In celebration of the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, the Royal Mail Votes for Women stamp issue showcases the efforts of those who campaigned for female suffrage in Britain. Eight stamps document women’s struggle and feature the significant and memorable demonstrations undertaken by the Suffragettes. The stamp issue coincides with a major exhibit at the Museum of London which will be open to the public until January 2019.
Trailblazing Women in Britain
It may come as a surprise to younger generations to discover that women were unable to vote until 1918. After all, Jane Austin had achieved success as an author early in the 19th century and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first female doctor in Britain in 1865. Despite the fact that women enjoyed few rights and were denied university educations, they had proved how capable they were long before 1918.
An Organised Campaign
British women fought long and hard for the right to vote. The London Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed in 1867 to campaign for female suffrage. The establishment of the society marked the beginning of an organised effort to achieve votes for women but despite dedicated and tireless campaigning, it would be more than fifty years before the female half of the population could walk into a polling station.
Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage in 1897. She believed in only peaceful protest as she thought that a more aggressive approach would lead men to think that women could not be trusted. But she was only able to make slow progress and many women remained angry at their lack of rights.
In 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. They did not have Millicent Fawcett’s patience and were not prepared to wait. The Union became better known as the Suffragettes and they were prepared to take drastic action to achieve their goals even if it meant spending time in prison.
The Suffragettes interrupted political meetings, burnt down churches and even blew up part of David Lloyd George’s house. It is entirely possible that they would have become progressively more violent were it not for the intervention of World War 1. Emmeline Pankhurst called a halt to the protests in support of the war effort. The work done by women in the war years furthered the case for female suffrage and so ultimately, victory was achieved through peaceful means.
Did Britain Drag its Feet?
British politicians may appear to have dragged their feet when it came to votes for women. Particularly when you consider that women were permitted to vote in Sweden as early as 1718, although this right was later rescinded! However, Britain was actually relatively swift to act in comparison to many countries around the world.
Women in Saudi Arabia were only given the vote in 2015! It might not be much of surprise to hear of such inequality in the Middle East but you wouldn’t expect to find more enlightened attitudes in the heart of Europe. However, in Switzerland, women were only given the right to vote in 1971 and the women of Portugal had to wait until 1976. It doesn’t seem possible, does it?
The Representation of the People Act 1918
Although the 1918 act is celebrated for giving women the vote it also represented a highly significant moment for men. It is important to remember that due to property restrictions, 40% of men did not have the vote until 1918. The act removed almost all property qualifications for men and gave women over the age of 30 the vote. But only if they were property owners. Women did not enjoy equal voting rights with men until 1928.
The Stamp Issue
Featuring photographic images depicting significant protests by the Suffragettes, the stamps are a striking reminder of women’s struggle for the vote. They are accompanied by a wonderful presentation pack, first day cover and stamp cards in this fascinating issue.