Red Clydeside: A history of the labour movement in Glasgow 1910-1932


Leaflet entitled 'Twenty-one reasons why the new woman voter should vote unionist', 1918

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The passing of the Fourth Reform Act in February 1918 gave women over 30 and men over 21 the vote for the first time. The Act was responsible for enfranchising some 7 million British women but left another 5 million still without the vote, in total the British electorate increased from 8 million to 21 million people with the passing of the Act.

Previous to the passing of the Fourth Reform Act in 1918, suffragette organisations like the NUWSS and the WSPU had campaigned for women to have the same political rights as men. However, they had been vehemently opposed by an influential movement of anti-suffragists entitled The Women's National Anti-Suffrage League. The WNASL was founded in 1908, with its own newspaper The Anti-Suffrage Review and by 1914 the League had some 42,000 subscribers and another 15,800 sympathisers both male and female. These figures were considerably in excess of those of the membership of the WSPU and not a long way short of those of the NUWSS.

Limiting the vote to only women over 30 was viewed by the political elite as a measure for ensuring a more stable base of support for capitalist parliamentary democracy. Young British women it seemed were not to be trusted with the vote during this period of revolutionary turmoil throughout Europe and it was not until 1928 that all women over 21 were finally enfranchised. Amongst socialists and trade unionists there was a genuine fear that limited suffrage for women would enfranchise those with property and strengthen support for the Conservatives and Liberals at the expense of Labour, just as the Labour Party was beginning to build an independent electoral base.