Historical Notes: A woman's place is in the polling booth

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THE DOORS of polling stations opened at eight o'clock on the morning of 14 December 1918, in the general election that followed the ending of the World War. For the first time, women could walk inside and vote - unless they happened to be under 30 years old or living in furnished accommodation. Full equality with male voters didn't come until 1928. In spite of that, there were more than eight million women electors on the register in 1918, and a lot of misgivings among the political establishment about the impact of such a large and unpredictable number of new voters.

Meetings were organised by various bodies all over the country to educate them. At a talk at Hereford town hall on "The New Woman Voter and her Responsibilities" the Bishop of Hereford informed his unenthusiastic audience that he had always regarded female suffrage with deepest misgivings and hoped that women would still stay at home and look after their families. The Liberal Party took a more positive line. Its election advert in The Times promised "removal of artificial restrictions on women's opportunities", tactfully not mentioning that a Liberal government had failed to give the women the vote in the bitter years of the suffragette struggle just before the war. The hopeful theory that women would bring a more humane and caring approach to politics was already surfacing.

On polling day, only 17 of the 1,623 candidates watching anxiously as the people trickled in to cast their votes were women. It had been a scramble for them to stand at all. One of the last acts of the outgoing government, less than a month before polling day, was to give women the chance to be candidates. Some of them leapt at it. The veteran campaigner Charlotte Despard, at 74 years old, put up a brave fight for Labour in Battersea North. In Hendon, the Independent candidate Edith How Martyn set up her committee rooms in a shop selling babies' prams. Another Independent, Mrs Strachey, standing in Chiswick, was delighted to be on the receiving end of some eggs - presented as a gesture of support, not hurled. Eggs were too scarce and expensive after the war to be used as missiles.

One of the few women candidates who seemed to have a fighting chance was Christabel Pankhurst. Immediately war broke out, she and her mother Emmeline had diverted their energies to army recruiting campaigns and stridently patriotic speeches. Emmeline called in the debt by demanding and getting the support of the prime minister, David Lloyd George, for Christabel who stood in Smethwick with policies that largely consisted of taking a firm line against Germans, pacifists, anarchists and Bolsheviks. The sight of Emmeline, as reported in the Daily Mail, making a speech in support of her daughter while standing on a table in front of a pub must have been one of the livelier memories of what most people agreed was a generally colourless and quiet election. Weariness had set in, both from the war and the fight for the vote. Sylvia Pankhurst reflected the suffragettes' response to their success, "The pageantry and rejoicing, the flaming ardour which in pre-war days would have greeted the victory, were absent when it came."

When the results were announced - two weeks after polling day to allow time for the votes of the troops overseas to be counted - Lloyd George's Coalition government was returned to power as predicted by a large majority. The impact of the women's vote had been less unsettling than many politicians had feared. Only one woman candidate was elected, Countess Markievicz of Sinn Fein, who refused to swear the oath of allegiance so could not take up her seat. Ironically, the first woman to sit in the House of Commons, from a by-election less than a year later, was Nancy Astor, who had an easy ride into a safe Tory seat vacated by her husband on his elevation to the peerage.

Gillian Linscott is the author of `Dance on Blood' (Virago, pounds 5.99)