‘Neither fair, nor desirable, nor wise’: the Representation of the People Bill

A century ago, on 19 June 1917, the House of Commons voted in favour of votes for women during committee stage of the Representation of the People Bill.  

Guest post with timeline by Grace Bell 

Countless pieces of legislation have passed through the Houses of Parliament since its existence making it easy to overlook numerous Acts – even those which greatly altered society. The Vote 100 Project is aiming to ensure our memory of significant legislation relating to votes for women are not forgotten. This blog post highlights research plotting the passage of the Representation of the People Bill, with the dates of readings and committee sittings documented in the timeline below, with links to Historic Hansard where available. This enables a greater understanding of how the Representation of the People Act was passed, and the obstacles it faced in doing so.

Nearly one hundred years ago a landmark piece of legislation was passed by the Houses of Parliament, granting the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification, as well as entitling all men over the age of 21 the ability to vote. This Act of Parliament was known as the Representation of the People Act 1918.

Representation of the People Act 1918.
Representation of the People Act 1918. Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1918/7&8G5c64

It began with a cross-party conference which was held from late 1916 to early 1917 to discuss and agree electoral reform. Interest in electoral reform during the war years came from MP’s who championed the rights of men in military-useful industries who MP’s believed should have the right to vote. Alongside this, the case for the female vote had gained strength due to the contribution of women in the war effort. At the conference women’s suffrage was seen as one of the more controversial issues . This led the Speaker of the House of Commons, James W. Lowther, to strategically approach the topic after gaining consensus on the less controversial issues.

The Bill itself was introduced into the House of Commons in May 1917, and by June the House had resolved itself into a Committee. On 19th June 1917 Clause 4 of the Representation of the People Bill was debated. This Clause dealt with franchises, with particular regards to women. It was outlined that there were four main amendments to be discussed, with additional minor ones. The main amendments focused on leaving out sub-sections which focused on the specifications of how a woman could qualify for the vote; that men and women should be registered to vote on the same terms; substituting the age of a woman to vote; and leaving out qualifications for married woman based on their husbands merits. Politicians debated to and fro every possible argument they had in favour of women’s suffrage, and against it, with Sir Frederick Banbury quoting Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith from 1912:

I oppose this on the broad and simple grounds that, in my opinion, as a student of history and of our own public life, experience shows that the natural distinction of sex which admittedly differentiates the functions of men and women in many departments of human activity ought to be recognised, as it always has been recognised, in the sphere of Parliamentary representation.”

With this, Banbury could not agree more.

Representation of the People Act 1918 [open to show section 4 on women voting].
Representation of the People Act 1918 [open to show section 4 on women voting]. Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1918/7&8G5c64
The Bill continued to be debated in the House of Commons until early July. By December 1917 the Bill had been passed to the House of Lords who spent the majority of January 1918 in Committee debating on numerous Clauses of the Bill. One member of the House of Lords at this time was Earl Curzon of Kedleston – President of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. Throughout the parliamentary process in passing legislation, Curzon made his viewpoint regarding woman suffrage overtly, and frequently, known. A particular example came on 10th January 1918 when the House of Lords was in Committee. Here, Curzon states:

“I personally remain unconvinced that it is either fair, or desirable, or wise, in the manner that is proposed, to add 6,000,000 female voters to the electorate of this country.”

However, Curzon did not want to create tension between the House of Lords and the House of Commons and so did not oppose the Bill.

On 6th February 1918, Royal Assent was granted to the Representation of the People Bill, making it an Act of Parliament. During proceedings in Parliament as both Houses battled over the Representation of the People Bill, many numerical figures were spoken of with regards to how many females would be enabled to vote on the passing of the Bill. The majority of politicians thought that 6 million women would have been granted the right to vote. What they did not expect was that 8.4 million women would be allowed the right to vote, making up 43% of the electorate in 1918. Yet women still did not have equal enfranchisement in the electorate system. This was to happen a decade later.

Timeline of the Representation of the People Bill [with links to Hansard online where available]

Commission giving Royal Assent to the Representation of the People Act 1918.
Commission giving Royal Assent to the Representation of the People Act 1918. Page showing King’s signature. Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/10/619/863
Commission giving Royal Assent to the Representation of the People Act 1918. Page showing the title of the Act and the Royal seal. Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/10/619/863

 

 

 

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