This month sees the centenary of a major success for women’s suffrage. When the Representation of the People Act became law on 6th February 1918, women over 30, who were occupiers of property or married to occupiers, became entitled to vote for the first time in British history.
West Sussex Libraries have been finding out what happened locally in the campaign for women’s suffrage. Our team of volunteers have been searching local newspapers, starting with the Worthing Gazette 1909-1919: one of eleven local newspapers available as searchable pdfs in all 36 West Sussex Libraries and West Sussex Record Office. They have been looking for stories about local suffrage organisations, and significant figures in the suffrage movement such as Ellen Chapman, the first female mayor of Worthing, and Rustington residents Lady Maud Parry and her husband Sir Hubert Parry, who wrote the music to William Blake’s Jerusalem which later became the Women Voter’s Hymn.
At the meeting of the Women’s Franchise Society in Liverpool Terrace in Worthing on 6th February 1918, the chair congratulated the members of the Society upon the decision of Parliament to at last extend the franchise to women. Men, it was humorously observed, had had the vote in the past because they had property, and now the women were going to get it because they had age… and brains!
Celebrating the victory for women’s suffrage, the president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies came to Littlehampton in April 1918 to speak at a meeting of the local NUWSS. By 1918, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, widow of Henry Fawcett, the blind and radical Liberal MP for Brighton and then Hackney, had been campaigning for women’s suffrage for over 50 years. For Millicent Garrett Fawcett it was the first time in the history of this country that women had ever had a shred of political power. She urged that women must hold and use the vote as trustees for the younger and working women, whose splendid work and enthusiasm had helped women over 30 to secure the vote. Chairing the meeting, Lady Maud Parry argued that although some people may say there was nothing else to do, they were only just beginning. Lady Parry confidently anticipated that women would use their vote “for the good of the country”.
Just as the fight for women’s rights continued, so did the Great War, and a message was read out from British explorer Sir Harry Johnston of Poling, near Arundel. He was still confined to his house, the result of a whiff of mustard gas inhaled while on a visit to the Western Front.
“We look now to the men and women of the masses to save this country and all the best things that this great Empire stands for…
Over in France I realised a few weeks ago that our struggle there against the malign power of Germany is more and more a women’s war as well as a man’s fight….
I saw … near to the battle front many a Red Cross nurse [and] the Women’s Army … trudging, bicycling, riding, driving, clerking, manufacturing, bookkeeping, serving out stores, mending, tending and doing everything but fighting with lethal weapons, yet longing to do that if they might advance the cause of freedom.
I never met one British officer or soldier who had anything but good to say of women’s work in France, nor one instance of cowardice on the part of women workers….
The behaviour of the women in the War area has, I think, won over five million fighting men to the future championship of the rights of women; it has laid the foundation of a lasting partnership between the sexes.”
Amy Perry, Local Studies Librarian, West Sussex Libraries
Images reproduced with the kind permission of Mary Taylor, from her publication ‘Winds of Change in a Sleepy Sussex Village – Rustington’, by Graeme Taylor and Mary Taylor BME (2015)