Votes for (Some) Women!

By Fiona Grahame

Votes for Women

By Djembayz via Wikimedia Commons

A debate will take place today, Tuesday 6th February, in the Scottish Parliament, marking 100 years since women in the UK were enfranchised.

“That the Parliament recognises that it is 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918, which finally gave some women the right to vote, and the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, which allowed women to stand for the UK Parliament…..”

Nicola Sturgeon First Minister of Scotland said:

“As we mark the 100 year anniversary since women secured the right to vote in the UK, this is an occasion for us all to reflect on the progress made to date and look at the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. “

Reflecting on the 100 years anniversary we should all be aware that when men and boys were sent off to World War 1 where many did not return only 58% of men had the right to vote. There are complex reasons why after 1918 men were enfranchised and some women – not all these reasons were altruistic. Not only had the UK lost a substantial number of its working male population but there was social unrest and rebellion across Europe including in the UK.

The Women’s suffrage movement – suffragettes and suffragists – is covered in the Orkney News article The Scottish Suffragettes. Read that if you want to know more  about the campaign for women’s suffrage in Scotland and in Orkney.

The centenary being celebrated this year is of the Representation of the People Act 1918  – women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification obtained the right to vote. This amounted to 8.5 million women or 40 % of the total population of women in the UK at the time.

For men the same act abolished property and other restrictions , and extended the vote to all men over the age of 21. Additionally, men in the armed forces could vote from the age of 19. The electorate increased from 8 to 21 million.

It was not until the Equal Franchise Act of  1928 that women achieved the same voting rights as men and were able to vote at age 21.

In 1893 women in New Zealand were enfranchised although they still could not stand for election themselves. It was not yet an independent nation but still a colony of the UK at the time.

The first independent nation where women were fully enfranchised with the right to vote and seek election, was Finland, in 1906. And at the other end of the scale in Saudi Arabia women were given the right to vote in 2015 for local elections.

We have a long way to go….

The First Minister of Scotland commenting said:

“Equality for women is at the heart of our vision for an equal Scotland and our Programme for Government set out our ambitions, including legislating for gender balance on public sector boards – which passed final stage approval in Parliament last week, with near unanimous support, creating a new Advisory Council on Women and Girls, and piloting a returners project to help women back in to the workplace after a career break.”

Unfortunately it still seems to be the case that women are less likely to engage in political discourse than men in Scotland. The number of women who have been elected to the House of Commons since 1918 is 489. In the UK General Election of 2017 29% of candidates were women with 208 being successfully elected. That makes up only 32% of  MPs in the House of Commons.

In the Scottish Parliament there are 45 MSPs who are women, or 34.9%  – which is better than the UK Parliament but shows we still have a long way to go.

Over half – 51% of Scotland’s population are women.

And when you drill down and look at the figures of individual parties it’s not much better with one party the Liberal Democrats having no women MSPs at all.

Number of women MSPs by party

  • Labour: 46% 
  • SNP: 43%
  • Conservatives: 19%
  • Scottish Greens: 17%
  • Liberal Democrats: 0%

So it is hardly surprising that many women do not engage with politics when they are so under represented within our parliamentary institutions. But then that is also a reason why they need to be. The women who campaigned long and hard for the vote did so not just for themselves but for the women of the future. We owe them a huge debt for achieving that goal but we also owe it to them to engage in political discourse, to stand for election and to continue the process for equality that they started.

Womens Suffrage

Verbatim debate on suffrage and equality, 1907. LSE Library



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