Votes for Women 2018: Part V – Equal vote
1918 was an important year for women’s suffrage. Some women were entitled to vote for the first time, and did so in the General Election of December 1918. The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act of November 1918 also allowed women to stand as Members of Parliament. Ten years later, the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 finally extended the franchise to all women over the age of 21.
In this final blog for this week we are presenting evidence of the local impact of the extension of suffrage, through some of the St Andrews Citizen coverage from the time of the General Election of 14 December 1918, and of the first General Election in which women could vote on equal terms as men in May 1929.
The significance of the February 1918 Act was picked up by the Women Citizen’s Association in their Manifesto:
“Women! To-day the highest privilege of a citizen is ours. We bring to the discharge of this new responsibility a breadth of outlook, an undaunted courage, and an unswerving hope in the possibility of a new land and a new world”
Fife local Sir Alexander Sprot of the Scottish Unionist Party stood as a candidate for the East Fife seat against Prime Minister Herbert Asquith in 1918. Sprot clearly had the women’s vote which was galvanized by his wife Lady Sprot, who campaigned for him and addressed a women-only meeting. Sprot won the seat in 1918, defeating Asquith who had held the East Fife seat for over 30 years, since 1886.
The first woman elected to the Commons was Constance Markievicz in 1918, although as a member of Sinn Fein she did not take her seat. The first woman to actually take her seat in the Commons was Viscountess Astor, serving for Plymouth Sutton in 1919. The first woman MP for a Scottish seat was Katherine Stewart-Murray, Duchess of Atholl, serving the Kinross and West Perthshire constituency from 1923. The Duchess of Atholl supported her husband as MP for West Perthshire, a seat he held from 1910 to 1917 before taking his seat in the House of Lords. Stewart-Murray was an active member of public life, serving as president of the Perthshire Women’s Unionist Association and on the 1912 departmental committee on medical and nursing services in the highlands and islands of Scotland. Although receiving criticism as a former anti-suffragist, she was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education in the British Conservative Government of 1924, a post she held until 1929.
The County of Fife, however was not to have its first women MP until 1992 when Ms Rachel Squire was elected MP for Dunfermline West.
General Election 1929
In the run up to the 1929 General Election some articles speculated as to the reason for the low numbers of female candidates for Parliament:
The new franchise qualification was announced in the Citizen in December 1928 and the register drawn up for East Fife, in which women were in the majority:
Politicians and campaigners acknowledged the power women now had:
“in East Fife the women were going to take a real and practical interest in politics”
“the issue of this election was going to be in the hands of the women, and he left it in their hands with complete confidence”
“ladies were now coming into their own, and were going to decide the destiny of the State.”
“Miss Beale, who spoke first, said the coming election was the greatest in the history of the country. For the first time they were going to have complete democracy. To see such a large audience of women interested in politics, and who were going to exercise their vote for the good of the country, was a splendid experience.”
‘Annie Swan said this election would go down in history as the “women’s election”’
The vote took place on the 30 May 1929. One woman voter Mrs Smith, was wheeled in a bath chair to the poll by her husband – both nearly at the age of 80. Another, Mrs David Harvey, Southfield at 93 years of age, was the oldest elector who voted.
In the course of the week we have seen that the Special Collections Division of the University of St Andrews Library contains a wealth of information about the pioneering women of the 19th and 20th century who campaigned for women’s rights. As seen in the news reports of the time, there can be no doubt of the achievements and significance of these women and that we owe them our deepest thanks.
Principal Archive Assistant
 Information about the Duke and Duchess of Atholl taken from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography