January is a time for looking forward to the new year ahead. It is also a time for reflection to the year that has passed. For me, 2018 proved interesting for many reasons, not least for being the hundredth anniversary of some women gaining the voting franchise in the UK—through the passage of the Representation of the People’s Act 1918. Numerous events and celebrations were held throughout the year to mark this momentous shift for women. The centenary brought to light again the whole issue of women’s rights to equality and the forward moves that have been made in the UK since 1918.
Having grown up experiencing the hippy seventies, and having worked all my adult life in a professional capacity alongside other women, it is hard to believe that just over fifty years before this time, women had few rights at all. On a personal note, I realised that my knowledge of the events leading to this shift was not as sound as I had thought and, through reports, reading and watching staged events, I learned a lot more about the battle that had taken place prior to 1918 to gain such rights for all women.
Gone for me was the Mary Poppins popular image—taught in school—of wealthy women fighting for the vote for all women. In its place is the knowledge that many people, including working-class women, were involved in the fight for women’s suffrage. However, unlike those who were better off than them, the names of these working women have remained relatively unknown or forgotten.
Many who campaigned for women’s suffrage also wanted to change long-held views about women’s inequality with men. In trying to achieve this, some women (and men) endured great personal sacrifice. Many lost their jobs, homes, families, and some even lost their lives. In the end, the right to vote in1918 was extended only to women over thirty who met set property or educational requirements. While this was a major step forward, a number of women were still not able to vote in Parliamentary elections in the UK.
The victory for these women of means who could now vote must have tasted bitter-sweet to the many working-class and younger women who had actively contributed to the wider suffrage cause but who were now left excluded by this Act. Although a huge battle had been won for women, for some women the fight for the right to vote on the same basis as men—over twenty-one and regardless of property ownership or rental—would continue for another ten years, mainly through the growing trade union movement.
But, another move had started to take place, as many young women took matters into their own hands during the 1920s and the flappers emerged. Being a flapper wasn’t all about dressing up in risqué clothes and makeup and having outrageous fun; it was about rebelling. These young women threw aside the social and political mores placed on women at this time, including gender barriers, and started to live life to the full. They wore short dresses and bright lipstick, cut their hair, smoked, drunk alcohol, listened to jazz, behaved much as young men did and flaunted what was then considered to be acceptable behaviour for women. Despite being denied the right to vote in Parliamentary elections, these new-style, independent women embraced a lifestyle which was viewed by many at the time as ‘simply outrageous’.
A number of factors had led to this change in behaviour among young women—apart from being denied the right to vote. Many men didn’t return from World War I, which meant that there were more women than men about—leaving young women without enough potential husbands. Instead of staying at home, preparing for marriage and children, many young women now began to go out and spent their time enjoying their new found freedom—including their sexual freedom. In the post-war period, many young women worked in offices, shops and in the leisure industry, and experienced a financial independence previously denied to women. They cut their long hair to below shoulder length, raised the hemline of their dresses and the height of their heels and started to make their own decisions about how they would lead their lives—which mainly entailed pleasing themselves, not men.
Actresses from the ‘big screen’, playing in movies which were ‘all the rage’, popularised the image of the fun-loving independent flapper. Owning and driving a car also gave these women the freedom to go out where they wanted, and the privacy to do just as they pleased. Post-war prosperity had led to increased leisure time and the means and facilities for women to spend their free time drinking, dancing, and socialising with other young people. And, just like men did, smoking, drinking, and sexual experimentation became part of the lifestyle of the modern young woman.
So, during what became known as the ‘Roaring Twenties’, many young women broke from convention, and the restrictive lifestyle imposed on them during the Victorian era, and embraced their new-found freedom. Rather than waiting for eligible men to approach them, they started ‘dating.’ Their modern outlook, engagement in paid employment, and ‘fun’ lifestyle must have felt liberating for these young women and couldn’t have been more different from the life their mothers and grandmothers led.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, leading to a global recession, young women were forced to change their liberated lifestyle, and the ‘flapper’ disappeared along with their ‘outrageous’ way of life. Although it would be the 1960s before such a radical change in dress and behaviour would shock people again, much of the freedom gained by women in the 1920s remained. Although women once again returned to fulfilling societal expectations of marriage and raising children, their hemlines remained raised, and women have been smoking, drinking, dating and driving ever since.
After 1918, some women’s suffrage groups continued to fight for the vote for all women on the same grounds as men — but this was now mainly carried out within the trade union movement. Finally, on the 7th of May 1928, the Representation of the People Act was passed lowering the voting age for women from thirty to twenty-one and removing the property qualification. From the 2nd of July, women had equal status with men to vote in Parliamentary elections. All women over the age of twenty-one were able to vote in the 1929 general election which was held on Thursday the 30th of May. There was a 76% turnout, and 52% of the names on the electoral register were women.
During the 2018 centenary celebrations, less attention was given to the role that working-class women played in women’s suffrage compared to those from the upper classes. In 2017, a magazine article published online by Laura Linham, a reporter with Somerset Live, caught the attention of the One Million Project—a group of authors, artists and musicians who donate some of their work and time to help raise one million for homelessness and Cancer Research UK.
Laura Linham had re-reported the case of Frances Connelly, a working-class woman from Yeovil in Somerset, England, who had voted in a Parliamentary election in 1911—seven years before any women had the right to do so. Frances Connelly was provided with the opportunity to vote in a Parliamentary election while the law prevented her from doing so. She grabbed this chance with both hands. And, having cast her vote, she proudly left the polling station. In making her mark that day, Frances Connelly, along with the many other women who voted before 1918, helped keep the question to the forefront of people’s mind; if one woman can vote, why not all?
Laura Linham had found the original, 1911, newspaper report on Frances Connelly when she was checking out the local archives. Laura’s subsequent article came to the attention of Jason Greenfield, CEO of the One Million Project, who commissioned a book about Frances Connelly.
The resulting book, ‘So, You Say I Can’t Vote, Frances Connelly. The Working –class Woman’s Route to the Vote’, which was written by myself and Laura Linham, focuses on Frances Connelly, and other working-class women’s contributions to women’s suffrage in the UK. Compared to those from the upper classes, these women tend to be lesser known or forgotten entirely. The book gives a flavour of the life of women in the post-Victorian era fighting for women’s suffrage. In particular, it explores how one forgotten and disempowered figure, Frances Connelly, a widowed glove-maker, made history by voting in a Parliamentary election in 1911. Frances wasn’t the only woman in the UK to have voted before the 1918 Act. Her story is told within the context of the other women who voted in England, some of the contributions made by working-class women to women’s suffrage, and the times in which these people lived.
Available on Amazon as print or Kindle e-book— mybook.to/francessconnellybook
All money from the sale of this book — after production costs — go to helping the One Million Project produce, promote and market their books, music and art.
Sheena Macleod lives in a seaside town in Scotland. She gained a PhD at the University of Dundee, where she lectured in mental health nursing. After leaving teaching, Sheena combined her love of history with her passion for research and turned to novel writing. She has written a number of short stories and poems. Reign of the Marionettes is her first published historical fiction novel. Discover more here https://moms-favorite-reads.com/moms-authors/sheena-macleod/
Check out our Free January 2019 magazine