Noel Whelan: Votes withheld from young women at crucial era

WWI’s vast loss of men deprived women under 30 in UK of vote until 1928

Women munition workers stacking a reserve of shell castings during WWI. Photograph:  Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Women munition workers stacking a reserve of shell castings during WWI. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

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There is unlikely to be any legislation passed by the Oireachtas this year which will be worthy of commemoration in 100 years’ time.

In 1918, two such Bills were passed by the Westminster parliament, by which we were then governed, and our Oireachtas has organised a series of events this year to commemorate them.

The Parliament (Qualifications of Women Act) 1918 was passed a 100 years ago this week. It was rushed through both houses, just as the Westminster Parliament was being dissolved for the long-delayed general election of December 1918.

This Act had only one substantial section, which contained just one sentence. It provided that “A woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage for being elected to or sitting or voting as a Member of the Commons House of Parliament.”

In law, if not in practice, the doors of parliament were thereby swung open to women.

The was no stampede of women into the chamber however. There only 17 female candidates in the 1918 general election and only one of them, Countess Markievicz was elected. Even now a century later, just under one-third of the House of Commons is female and only about one in five of our TDs are women.

One would be forgiven for assuming at first glance the age differential was because women were presumed by men of the time to be too fickle to decide how to vote

The 1918 Parliament Act is an oft-forgotten piece of legislation principally because it is overshadowed by the other Act whose century we celebrate this year, namely the Representation of the People Act which passed in February 2018. This 159-page Bill was a major reform of Britain’s parliamentary elections which extended the franchise to almost all men over 21.

The most controversial parts of that Bill, however, were three subsections the effect of which was to enable women, or at least some women, to vote for the first time. In the words of one commentator, the parliamentary debate on the Bill was taken up “not exclusively but very nearly so with the enfranchisement of women”.

Age differential

Curiously, whereas the Act allowed men to vote from the age of 21 it didn’t allow women to vote until they were 30.

One would be forgiven for assuming at first glance that the age differential was because women were presumed by men of the time to be too fickle to decide how to vote and not been capable of doing so until they were a little bit more mature.

In fact the reason for the gender differential in voting age arose instead from a fear that women voters would outnumber the men.

The first-hand account of the author and suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett is fascinating on the point. In her book The Women’s Victory and After: Personal Reminiscences (1911-1918), published in the 1920s, she tells of how the proposal to allow only women over 30 to vote emerged and why moderate suffragists like herself were prepared to accept it.

The massive losses suffered in the first World War meant that there were estimated to be about a million and a half more women in the country than men. Even what Fawcett called “the friends of women’s suffrage” feared therefore that that the enfranchisement of all adult women would result in “making over the government of the country to women”.

There was a real risk that when MPs and lords came to decide on the proposed legislation their fear that women would have a majority in the electorate would outweigh their support for female suffrage.

One wonders what impact a massive female majority in the electorate in the crucial intervening post-war years might have achieved.

‘Constitutional experiment’

When later seeking to justify the gender differential in the voting age, a government speaker in the upper house said; “Your lordships will remember that the age of 30, which was prescribed for enfranchisement of women, was made not because women of a younger age were considered less competent to exercise the vote, but rather because the inclusion of women between the ages of 21 and 30 might lead to women-voters being in a majority on the Register, and this was considered, too drastic a departure in the realms of constitutional experiment”.

Fawcett noted that, of course, “the 30-year age limit for women was quiet indefensible logically: but it was practically convenient in getting rid of a bogie to whose unreality a few years’ experience would probably prove by demonstration”.

In so doing, she echoed the type of compromises which those who campaign for equality often have to make between what is right and what is initially possible. She was reminded, she said, of Disraeli’s dictum; “England is not governed by logic but by parliament.” Unfortunately that triumph of parliamentary considerations over logic still endures often today.

As it happens the female voting age was reduced to 21 in Ireland in 1922, and in Britain and Northern Ireland in 1928.

One wonders what impact a massive female majority in the electorate in the crucial intervening post-war years might have achieved. It would make for an interesting “What if” history question.

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