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Votes for Women - 100 Years On
Chris Ridgway
By Dr Chris Ridgway  //  Tue 6th February 2018
Curatorial, History, Collection
On 6th February 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed by Parliament, and was a major reform of the electoral system in Great Britain. This act not only ensured that practically all men had the right to vote, but also extended the vote to women over thirty and who met certain property qualifications. Although it would be another ten years before the vote was further extended to include all women, it represented a major shift in attitude in Britain.

Rosalind Howard (1845-1921), 9th Countess of Carlisle was a believer in women’s rights from a very early age. Following the birth of her first child in 1865 she was incensed to learn that the bells across the estate had ceased ringing when it was learnt the baby was a girl. In the late 1860s she began to espouse women’s causes after reading the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s book, On the Subjection of Women (1869); this was a turning point in her life and she recorded in her diary, ‘I go with him in every word he says... He is a wonderful champion for women’s causes... It has roused me to care more about women’s liberty’.

Whilst raising a family of ten children, Rosalind ran the family estates at Castle Howard in Yorkshire and Naworth Castle in Cumbria. She also entered public life, campaigning on behalf of the Liberal party, and was a supporter of Temperance, Home Rule for Ireland, and social justice. Her work began at a local level, and in 1887 the Women’s Liberal Federation was formed, in response to the Conservative-founded Primrose League. Initially Rosalind refused to join because it did not include female enfranchisement among its aims, but when she did become a member three years later she led a progressive wing that campaigned for votes for women. This led to a split in the Federation, and in 1894 she was elected President and women’s suffrage became central to WLF activities.

Active at a local level in relation to estate affairs, Rosalind was also elected a District Councillor for Malton in Yorkshire and Brampton in Cumbria. While she once described herself as a politician this was the nearest she could ever hope to come to being a publicly elected representative of the people. A political creature to her core, she could only follow the national picture second-hand through the pages of Hansard, or when discussing government affairs with members of her family or helping her sons and sons-in-laws during their election campaigns.

As a Suffragist, the direct action tactics of Suffragettes, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903, were counter to all that Rosalind believed in with regard to constitutional progress. After 1909 Suffragette action escalated from heckling ministers to mass public disturbances, attacking property, and vandalising works of art. Rosalind described these militants as ‘impatient, lawless, scolding women, with hate in their hearts’. It is ironic then that in 1913, and a year later, police surveillance confirmed the presence of activists in the neighbourhood of Castle Howard. Following an attack on one of Rosalind’s properties in Middlesex, there were real fears that Castle Howard would be subject to an arson attack, and extra nightwatchmen were recruited.

She was especially alarmed that Suffragette tactics would alienate many supporters of women’s suffrage, and as the movement split between activists and moderates, from 1911 to 1913, she urged the WLF to continue to support prime minister Asquith’s Liberal government in the belief that it would bring in a bill for female enfranchisement. At the same time she was fully aware that Asquith was personally opposed to the cause but that Lloyd George and some other cabinet members were sympathetic to it. But in the face of a heavy legislative schedule the government temporised over suffrage, and in 1914 the domestic reform programme of the Liberal government was halted by the outbreak of war.

By 1918 the world had changed beyond recognition: Rosalind, like so many of her contemporaries, had experienced family loss in the conflict, she had also accepted the need for conscription, and had welcomed the ways in which women participated in the war effort, working in factories, on the land and carrying out numerous roles traditionally occupied by men. Ultimately it was this social shift more than anything else that led to the partial enfranchisement of women. The Suffragette outrages of 1911-13 were a pale memory in the aftermath of four years of slaughter, nevertheless Lloyd George’s coalition government passed the Representation of the People Act which extended the vote to all men over the age of twenty-one, and to women over the age of thirty who met the required property qualifications. It would be another ten years before the vote was given to all women on an equal basis. The Act was the culmination of decades of campaigning by women, and men too, and Rosalind died in 1921 knowing that her daughters and grand-daughters were the beneficiaries of this legislation.