This Tuesday, the 6th February 2018 marks one hundred years since the Representation of the People Act.
Whilst the anniversary has led us to focus on women’s suffrage, it is important to remember that the Act did not grant the vote to all women. It granted the vote to all men over the age of twenty one, and to women over the age of thirty who were either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register, a property owner, or a graduate voting in a University constituency. The limitations behind this Act should not be dismissed. It is important that we do not forget the women who were left out by this act, women who were mainly working class.
Nevertheless, this anniversary matters. It matters for its symbolism. 1918 was the first time since 1832 that women in Britain could vote in national elections. It was the first time ever that women could sit in Parliament. The Act was an acknowledgement of women as autonomous political agents, as citizens. So this week we celebrate the Representation of the People Act, we celebrate it for the women that were enfranchised, we celebrate it for the women that came into Parliament, and we remember the women who had to wait another ten long years for the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 before their voice could be heard.
To celebrate this anniversary we’ve asked women across our denominations to share their stories of what voting means to them. And on International Women’s Day (8th March) we will be releasing a resource on women and political participation, so watch this space.
What does the vote mean to me?
In Parliament there is a very small broom cupboard, just behind the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft. On the night of the 1911 census Emily Wilding Davison (subsequently famous for throwing herself under the King’s Horse) hid in that cupboard so she could record her address as the Houses of Parliament. In so doing she was claiming for herself a space within our political system.
That act of a hiding in a cupboard symbolises everything that the vote means to me. Having the vote is an acknowledgement of my position as a citizen. It is a mark of my autonomy and a recognition of my ability to deliberate. It tells me that I am worth just as much as any other citizen. When I arrive at the ballot box it doesn’t matter if I am young or old, rich or poor, male or female, my voice is recorded and heard equally. That is an extraordinarily powerful feeling.