This lecture was given by Dr Richard Wood; Historian and retired Mechanical Engineer.
Dr Wood chartered the history of the involvement of women in politics from female members of the Levellers during the English Civil War to the first women members of Parliament. Whilst only three per cent of men were enfranchised in the 17th and 18th centuries, women like the Duchess of Devonshire supported male candidates in the 1784 election.
Reformers were such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine called for one man, one vote and by 1819 there were demands for universal suffrage and annual Parliaments. In 1825 some 12000 women demonstrated at Peterloo and a few were massacred. The Chartists who were active in the 1840s demanded universal suffrage initially but later decided in favour of votes for men only.
Women had no legal existence and were treated no better than a dog or a horse. By 1867 women’s suffrage societies were forming in major cities such as London, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Newport and Cardiff. Acts of Parliament such as the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 and the Local Government Act of 1884 improved women’s rights. The latter Act allowed women to sit on School Boards, District and Parish councils and to become Poor Law Guardians.
Prominent women became involved in the Suffragist (those who decried violence)and Suffragette movements. Millicent Fawcett, Emily Pankhurst, Lady Rhondda, Vera Brittain and many others fought for women’s rights. The contribution of women during the First World War could not be ignored and led to The Representation of The People Act in 1918.
The Act enfranchised men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30. This arrangement ensured men would not be outvoted as there were one and a half more women alive in Britain at this date. In 1918 an Irish Nationalist, Countess Markievicz was elected to Westminster but did not take her seat. An American Lady Astor was the first woman to do so in 1919.