The British Representation of the People Act (1918)
“War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. … I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise” – The British Home Secretary, George Cave
Also known as the Fourth Reform Act, the Representation of the People Act of February 6, 1918 marked a radical change for British women. This act was the first to give all men over 21 years old the active and passive voting right, but only women over 30 who held £5 of property, or had husbands who did. It extended the franchise by 5.6 million men and 8.4 million women, and legislated a number of new practices in elections, including making residency in a specific constituency the basis of the right to vote.
The Fourth Reform Act was born out of necessity. On the one hand, World War I had so diminished the country’s eligible voting population that Parliament needed to pass a law that would bring the voting population back up to the normal amount while preserving the majority of male voters. On the other hand, the Act was a response to the British women’s suffrage movement, who had fought for equal suffrage since the mid-nineteenth century und demanded women’s right to vote after the end of the war as a recognition of the extensive female war support. As a solution the British government extended suffrage to all men over the age of 21 and in addition all men who had turned 19 during service associated with World War I. With this measure the promise of the old ideological link between the patriotic duty of military service and right of political citizenship rights, used to mobilize British men for war, since 1914 first as volunteers and since 1916 as conscripts, was realized, but only for men. Only women over the age of 30 who held £5 of property or had husbands who did this got the active and passive suffrage too. Their wartime service too was recognized as a service for the nation, but not the war work of the many young and single women who had supported the war with their war work and voluntary nursing. Two reasons were given, why women under 30 were still deprived of the right to vote: First and foremost, the political male elite worried that because of the “surplus of women” after the war, they would become the majority of all voters. In addition, they argued that young and single women were politically not informed and responsible enough to vote. The Act tripled the voting population yet maintained the male majority. After the act’s passage, women made up 43 percent of all voters in the United Kingdom.
This act was the first to grant national suffrage to a large group of women in the United Kingdom. After this Act gave about 8.4 million women the vote, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was passed in November 1918, allowing women to be elected to Parliament. Several women stood for election to the House of Commons in December 1918, but only one, the Sinn Féin candidate for Dublin St. Patrick’s, Constance Markievicz, was elected; however she followed her party’s abstentionist policy and did not take her seat at Westminster. 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 Sutton on 28 November 1919. As Members of Parliament, women also gained the right to become government ministers. The first women cabinet minister and Privy Council member was Margaret Bondfield who was Minister of Labour from 1929 to 1931. The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of July 2, 1928 finally expanded on the Representation of the People Act 1918 and gave the vote to all women over 21 years old, regardless of property ownership.
The topic of election laws is still very relevant today because contrary to the beliefs of those who take their right to vote for granted, not worldwide or even nationwide everybody has the right to vote or equal access to it. For example, convicted felons in the United States are disenfranchised even while on probation, rendering millions ineligible to vote each year. Voting on a workday and the reduction of early voting makes it harder for poor people to work. Around the world, many authoritarian countries too allow free elections at all.
Rachel Arenas, Exercise and Sport Science, Class of 2018
Literature and Websites
- “Representation of the People Acts.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Representation-of-the-People-Acts (Accessed, April 24, 2018)
- “Representation of the People Act 1918.” Wikipedia at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Representation_of_the_People_Act_1918 (Accessed, April 24, 2018)
- Blackburn, Robert. “Laying the Foundations of the Modern Voting System: The Representation of the People Act 1918.” Parliamentary History, 30, no.1 (2011): 33-52.