Did the War get Women the vote?


Source L

Constance Rover – YES!

It is frequently said that women were given the vote ‘because of the war’…   The war changed the situation in more ways than are obvious at first sight.   The obvious effect was that women’s contribution to the war effort was seen and appreciated and that women, instead of being subjected to frequent criticism in the press and by public figures, were very generally praised.   Public opinion became overwhelmingly favourable towards women.


Public opinion also became more democratic generally, as the shared hardships created a more equal society and lessened the emphasis on class divisions.   There was a general desire that sacrifices should not be in vain and that a better world should come out of the war.   Surely a land fit for heroes to live in might include a place for a few heroines as well?


The war emphasised the participation of women in the everyday life of the nation.   It was obvious to all that women were driving vehicles, acting as bus conductors and filling many posts customarily held by men.   As we might say today, women’s ‘public image’ changed and improved.


Besides these obvious changes, the war transformed the political situation…   It was obvious that the campaign would recommence once the war was over if nothing was done to enfranchise women.   It would have been extremely embarrassing and probably unpopular as well to imprison women who had played such an important part in the war effort.  

Constance Rover, Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain 1866–1914 (1967)


Source M

Paula Bartley – NO!

It would be naïve to believe that women received the vote solely for services rendered in the First World War.   It must be remembered that only women over 30 were given the vote and the very women who had helped in the war effort – the young women of the munitions factories – were actually denied the vote.   The significance of women’s war work in the achievement of the vote is therefore perhaps not as great as first assumed.   In reality, women were greatly resented in both agriculture and industry…   Men ‘froze out’ women workers, gave them no help and even sabotaged their work…   The reasons for the shift which took place in Government thinking therefore need consideration.


First and perhaps most importantly, there was a need for franchise reform in general.   Large numbers of soldiers were ineligible to vote.   This of course would not do.


Secondly, there were a number of changes in Parliament which altered the balance between those who opposed and those who were in favour of votes for women.   Several suffragist MPs were promoted to the Cabinet.   More importantly Lloyd George, who was sympathetic to women’s suffrage, replaced Asquith as Prime Minister in December 1916.


Thirdly, the war allowed a number of hostile MPs – Asquith in particular – the excuse to climb down.   These MPs, though not converted to women’s suffrage, realised that reform was inevitable and used women’s war work as a pretext to change.   Asquith’s remarks about the female electors of Paisley in 1920 suggest he still resented women’s involvement in Parliament – ‘a dim lot, for the most part hopelessly ignorant of politics’.


Fourthly, in May 1915, the Liberal government became a Coalition government.   The old fears that one party might benefit from women’s suffrage were laid to rest


Finally, Britain was merely reflecting an international trend towards full democracy.   Women in New Zealand, Australia, Finland, Denmark and Norway had already been enfranchised…   It would have been a peculiar embarrassment if the mother of democracy, Britain, lagged behind other countries.

Paula Bartley, Votes for Women 1860–1928 (1998)


Source N

Arthur Marwick – YES!

The process by which women's participation in the war effort brought considerable social, economic and political gains can be traced in a very straightforward manner.  


The first issues to stress this time are again strengthened market position and the desire of governments to offer rewards for services rendered. 


But two further changes are also critical: the increased sense of their own capacity and increased self-confidence on the part of women themselves; and, on the other side, the total destruction of all the old arguments about women's proper place in the community, which both men and women had previously raised against any moves towards political and social equality for women.  


In the political story what is most striking is the way in which one after another all the old leading opponents of the idea of votes for women recant, and declare that since women have played such a vital part in the national effort, of course they must be allowed to share in the politics of their country.  


However, political rights are only one side of the story.  Women also gained a measure of economic independence.  And, whatever the intentions of law-makers, they had gained a new self reliance and new social freedoms.  

Arthur Marwick, War and Social Change in the Twentieth Century (1974)


Source O

Sandra Holton – NO!

It seems reasonable to argue that British suffragists might fairly have expected to have gained the vote by 1918 if a Liberal government had been returned in the expected general election.  It is even possible that there might have been a limited measure of women's suffrage under a Conservative government.  All this must significantly modify those interpretations which stress the advent of war as the decisive factor in the eventual winning of the women's vote.  It might even be that the war postponed such a victory.  


What can be confidently asserted is the importance of women's suffragists' own efforts, especially the efforts of the democratic suffragists, in securing the strong position enjoyed by their cause at the outbreak of war.  


Women's war work may have been important in converting some former opponents, or providing others with a face-saving excuse to alter their positions.  But even before this, the political alliances the democratic suffragists had formed in support of their demand had ensured that women would have to be included in any future reform bill.

Sandra Stanley Holton, Feminism and Democracy (1986)