International Women’s Day

By: Clare Salters

It is ironic that one of the greatest pieces of constitutional reform and improvement in the UK – the Representation of the People Act 1832, and its partner acts the Irish and Scottish Reform Acts of 1832 – was also the vehicle for restricting the right of women to participate in the electoral process. 

Before 1832, women of property (of which there were few, and all unmarried) had the right, at least theoretically, to vote on the same terms as men of property (of which there were many). But the Reform Act brought that to an end. While it increased the franchise beyond those who owned property, it did so to the exclusion of women, defining a voter as a ‘male person’ who met the various property conditions. 

This deliberate act cemented, within the franchise as well as social and economic spheres, the second-class status of women within British society in the nineteenth century. In fact, it arguably secured their third-class status also, as unmarried women were at least regarded as legal persons (albeit inferior ones). 

In England, married women’s status was even lower than their unmarried counterparts. On marriage, any property or income held by the woman (other than any dowry) was automatically transferred to her husband and she was no longer to own anything in her own right. She ceased to be a separate legal person and became an adjunct of her husband. Work to equalise the franchise took place in parallel with work to address this significant inequity.

Although there was progress later in the nineteenth century to allow some women to vote in local elections and in the border polls held as part of the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales, women could still not vote in parliamentary elections by the turn of the century. Petitions and reform proposals were presented almost annually from 1870 onwards, but were consistently defeated by those who did not consider that 50% of the population had the right to participate in the country’s constitutional life. 

It was not until 1918 that the parliamentary franchise was extended to some women, but still not on an equal basis with men. The Representation of the People Act 1918 provided for universal male suffrage of all male persons aged 21 and over. It also allowed property-owning women aged 30 and over to vote. While this was a great breakthrough for sex equality, it still left women in a subordinate position to men. All men could vote at 21. Women were not deemed capable until they were 30, and even then only if they owned property. Later that year, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 made it possible for the first time for women to be elected to Parliament. In December 1918, Constance Markievicz became the first woman to be elected to Parliament, although declined to take up her seat in line with Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy. A by-election the following year led to the election of Nancy Astor, who was the first woman to take her seat in the Commons. 

Eventually, in 1928, the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was passed leading to universal suffrage for all men and women aged 21 and over. For the first time, less than a century ago, the constitution allowed for genuinely representative government.

But even with equal franchise, women remained second class citizens in the UK, albeit citizens who could now vote. It was not until 1975 that Parliament outlawed discrimination on the grounds of sex in Great Britain (1976 in Northern Ireland). Until then, it had been entirely legal to treat women less favourably than men – including to require them to resign from their jobs when they got married, reinforcing the sense that they ceased to be Real People when they became the property of their husbands. Women could not apply for mortgages or credit cards until the early 1970s. Indeed, in England, it remained legal for a man to rape his wife until 1993. These were not outlandish things, they were things that seemingly right-thinking voters and politicians considered acceptable.

It is easy to forget how recent it was that women were given the right to participate in the constitutional life of the country. It is less than 100 years since we have had ‘representative government’ that reflects the whole adult population, rather than only half of it. And it is less than 50 years since it ceased to be legal to treat half of the population as second-class citizens. These rights, that many now take for granted, were hard won and there remain people living today who would have opposed them. As we mark International Women’s Day 2024, we should acknowledge the recency of equality and representative government in the UK and the importance of continuing to push for a fairer and more equal society.

Clare Salters. 

Clare Salters is a former senior civil servant, who worked primarily on Northern Ireland and other constitutional issues from the mid-1990s until 2018. She is currently pursuing a freelance career, including serving as a trustee of the Constitution Society.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.