Sylvia Pankhurst discusses the limitations of the increased suffrage of the Representation of the People Act 1918.
Votes for women. Sex disability not removed
Women have won the vote; no, let us correct ourselves, some women have been given the vote. The new measure only enfranchises from four to six million women out of a total of more than thirteen million. Less than half the women will get the vote by the new Act. The soldier lad of eighteen years will be a voter, the mother who maintains her children cannot vote till she is thirty years of age, and only then if she or her husband is a householder or latchkey voter, and if neither he nor she has been so unfortunate as to be forced to ask the Poor Law authorities for aid. The adult sons of the household will go to the poll; the adult daughters will be debarred. No, the new Act does not remove the sex disability; it does not establish equal suffrage. And by its University and business franchises the Act still upholds in statute form the old class prejudices; the old checks and balances designed to prevent the will of the majority, who are the workers, from being registered without handicap.
But some people, we learn, are rejoicing with an exceeding joy over the passage of the new Act, and are making impassioned speeches, declaring its coming to be a great victory, which will herald in a 'new world'.
Saddened and oppressed by the great world tragedy, by the multiplying graves of men, and the broken hearts of women, we hold aloof from such rejoicings; they stride with a hollow and unreal sound upon our consciousness. Some of the organisations formed for the work of securing the vote are dissolving, or taking counsel whether to dissolve. The WSF [Workers' Suffrage Federation] has long engaged in many activities which place on its shoulders a heavy burden of toil and responsibility; a burden of necessary work which it would seem almost an act of treachery to lay down now. The franchise is but partly won, but franchise activities have formed a mere fraction of our activities these many years past. This is but a partial prejudiced franchise, which has been extended to women, not graciously, but in a grudging spirit. Yet even had it come in full measure, justly and equally to all men and women, it could not seem to us a great joy-giving boon in these sad days in which Government by politicians has plunged the world into this lengthy War and placed humanity upon the rack! If it is to survive, very robust must be our faith in the possibility of re-creating the dry, crumbling bones of Parliament, and of filling its benches with vigorous uncompromising Socialists, determined to take immediate action to sweep away the all- embracing system of privileges, and corruptions attendant on modern capitalism and to establish Socialism in our time. Is it possible to establish Socialism with the Parliament at Westminster as its foundation? If we would have our policy grow and develop intelligently and usefully with the times, so that we may go forging on ahead in the van of progress, not falling in laggingly at its rear, we must consider very seriously whether our efforts should not be bent on the setting aside of this present Parliamentary system under which the peoples suffer, and the substitution for it of a local, national, and international system, built up on an occupational basis, of which the members shall be but the delegates of those who are carrying on the world's work; and shall be themselves workers, drawn, but for a space, from the bench, the mine, the desk, the kitchen, or the nursery; and sent to voice the needs and desires of others like themselves. (...)
Published in Workers' Dreadnought, 16 February 1918. Taken from the Antagonism website.