The Representation of Women Act is a complicated issue. On the one hand, 100 years ago women were recognised as important members of society for their hard work in the First World War and their bravery when campaigning for the vote. On the other hand, that vote only included 40 percent of the total population of women in the UK.
Before celebrating the centenary of female suffrage, it is vital to remember the act was still incredibly limited in its success, and highlighted the great divides still present in society. Under the Act, women over the age of 30 who either owned land themselves or were married to men with property were given the right to vote. The same act dropped the voting age for men from 30 to 21. It is clear to see that although attitudes changed, politicians wanted to hear from women who could be influenced by their husbands, and there was still a long way to go with regards to suffrage for all.
However, any milestone on the way to achieving equality for women should be celebrated and the law that provided great strides for women in England in February 1918 still rests as a great achievement. There was tremendous recognition of women and their contributions to society that was largely influenced by the actions of the Suffragettes, although those efforts led to the arrest of over 1,000 protesters between 1906 and 1914. Since being rightfully pardoned by society, a debate sparked amongst politicians as to whether overturning criminal records is the correct action to take, as some think it could diminish the significance of laws being broken in order to gain suffrage. Though however progressive it was back then, it still failed to benefit the remaining sixty per cent of women who were still hinged to a sexist society.
In this centenary, it is likely that there will be only one group recognised for their efforts – the Suffragettes. But there was another group around long before them who are often overlooked – the Suffragists. Starting in 1857, the group grew to 50,000 members of mostly working-class background, and men were allowed to join this movement. Millicent Garrett Fawcett strongly believed that non-violent means of campaigning would lead to the worthy societal and political change. After six years with little progress, women such as Emmeline Pankhurst felt it was time for direct action and so the new label “Suffragette” was born. With one influencing the other, it has lead to recent debate over who really gained women the vote.
Despite the impact that these women had on society, even today, 100 years later, the sexist society that limited the vote for some women remains. What is being done about the pay gap? Why is women’s representation in parliament only 32 percent? Why has funding been cut for victims of domestic violence? What is being done about harassment in Westminster? The questions extend further.
It is easy for this event to be viewed through rose-tinted glasses, having us recognise a proud history of Britain as one of progressiveness, reform and equality. But it wasn’t until 1928, under the Equal Franchise Act, women in the UK were granted equal voting rights, increasing the eligible female voters from 8 million to 15 million, and Britain was still massively delayed in granting female suffrage, as New Zealand was the first country to grant women the vote, passing legislation in 1893. Even today, although there are more female members of parliament able to cast their ballots, they still remain a minority. Political change is important but it isn’t enough on its own. More needs to be done to achieve total equality.