tactics such as blowing up post-boxes, which was a direct target to the King as it was the Royal Mail, they chained themselves to fences, they blew up stations, such as Leuchars, museums and churches. In 1914 Mary Richardson, an active member of the suffragettes, slashed the Velázquez painting as an act of protest against the exploitation of women. In 1913, Emily Davidson was killed when she threw herself under the King’s horse at a derby in order to gain attention for the women’s suffrage campaign.
In 1907 the suffragettes were split again into the Women’s Freedom League which meant that leadership was fragmented and the campaign was weakened. However, in 1909 the Woman’s Tax Resistance was formed by the suffragettes which worked to encourage women to avoid paying taxes. The suffragettes had set up a national support base for women which employed 75 paid workers and published its own newspaper with 20,000 copies being published per week. This was effective in gaining support for women, but this positive support has been argued to have been cancelled out by some of the movements carried out by the WSPU which were considered to be too violent. In order to tackle the extremity of the campaign tactics used, such as hunger strikes, the police would force feed the strikers.
This was a complete abuse of free will and was very painful and caused the deaths of some strikers. Pugh argues that the militant acts of the suffragettes did more harm than good in the enfranchisement of women, however other historians have argued that the extreme acts of the suffragettes brought women’s rights to the forefront of Britain and gained mass publicity. Alternatively, historians argue that the work of Sylvia Pankhurst, who was made to leave the WSPU due to her work with working class women was fairly significant in gaining the vote for women. Sylvia worked with the East London Federation of WSPU and had close association with the Labour Party rather than the Liberals as both the suffragettes and the suffragist’s had traditionally supported.
Sylvia not only campaigned for the vote for women, but also for wider women’s welfare such as the right to abortion. Sylvia is most recognised for her organising of the meeting between the working class women and Asquith which has been argued to have been one of the contributing factors towards the cause for women’s enfranchisement. In conclusion, the war, not solely women’s contributions towards the workforce and the war effort, was the main reason to why women gained the vote in 1918. However, the campaigning of the suffragists and the suffragettes were certainly significant in the cause for the enfranchisement of women as they began the fight for the vote but unfortunately became less significant by the beginning of world war one.