Marking 100 years since political change

1918 Election poster. IWM (Art.IWM PST 12177)

6 February 2018 marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act was passed, which extended the right to vote to all men over 21 and those over the age of 19 serving in the armed forces. For the first time, women over the age of 30 who met specific criteria could vote – this enfranchised 8.5 million women, although many more would have to wait until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928.

In this blog post, we look at the stories of mother and daughter Mary and Kathleen Duckworth – both of them worked as nurses during the war but only one of them received the right to vote in 1918.

 

Mary Elizabeth (left) and Kathleen Duckworth. IWM Documents.15144

  • The Duckworths

Mother and daughter Mary and Kathleen Duckworth lived in the mill town of Heywood, Lancashire. At the start of the war, Mary was aged 38 and Kathleen just 13 years old – they would both go on to make valuable contributions to their local war effort.

In 1916, Mary and her husband Walter set up the Heywood Auxiliary Hospital in a church hall. Mary oversaw the day-to-day running of the hospital, which cared for wounded servicemen.

 

Photograph of hospital beds in Heywood Auxiliary Hospital. IWM Documents.15144

The hospital facilities included an operating theatre, ward, dining room and snooker room. Whilst the medical wellbeing of the patients was the priority, the hospital staff and local community also found time to put on plays and entertainment for the convalescing troops.

From 1918, Kathleen also worked at the hospital as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse. Records show that she worked almost 2,000 hours at the hospital until it closed in April 1919.

 

  • The Representation of the People Act

After a long campaign to extend the right to vote to women, the 1918 Representation of the People Act was an important milestone on the road to full democracy. However, in order to be eligible to join the electorate, women had to meet these criteria:

  1. Aged 30 and over
  2. Owners (or the wife of a man who were owners) of land or property worth £5 or more OR graduates of British universities

Although 8.5 million women met this criteria, this only represented 40 per cent of the total population of women in the UK. Within the Duckworth family, Mary was granted the right to vote and appears on the 1921 Electoral Register – however, under these rules 17 year old Kathleen would not even be considered for inclusion for another 13 years.

 

A crowd of women listening to a speech by another woman, who is likely a suffragette or women’s rights activist. IWM Q 107105

  • Limitations of the Act

Case studies such as these challenge the notion that women were granted the right to vote in recognition for their role in the First World War – indeed, many young women such as Kathleen had ‘done their bit’ but were excluded. There are different theories as to why this may have been the case. It was felt that that women over 30 were more likely to be traditional in their political views – many would be married with children, and so would most likely vote in the same way as their husband.  Research on voting patterns in the 1920s does indicate that women tended to vote for the Conservatives. Furthermore, many pre-war suffragettes may have met the age criterion but did not necessarily meet the property requirements, and so this Act may have been intended to curb radical political views.

Nevertheless, this Act was a significant moment in the history of British politics. In December 1919, Lady Astor became the first woman to take a seat in Parliament. In 1928 women over 21 were finally granted political equality to men – Kathleen Duckworth appears on the 1929 electoral roll under her married name, Kathleen Hollinrake.

 

100 years on, we pay tribute to the men and women who made a contribution during the First World War – share your stories with us on Lives of the First World War.

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