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Tuesday, 6 February 2018

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6 February 1918 - Women in Britain and Ireland gained the right to vote in General Elections for the first time on this day. The Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed into Law by the British Parliament. It gave women over the age of 30 the right to vote and all men over the age of 21. The law said that women over the age of 30 who occupied a house (or were married to someone who did) could now vote.

This meant 8.5 million women now had their say over who was in Parliament - about 2 in every 5 women in the UK. It also said that all men over the age of 21 could vote - regardless of whether or not they owned property - and men in the armed forces could vote from the age of 19. The number of men who could now vote went from 8 million to 21 million. This was a legislative Revolution as it meant that any future Parliament would have a very different profile than the current or previous ones.

The campaign to extend the Franchise to women had been a long and arduous one over many years with women protesting and been sent to prison and even dying to achieve electoral equality with menfolk at the polls. The Suffragettes were led by Emmeline Pankhurst who from 1905 led a militant campaign to change the law. In Ireland too women campaigned holding meetings, smashing windows and generally making a nuisance of themselves to draw attention to their cause. But the various groups here found no sympathy from either John Redmond the Nationalist Leader or Sir Edward Carson the Irish Unionist Leader.

Nevertheless when the ‘Khaki Election’ of December 1918 came round the only woman to win a seat as a Member of Parliament was  the Irish Revolutionary Countess Markievicz who amongst other things was a vocal supporter of the Suffragette Movement. However as an Irish Republican she refused to take her seat in the Westminster Parliament and pledged her allegiance to Dáil Éireann in Dublin instead. Britain had to wait until 1919 for its for its first female MP - one Lady Astor - who was born and raised in the USA.

Curious to note that while women in the United Kingdom had to wait until 1928 for the franchise to be fully extended to all women over the age of 21 in the Irish Free State this discrimination between the sexes was abolished in 1922 putting the Irish State well ahead of the British one in a woman’s Right to Vote.