Which branch of feminism won women the vote? We all did

The 1918 Representation of the People Act granted votes to all men aged 21 and above and some women aged 30 and above who met property qualifications or held a university degree. In all, 8.5 million women qualified, comprising 40 per cent of the female population.
While it was largely younger working-class women who grafted during the First World War and formed the activist vanguard for women’s suffrage from the 1880s, it was primarily middle-class and aristocratic women who benefited. The legislation did not remove sex discrimination or establish equal suffrage. It entrenched class prejudices designed to prevent the popular majority – the workers – from voter registration.
Enfranchisement was extended to women ungraciously, in grudging spirit, in a fearful atmosphere. Middle-class women, it was hoped, would provide a bulwark against advancing threats of social unrest, Bolshevism and socialism escalated by the horrendous death and deprivation caused by the war. Voting patterns demonstrated this to be the case. Between 1918 and 1928 women overwhelmingly voted Conservative.
So what are we celebrating? In a nutshell, the birth and infancy of modern British democracy. As only 58 per cent of men were previously eligible to vote, 1918 was a watershed in the universal suffrage struggle, finally achieved in 1928. Though we cannot pretend that this symbolic victory established the principle of women’s equality, we must recognise that Votes for Women was the campaigning vehicle of a feminist movement fighting for justice across all areas of women’s lives – health, home, maternity, marriage, education and equal pay.
The struggle started with the first petition to parliament in 1832 and ended in 1928 when women could vote on the same terms as men. It was most intensive during the early 20th century. As activist momentum powered a relentless national mobilisation as fiercely fought in the Glasgow Gorbals as the groves of Godalming, Liberal governments blocked the women’s vote by objecting that this was not a mass movement.
In 1908, Herbert Gladstone said: “On the question of women’s suffrage, experience shows that predominance of argument … is not enough to win the political day … Men have learned this lesson, and know the necessity for demonstrating the greatness of their movements, and for establishing … force majeure.” The women’s movement responded by delivering the largest popular uprising in British history since the Chartists. Newspapers and police estimated three major demonstrations of 1908 at 250,000; 500,000; and – for the legendary Suffrage Sunday convening on Hyde Park, 750,000. The Daily Express praised the suffragettes for providing London with “one of the most wonderful and astonishing sights that has ever been seen since the days of Boadicea … It is probable that so many people never before stood in one square mass anywhere in England”.
It was a festive, ingenious and physically hardy movement – from “women’s parliaments” in Caxton Hall to heckling, stunts and ambushing political meetings and social events, electoral hustings, and the besieged Westminster palace. There was music, theatre, art, festivals, dance, fashion, exhibitions, Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) pop-up shops selling banners, bags and badges; there was a hot air balloon dropping 56lb of pamphlets, and a suffragette steamship patrolling the Thames streaming purple, white and green pennants, taunting Lloyd George as he took tea on the Commons terrace. It was the greatest political theatre since the French Revolution. In 1910 alone, there were over 4,000 demonstrations.
The feminist movement comprised several wings. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), presided over by Millicent Fawcett; the Pankhurst-led WSPU; the splinter Women’s Franchise League (WFL); the emerging Labour party and trade unions led by pro-suffragette Keir Hardie and socialist-feminists such as Margaret Bondfield and George Lansbury; and – smaller numbered – “respectable” Conservative suffragists and the right-wing Primrose League.
There’s been an unedifying, century-long tug of war between pro-suffragists claiming it was gradualist constitutional reform that won it; and those who maintain that the alliance with radical franchise and socialist movements and – crucially – militant direct action , is what shifted the ground.
Source : Gulf News