You will no doubt be hearing a lot about Women’s suffrage , enfranchisement for women and The Representation of the People Act 1918 during this centenary year.  Over the course of 2018 members of the Manchester & Lancashire Family History Society will be writing a series of blogs to do with this pivotal moment in history with particular reference to tracing your female ancestors.

votes women

Four Women in front of a Women’s Freedom League Votes for Women Banner

Image courtesy of Manchester Archives +  –  GB127.MISC/718/49

Many people neglect to follow their female lines because the women in their families are more difficult to trace in records.  Often this is owing to the social and legal status women held and the way in which women were represented in historic documents. However, there comes a time when we as family historians should consider learning more about the lives our female ancestors led, what choices were open to them, the catalysts that drove them forward and what restrictions they may have faced.

Over the coming year alongside learning more about Tracing your Females Ancestors we will endeavour to look at topics such as the boycott of the census by women in 1911, women’s roles on the home front and in the military plus discovering more about some of Greater Manchester’s heroines in more detail.  How did these and other contributing factors such as political upheaval lead to the eventual passing of the critical piece of legislation called “The Representation of the People Act 1918”.

So, here are the key facts about The Representation of the People Act 1918:

  • The bill for the Representation of the People was passed by 385 votes to 55 in the House of Common and by 134 to 71 votes in the House of Lords.
  • It received Royal Assent on 6th February 1918.
  • The Act gave all men universal suffrage abolishing any property or residency qualification.
  • The Act provided ‘partial’ suffrage for those women over 30 who met the minimum property qualification, were either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register (a rate payer), or a graduate voting in a University constituency.
  • The Act redistributed some seats to industrial towns.
  • The Act set out that all polls for an election must be held on a specified date, rather than over several days in different constituencies as done formerly.

This Act meant so much more than just enfranchisement (the right or privilege of the vote) of women over 30 who met the minimum property qualifications but it was also hugely important for men and therefore their families.  Prior to 1918 only 58% of the male population were eligible to vote.  The law stated that only men who had been resident in the country for 12 months prior to a general election were entitled to vote.  Therefore, large numbers of men serving King and Country abroad during the First World War were ‘disenfranchised’ and no longer eligible to vote. The Act also took away the property qualification meaning that impoverished men would now also qualify to vote.  By the passing of this Act by Parliament it also meant that the electorate would increase from 8 to 21 million.

Prior to 1918,  qualifying women were already allowed to vote in municipal elections (Local Government Act 1888) .  This allowed  for women to vote in county and borough council  elections and in 1894 (Parish Councils Act) women were also allowed to serve on Urban and District councils as Aldermen, Councillors, Mayors or Chairmen. Maybe one of your female ancestors can be found amongst these forward thinking women? As a reminder, total suffrage for women was not achieved until 1928 by the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 and consequently another stepping stone on the path towards equal rights.

Here are some other notable pieces of legislation that were passed in 1918: 

  • Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act was passed in November 1918. This enabled women over 21 to stand for Parliament (even though women between 21-30 did not have the vote).  This Act allowed women to become MPs for the first time. It was a very short Act, which stated that women were not disqualified by sex or marriage from sitting or voting as members of the House of Commons.
  • Maternity and Child Welfare Act sanctioned local authorities to provide new services such as infant welfare centres, nurseries and health visitors.
  • Registration of Midwives Amending Act adjusted legislation from 1902. However, it did not come into effect until 1905.  The purpose of the Act was ‘to secure the better training of midwives and to regulate their practice’.  Prior to this time midwives were untrained, unqualified and uncertified.  Worryingly midwifery could be practiced by any man or woman.
  • Affiliation Orders (Increase of Maximum Payment) Act increased the weekly payment to be made to an illegitimate child from five to ten shillings by the father.  We family historians may know this as a ‘bastardy bond’, and it is always worth looking for any official type of acknowledgement via an Affiliation Order or Bastardy Bond when researching illegitimate children. This order would have been requested by the mother who then made a legal declaration stating that the man who is the subject of the order was the father of her child.

 Useful websites:

https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/

http://www.portcullis.parliament.uk/CalmView/Default.aspx?

https://www.genguide.co.uk/source/bastardy-documents-parish-poor-law/140/

Tracing Midwives in Your Family https://www.rcog.org.uk/globalassets/documents/guidelines/library-services/heritage/rcm-genealogy.pdf

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