Veterans – History in the Making 12
A Right to Vote – February 1918
In November 2010 Cpl Sarah Bushbye RAMC was awarded the Military Cross by Her Majesty the Queen in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Sarah is only the third ever female recipient of the MC. Pte Michelle Morris also RAMC was the first in 2006 and Able Seaman Kate Nesbitt RN received hers for actions in Afghanistan.
A lot has changed in the last 100 years.
When I joined my first adult unit Hameln in 1978 I recall that due to it being a Royal Engineer unit there were no female soldiers in the Unit. We did have a female military doctor posted to Gordon Barracks years later and at the time the Assistant Adjutant was a WRAC officer. But the number of female soldiers was few and far between in male dominated RE units.
Of course it is very different now with female soldiers enlisting directly into nearly all areas of the Services, serving on the front line with the Army, going to sea on Royal Naval ships and flying tactical aircraft in some very harsh situations. And Sarah, Michelle and Kate are good examples of equality in service.
The month of February 1918 will go down in history due to a couple of memorable events happening around the world at the time. But on 6th February for the first time in British history women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote in British Elections. For years leading up to the turn of the 20th Century and beyond the Suffragette movement finally got the results they were looking for on that date and later. The group had started in earnest as the Women’s Social and Political Union and was led by Emmeline Pankhurst. The WSPU had been influenced by the uprising in Russia where the chosen method of protest was hunger strikes. In the meantime the independent Government of the Isle of Man had given the right of the vote to women, but only those who owned their own properties, back as 1881.
Despite the fact that some states in the US were granting the right to women as young as 21 this was always argued against byte totally male dominated British Government. By 1903 women in Britain had still not been considered to have many rights let alone that of choosing parliamentary representatives. The WSPU decided to raise their game and under the leadership of Pankhurst developed the movement to become radical and militant believing this was the only way forward if it was going to be effective. The campaign became increasingly bitter, with property damage and hunger strikes being countered by the Police who began jailing protestors and force-feeding those who were following the Russian methodology.
The demonstration of belief went so far that on 8th June 1913 a prominent member of the WSPU, Emily Davison, who had already been arrested nine times for rioting, been on seven hunger strikes and been subjected to forced feeding nearly fifty times made the ultimate sacrifice for her cause when she walked out onto the race track at Epsom as the 1913 Derby race was running. She was hit by Anmer, a horse owned by the King who was running at around 35mph when the collision occurred. Emily died two days later of her injuries. But the whole incident was caught on camera and sent around the world.
This continued until it was suspended due to the outbreak of War in 1914.
At the commencement of the First World War, the WSPU called a halt on their efforts to have Women recognised to instead focusing on the war effort and all the riots and hunger strikes stopped. As a sign of agreement in August 1914 the Government released all prisoners who had been incarcerated for suffrage activities who were given an amnesty. The Suffragettes’ focus on war work turned public opinion in their favor and support rose for the cause.
Due to all men of a certain age being sent to the war, women eagerly volunteered to take on many traditional male roles. The war also created a split in the movement and various splinter groups developed, some like the WSPU supporting the war effort where others, such as the Women’s Suffragette Foundation (WSF), led by Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter Sylvia, continued the fight.
Finally on 6th February 1918 an act was passed in Parliament called the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave way for the rights of women over the age of 30 to vote in general elections and then in November 1918, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was passed, allowing women to be elected into Parliament. The Representation of the People Act in 1928 extended the voting franchise to all women over the age of 21, granting women the vote on the same terms that men had gained ten years earlier.
The Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) was formed in on 1st February 1949 from the existing members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) which had been in existence since 1938. The WRAC were disbanded in April 1992 and existing members transferred directly to the Corps to which they were attached.
In July 2015 Susan Ridge was promoted to the rank of a two star Major General, the first female soldier to reach this rank.
So for all our female readers, please share your experiences by contacting us at Forgotten Veterans UK.