Ahead of celebrations to mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, passed on 6 February 1918, giving some women the right to vote in the UK for the first time, we’ve asked women at the Commission to share their thoughts on the anniversary.
Bridget Prentice, Commissioner
It was 1969 and I was studying Higher History at my all-girls school in the East End of Glasgow. We talked of nothing else (causes of the First World War, social reform of the 19th century etc all went out the window) as we debated the news that 18 year olds were to get the vote the following year.
What would it be like? How did you do it? What actually happens inside a polling station? How will they know I’m entitled to a vote? All these questions and more passed back and fro in lessons and the playground. We were very excited. There was some debate about whether we were ‘mature’ enough to vote but that was quickly dismissed. Of course we were – we were the children of the sixties, Peace and Love, the generation that would change the world.
So when the general election was called in June 1970, there was no question but that every single one of us who was 18 voted. But not me.
No, I didn’t turn 18 until the very end of December that year so I was left behind. At least that’s how I felt. I was so disappointed. I had even worked in the election campaign, delivering leaflets but couldn’t vote. The frustration was palpable. In fact, I wasn’t able to vote until I was 21 as the next election was in 1974! I’d finished university before I was able to walk into a Polling Station and put a cross against the candidate of my choice. But how much did I enjoy doing that? The feeling that I was part of a greater community of people deciding who should run our country was fizzing inside me – I could barely contain my excitement. And aura of the Polling Station with being handed a ballot paper that was carefully stamped, walking to a rickety booth and picking up that stubby pencil, tied to the side of the rickety booth and checking twice, maybe three times, that I’d put the cross where I wanted it to be, lives with me still.
So the celebration of women’s suffrage is so important – to remind us of the power of democracy, that it was fought for, that there are nations still where people don’t have that power. There are two images that conjure up the importance of our vote – South Africa, when Black people queued for hours in searing heat to vote for the first time and in Iraq when women came out of the Polling Station with their fingers stained purple and held high to show that they too had a share in the decision making of their country. Democracy is a fragile thing. We need to nurture it. Our vote is a symbol of that nurturing.
Elan Closs Stephens, Commissioner for Wales
In 1918, over 8m women gained the right to vote – those over 30 or who met property qualifications. In another ten years, all women had the franchise. As I celebrate this notable year in the women’s movement, I pause to think of the courage it took to win those rights. For the suffragettes, the suffering was real and sometimes horrific. Emily Davison, later to die under the King’s horse at The Derby, barricaded herself in her cell and was hosed. Warders had to revive her with hot water bottles before she could be force-fed. Force-feeding was a regular answer to hunger strikes; given the medical supplies and tubing of the time, it must have been brutally painful. Other suffragists believed in discussion, argument, petitions. For them too, it took huge courage to raise a voice, to step out of the demure respectability required of a wife and mother, to demand rights. I want to honour Millicent Fawcett who led the NUWSS; her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson- the first qualified woman physician who nevertheless had to gain her degree from the Sorbonne; Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia; Emily Davison; Emily Davies who became the founder of Girton and fought for Higher Education, and in Wales business woman Lady Rhondda who was refused a seat in the House of Lords when her father died. And of course the countless other names, men and women, who fought for change. It is almost impossible for me to recreate the social milieu, the restrictions of a bygone age and the courage it took to fight convention and gain a vital tool of equality. I owe them all more than I can fully understand.
Ailsa Irvine, Director of Electoral Administration
I voted for the first time at the inaugural Scottish Parliament elections which were held on the same day as the local council elections in May 1999. While I wasn’t really into politics back then, there was never any question in my mind as to whether or not to vote – for me, voting is a fundamental right that many women before me didn’t have and I have always believed it is important to exercise that right. I recall voting by post from university in my home constituency. The postal voting rules were different then and you needed to get someone to witness your signature on your security statement – I remember feeling important when I asked a friend to do this and it somehow seemed to me to underline the significance of it all. I passionately believe that every woman who is eligible to vote should be able to exercise that right freely and easily. I hope that the centenary will lead to women across the UK making sure they are registered to vote so they can make their voice heard.
Ann Watt, Head of Northern Ireland
My young son has a surprising knowledge about elections for a seven year old, but that’s because he spends a lot of time with me! But one thing I recently realised is that I have never told him that 100 years ago his mum, grannies and aunties wouldn’t have been allowed to vote. I think the reason I have never mentioned this is that it is so completely unbelievable now that it doesn’t seem relevant. He sees women standing for election on posters, leaflets and on the TV. There are women in senior roles in politics and government right across the UK. The thought of women not even being able to vote sounds like another world.
I first voted in 1992 during my last year at school in Belfast. This was the UK general election where the opinion polls suggested a huge Parliament with Labour as the largest party, but the Conservatives ended up winning with a small majority. I remember voting early in the morning, and walking into the polling station just as a very prominent local politician walked out, which made it all feel very real. We had endless heated debates at school about local and national politics. My sister and I stayed up all night watching the results, and from the exit polls onwards it was clear that the outcome wasn’t going to turn out as expected. That was the first of many long elections nights I have spent watching results on TV, and the first of a few surprising outcomes. Little did I know then that 25 years later I’d be spending election nights pacing around count halls…
So I’ll be talking to my son soon about this important anniversary. I look forward to hearing his reaction when he hears that women were not allowed to vote. I hope he is shocked, since it’s so hard to believe now. It’s right that he is shocked. But it’s also right that we remember and value the privilege we all have, both female and male, in being entitled to vote freely in fair elections.
We’re encouraging women across the UK to celebrate using their right on 6th February by posting pictures on social media of them saying ‘I vote’ with our printable poster. Download the poster from our website here: www.yourvotematters.co.uk/get-involved/centenary-of-womens-suffrage