The Impact of The First World War on Women's Suffrage

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9 min read

Published: Aug 10, 2018

Words: 1750|Pages: 4|9 min read

Published: Aug 10, 2018

The argument over whether World War I was the main reason for women achieving the vote in 1918 is undeniably complex and has caused a large divide between historians. The supporting view of this statement is largely held by traditionalist historians such as Marwick, Phillips and Bruley who believe that the vote was given to women as a token of gratitude for their effort during the war and it “removed the main obstacle to reform”[1], while Steinbach – a revisionist historian finds this analysis much too simplistic and takes a contradictory view by arguing that although the war stopped militancy which right before the war was turning public opinion against the suffrage woman, militancy and the suffrage movement nonetheless was much more effective in affecting people’s mind-sets than the war. Her argument is further supported by Pugh and Bartley. Whilst this essay will recognise the importance of the view that World War I was significant to women receiving the vote, it intends to argue that Steinbach’s analysis is the best supported by existing evidence and as such is the most accurate view.

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It can be seen that World War I was an extensive reason for women achieving the vote in 1918 due to the widespread change in attitudes it triggered. In 1914, when the First World War broke out, men were expected to fight. This left a large void in the workforce and allowed women to secure employment in a range of industries; from making shells to secretarial jobs. By 1915, 2.5 million women were involved in war work and by 1918, 7 million had volunteered. The patriotic response from the suffragette movement removed the argument that women had not fought for their country and also encouraged the public to acknowledge women for their hard work. It is this that led to the recognition of the “magnificent contribution” that “knocked away the last vestiges of Asquith’s personal opposition”[2]. This is further supported by Marwick who argues that the “vigorous hostility of men”[3] was reduced due to the change in attitudes as the war reduced prejudices against women and greatly enhanced the status of women in society. Furthermore, it is argued by most traditionalist historians that the reduced number of men forced women into employment that allowed them to prove their strength and capability, and hence as argued by Gifford Lewis, “the greatest factor in granting of the vote to women at the end of the war” was the “highly skilled and dangerous work done by women during the war”[4] which allowed them to be proved “worthy of the vote”[5]. Although a highly reasonable and traditional view, this view can be considered invalid as the majority of women who participated in the war effort were in their 20s however the vote was given to women over the age of 30. Therefore it can be seen that young munition workers were not rewarded with the vote. Pugh further argues that the traditionalist views are highly invalid and women’s war effort, especially “women’s voluntary work…carried more weight with the press than the politicians”[6]. Furthermore, Bartley argues that the First World War was merely “a pretext to recant and save face”[7] as MPs realised that change to support the women’s suffrage was inevitable. This therefore argues that there is a high likelihood that the war effort was not as effective in changing attitudes as previously believed and traditionalist feminist arguments which support the hard work of women during the War are believed to be outdated thus making Marwick’s “pioneering and optimistic” [8] interpretation less valid.

Contrastingly, it may be argued that the pre-war suffragette and suffragists movement was much more effective in leading the way for women gaining the vote, and in fact it may be argued that the war obstructed and delayed the vote. The conciliation bills of 1910 and 1913 were close to gaining the votes for women. It can be argued that Liberals were just about to introduce reforms as before the war was declared and the cabinet was becoming more pro-suffrage. Holton argues that there is clear evidence from the Liberal Party that “Women’s suffrage was on the verge of being granted just before the war broke out”.[9] This interpretation originates from a revisionist author hence heightening the validity as Holton would make a clear attempt to clearly depict the events which led up to the vote with less bias and opinion unlike a feminist author. Furthermore, although the war movement had a large effect on the attitudes on women’s suffrage and their political alliances, Bartley argues that without other factors such as the suffragette movement before the war, woman would have been unable to gain the vote. She argues that “French women were not enfranchised despite their participation in the war effort largely because there had been no women’s suffragette movement pre-war”[10]. This clearly shows that the women gaining the vote in Britain did not heavily depend on simply the war effort, but it constituted of a variety of factors. The evidence, supporting this statement validates the interpretation that all factors are inextricably linked leading to the enfranchisement of women. However in the later years of militancy it became obvious what women were losing support due to militancy, people no longer sympathised with the suffragettes but considered them a nuisance and thus the war diverted their attention and brought it back towards their femininity and virtue. This then removed the negative publicity which the suffragettes were gaining as the newspapers called them “Demented creatures[11]”, hence diminishing their chances of gaining the vote. Militancy for women is summed up as “making no progress at all except in alienating public opinion”[12], therefore suggesting that to some extent the war effort was more rewarding for women in turns of enfranchisement.

However, Pugh’s main argument is that it was in fact the political sphere that was the most beneficial to the suffrage movement and for women gaining the vote. He argues that women were granted the vote not just because of the war but more because of the steady pressure from campaign groups such as the suffragists. Their continuous campaign had begun to change attitudes as by 1910, 250,000 women had gained signatures in favour of female suffrage hence proving to the government the extent of their support. The growing support for the cause can also be seen through individual ministers; suffragettes who were willing to work with Liberal MPs met with men such as Campbell Bannerman, who stated that he was in favour of votes for women and thus gave them a voice in Parliament. Although attitudes could have been changed de facto, it was essential that there was legislation passed to reflect this and allow women the vote. Holton claims that although women’s war effort was an important factor in women gaining enfranchisement – it was in fact “the political alliances the democratic suffragists had formed in support of their demand (that) ensured women would have to be included in any future reform or bill”[13]. The change in national leadership also brought about positive effects as Lloyd George can be considered fairly sympathetic to the suffragette movement, and through the formation of the coalition “the enfranchisement of women did not present an advantage to any one political party”[14]. It can in fact be argued that the war was a convenience as due to it there was need for franchise reform; as large numbers of the armed forces were unable to vote as the existing franchise law required men who qualified as a householder to “have occupied a dwelling for at least a year prior to election”. The suffragettes exploited this and the government was forced to change this law and consider who should be put on the new voting register – although women’s war effort helped them gain a place on the new electoral register, it cannot be fully attributed to this. The attitudes of Asquith however may invalidate this idea as he claimed that “women work(ed) out their own salvation” – and hence this political alliance with women was purely credited to the war effort.

Similarly, it may be argued that Imperialism proved to be a greater force than the suffragette movement as it exerted pressure onto the government. The view argued by Steinbach and Bartley is that as “women’s suffrage was debated and slowly and unevenly granted across the British Empire”[15], Britain had to protect herself from the “embarrassment” as the “mother of democracy”[16] and could not lag behind. By 1918, women in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark and Finland had the vote. As Britain was seen as the mother of democracies, parliament was forced to consider the vote for women to catch up their type of democracy to avoid looking uncultured. Nonetheless, it is much too simplistic to say that it was any one factor that led to the gaining of the vote for women – it was a multiple factors that pushed onto the government and changed the opinions of women that led to women gaining the vote, however it was undeniable that “imperialism played an important role in suffrage discourse in England itself”[17]. Furthermore, the validity of these points is heightened as they originate from revisionist authors, who offer well balanced interpretations – although this at first may seem to show that they contradict each other, it can be assessed that as evidence is put forward for and against the question, the sources hence cannot be considered biased. Therefore it is undoubtable that Imperialism had a large effect on the subject of women gaining the vote.

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Conclusively, this essay acknowledges that many factors were important to women receiving the vote, nonetheless it can be concluded that although World War I demands for significant consideration the traditionalist point of view of it being the main reason for women receiving the vote as presented by Marwick, Phillips and Bruley is invalid and outdated. The more modern view with a higher validity is that the support of the politicians was much more significant in the battle for enfranchisement as the claim that women’s work during World War I was the most important reason is too simplistic because the change in status during World War I was a temporary one, which quickly reverted to what it was before the war once the war was finished, while the politicians continued fighting for women’s enfranchisement before and after the war. These views, largely supported by Steinbach, Pugh and Bartley are much more realistic and valid in their presentation of the factors that helped women gain the vote.

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The Impact of the First World War on Women’s Suffrage. (2018, August 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from
“The Impact of the First World War on Women’s Suffrage.” GradesFixer, 03 Aug. 2018,
The Impact of the First World War on Women’s Suffrage. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 Jun. 2024].
The Impact of the First World War on Women’s Suffrage [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Aug 03 [cited 2024 Jun 22]. Available from:
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