It is one hundred years since Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act 1918, designed to reform the electoral system of the country. The Act gave the right to vote to all men over the age of 21, and also allowed women to vote for the first time. However, there was a caveat.
The right to vote was only given to women over the age of 30 years and who met a property qualification.
Nevertheless, the Act resulted in 8.4 million women being able to vote for the first time in the General Election of 14 December 1918, and was a significant victory for the numerous women’s suffrage societies that had been campaigning for the reform for the previous fifty years.
From their foundations in 1866, the various, and often locally-administered movements for women’s suffrage, were brought together under the single National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897, by Millicent Fawcett.
Millicent Fawcett was a pioneering feminist, intellectual and union leader.
Unlike later suffragettes, who believed in a more militant and confrontational approach to women’s suffrage, the NUWSS was a peaceful, non-combative organisation. Millicent Fawcett was always clear in the distinction that she was a suffragist, not a suffragette.
Parliament Square statue
24 April 2018 saw the unveiling of a bronze statue of Millicent Fawcett opposite to the Houses of Parliament. The statue was created by artist Gillian Wearing and represents the first statue of a woman in Parliament Square, joining statues of eleven men, including Nelson Mandela and Sir Winston Churchill.
Calls for the erection of a statue of a woman in Parliament Square have been voiced for many years. Suggestions of other candidates to be commemorated in this way have previously included Emmeline Pankhurst and Lady Thatcher.
The statue is seen holding a placard with the message “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere”: words that Millicent Fawcett wrote after the death of suffragette Emily Davison.
Gillian Wearing also becomes the first female artist whose work has been permanently represented in the Square.
Deeds Not Words
SOAS University of London is marking the centenary of the Representation of the People Act with an exhibition in the Wolfson Gallery entitled Deeds Not Words: Who Got the Vote in 1918? The exhibition recognises the limitations of the 1918 Act, and views the varying representations of women in the media at that time––as heroines; as war-economy workers; as trouble-makers––through the satirical lens of Punch cartoons.
The exhibition runs until 4 May.
Want to learn more?
- Take a look at the Gender in History module, available on the BA History programme at SOAS
- Find out more about postgraduate courses available from the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS
Find out more
- Discover the work of the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS
- Read Emma Crewe’s blog post about women in parliament
- Check out Vote 100 and join the discussion on Twitter by using the hashtag #vote100
What do you think?
Which woman would you like to see represented in Parliament Square? Let us know your suggestions and why.