21st November 1918 saw the Royal Assent being given to a Bill which became known as the Parliament (Qualification of Women Act) 1918.
In a way it was an inevitable consequence of women (in certain circumstances) having been given the right to vote. The Act meant that they could also be voted for – in other words to stand for election as an M.P. Interestingly, the British Parliament was by no means the last to permit female voting – the Dutch did so in 1920, and the United States of America passed the 19th Amendment (allowing women to vote) on 26 August 1920.
On the other hand the Nordic countries were the early runners in Europe, with Finland leading the way in 1907. Norway gave women the vote in 1913 and Denmark followed in 1915. Portugal dipped a toe in the water in 1931 but with numerous restrictions, which were only removed so as to give full equality with the men in 1976. Spain allowed full suffrage in 1933, France in 1944, Italy in 1946, and Greece in 1952. The Swiss got going a bit late in the day – with Federal voting by women being introduced in 1971
Good old New Zealand got there in 1895. Full suffrage, to include female aborigines, was not permitted in Australia until as recently as 1962.
Following the 1918 Parliament (Qualification of Women Act) seventeen female candidates stood for election to the House of Commons including the well-known suffragette Christabel Pankhurst (representing the Women’s Party in Smethwick). She failed to get elected and indeed the only woman to top the vote was Constance Markievicz, representing Sinn Fein. Her party always abstained and instead of taking her seat in the Commons preferred to sit in the Dáil in Dublin. So, it was left for Nancy Astor to be the first woman to take her seat in the Commons (December 1, 1919).
The slow progress in the intervening century is curious: here we are a hundred years later and women still represent less than a third of elected M.P.s. But in a way that is true of the whole story of the struggle for female equality – one door opens and it looks as though there will be a breakthrough – and guess what, things stall and nothing very much happens. You only have to look at Mary Wollstonecraft – who published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. When she died the public were for the first time made aware of her ‘scandalous’ lifestyle, her attempted suicide, her affair with Gilbert Imlay, her mothering of an illegitimate daughter. The public condemnation of her behaviour totally drowned out the message which Mary had been so forcefully trying to get across. Horace Walpole had branded her as ” a hyena in a petticoat” and for nearly a century her ideas were almost totally disregarded.
Mary features in my book “Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era – The Eighteenth-Century Struggle for Female Success in a Man’s World” which Pen & Sword published earlier this year. Like many of the other women featured in the book, she would be astonished to hear what little progress had been made through the Victorian period. It is amazing to think that even after 200 years equality is still a mirage in many areas of everyday life.