This month in parliament we celebrated the 90th anniversary of all women being allowed the vote with the passing of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act. This built on the Act a decade before which gave some women – those over 30 and either married or property owners – the vote. Every time we mark these historical landmarks I am struck not by how long ago they were, but by how recent.
The 1920s were an age of modernity. The beginning of commercial air travel, radio and television broadcasting. An Avant-garde in literature, art and music was revolutionising culture. New advances in medicine and technology were being celebrated. And yet most women were denied the right to vote by law. It seems like something from the Dark Ages. It’s quite shocking to think that there are many people alive today who were born in these times.
Universal suffrage had been a long time coming. Prior to the Great Reform Act women weren’t actually denied a vote by law, but since the franchise was extended only to wealthy property owners they were excluded in practice. There are accounts of women with land voting but they are extremely rare.
Throughout the late 18th century political agitation to extend the franchise gathered pace. It’s clear that the debate in the radical friendly societies which sprung up over Scotland and England considered the position of women. Burns was to remark in 1796 that “The rights of women merit some attention”.
By 1832, and at the third parliamentary attempt, parliament passed the Representation of the People Act and there followed the Scottish Reform Act. Both extended the franchise to pretty much all property owners providing they were “male persons”. Now women were actually denied the vote by law.
Bit by bit the franchise was extended further but not until 1918 was the vote given to working class men and some women. It was to take almost a century before women and men were allowed to vote on equal terms.
Thanks to women MPs, and the influence of women voters, legislation passed between 1918 and 1939 dramatically improved the status of women. Inheritance rights were equalised, marriage and divorce laws reformed, the age of consent raised to 16, and widows and orphans’ pensions created.
I doubt that much, if any, of this would have happened if women had not achieved the vote. If ever there was proof that laws reflect the interests of those who make them it is the effect of women’s suffrage.
Votes for women was the beginning of a century of advancement - the fact that women lead both the party of government and opposition in Scotland and we have a gender balanced cabinet are to be welcomed.
But let’s not pretend that the battle is won. Women remain, far too often, at a disadvantage in 21st century Scotland - under-represented in public life and in the running of our society. There’s still a gap in pay and women bear the brunt of Tory cuts in public services whilst having a disproportionate burden of caring for relatives.
This year as we remember milestones in the struggle for equality in the past we should rededicate ourselves to making it a reality in the very near future.
In our determination to achieve real equality most of all our government should use their power to demonstrate solidarity with women across the globe. Maybe it’s time we stopped being allies of countries that don’t treat women as equals and withheld support until women are accorded the basic human rights that their male counterparts enjoy.
Written for Edinburgh Evening News - 19th July 2018