On Thursday 15 May, the PHM will explore alternative histories for Museums at Night. Join our hypothetical tour guides as they weave tall tales and ask you to imagine infinite possibilities of what might have been. In a series of blog posts before the event we’ll be featuring questions so you can swot up on your hypothetical history and add your own alternatives. On the night we’ll subvert our timeline with your suggestions. In the first blog, our Head of Collections and Engagement, Louise Sutherland asks What if… the suffragettes didn’t get the vote?
We’ve all heard the word Suffragette, most of us know that it’s primarily about women and their fight to get the vote and some of us will know that most UK based suffragette activity took place before World War I. There is a fair bit of talk about 2018 at the moment and its place within British democratic history, not least through PHM’s Wonder Women programme. In 2018 it will be 100 years since women over 30, who fulfilled certain criteria, were eligible to vote. Full enfranchisement on equal terms with men took another 10 years to 1928 and the voting age was lowered to all adults over the age of 21.
In February 1918, the Representation of the People Act (or the Fourth Reform Act) was passed through British Parliament. It gave voting rights to men (all men, regardless of background) as long as they were over the age of 21 and resident in their constituency. Women over 30 now qualified to vote, but additionally they had to meet one of the following specific conditions; that they were either a member, or married to a member of the Local Government Register, a property owner or a graduate voting in a university constituency. At this point women now accounted for 43% of the voting electorate.
The national women’s suffrage movement started with the formation of National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1872; clearly activities and groups existed before this, women had been excluded from voting in the Great Reform Act in 1832, but this is the campaign really making its mark on the national stage. Early campaigning was on the whole peaceful and the militant tactics that many suffragettes are remembered for coincided with the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1905. Hunger strikes occurred from 1909 onwards and Emily Wilding Davison’s death at Epsom took place in June 1913.
But what if?
What if the suffragettes had not be partially enfranchised in 1918? What if they were still vote-less?
What if there had been a return to the militant tactics seen before the war? What if tactics became even more militant? What would the more pacifist arms of the movement have done?
What could this have looked like? How would this have affected Britain?
Most suffragette campaigning stopped at the outbreak of war in 1914. In 1918 following peace there were more women in the country than men as a direct consequence of the war. Women’s networks still existed and the mothballed coordinated approach so expertly managed by the different societies would have been easy to kick-start again. The frustration at being unable to vote, coupled with the successes of the franchise campaign in other countries, would have been a bitter pill to swallow.
What do you think would have happened? How you have felt as a member of one of these women’s organisations and your demands for the vote had gone unanswered? What would you have done?
Add your answers below or come and discuss at our Museums at Night: What if…? event on Thursday 15 May, 5.00pm – 8.00pm