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Representation of the People Acts

From Women in European History

A painting by Sir George Hayter that commemorates the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832

The Representation of the People Acts were reform legislations for the United Kingdom’s electoral system from 1832 to 2000. Of these, the Reform Acts of 1832, 1918, and 1928 marked crucial progression for women’s suffrage. The Reform Act of 1832 granted voting rights to male persons, thereby officially excluding women from voting, while the Qualification of Women Act of 1918 allowed voting rights for women over 30, and the Equal Suffrage/Franchise Act of 1928 granted equal voting rights to women as men.

The Reform Act of 1832 lowered the qualifications for voting to include many smaller property holders for the first time. Specifically, the Act granted voting rights to “male persons” who occupied premises of an annual value of £10 to the advantage of shopkeepers and other middle-class men. Furthermore, the bill simplified registration and voting procedures. While the bill left the working class and the lower middle classes without the vote, it gave many property holders a share in government and lessened political agitation.[1] The act created half a million new electors (the proportion of electors was then 1 in 24). WRITE OUT NUMBERS The inclusion of the words “male persons” in the bill officially put a bar to women’s suffrage for the first time.[2] “Man” did not include “woman” and “he” did not mean “she,” so women who attempted to exercise voting rights were punished. John Stuart Mill, a social reformer and a member of the parliament, attempted to replace the term 'man' with 'person' in the second Reform Bill of 1867. His proposal was ridiculed in the House of Commons and was defeated by 196 votes to 76.[3] The exclusion of women in the electoral bill provided a source of attack and resentment from which the women’s suffrage movement grew.

A section from the Reform Act of 1918

Militant tactics used by women’s suffrage organizations, such as the Women’s Social and Political Union, faced strong oppositions from the government, and along with the outbreak of World War II in 1914, the women’s suffrage movement came to a temporary halt. A legislature that would grant women the right to vote did not seem likely to pass in the near future. To many suffragettes’ surprise, however, the parliament passed the Qualification of Women Act in 1918. The effect of the war was contrary to what was expected; instead of neglecting women’s suffrage after the war, the government accepted and passed the women’s suffrage bill. Women’s service to the nation during the war was one of the primary reasons for the passing of the Act. Furthermore, the war led to the need to revise the electoral system, which broadened franchise based not on property but on personal rights. The act granted votes to women over thirty years of age who occupied a home or any land (with the annual value of £5), graduated from a university, or got a degree from a university.[4] The act of 1918 added eight million electors, of which three-fourths were women, bringing up the proportion of electors to one in three.[4] Strong objections were brought against women using the old anti-suffrage arguments: “that women’s sphere is the home, that women do not want the ballot.”[4] The main objection against women’s suffrage was that inexperienced women voters should not be added when the problems of war, peace and reconstruction were in demand. Despite the oppositions, the Reform Act of 1918 was the first bill that officially granted voting rights to women.

The Reform Act of 1918 restricted the vote to only women over 30, so that they would not form a majority in the electorate. In 1928, the age limit for women voters was brought down to 21 through the Equal Suffrage Act, giving the vote to 5 million extra women. After the Reform Act of 1928, women were a majority in the electorate.[5] Many of the suffragettes who had fought for this right were dead by the time the bill was passed, including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy, Constance Lytton, and Emmeline Pankhurst. The Representation of the People Act of 1928 was not only significant to British women and suffragettes who fought for voting rights, but also had a significant impact on women’s rights and enfranchisement worldwide.


  1. "Reform Bill." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.. 26 May 2010 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/495344/Reform-Bill>.
  2. "Reform Act 1832." Wikipedia. 2010. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc.. 26 May 2010 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1832_Reform_Act#Women.27s_suffrage>.
  3. "Women's Rights." Citizenship. The National Archive. 26 May 2010. <http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/brave_new_world/women.htm>.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Ogg, Frederick A. "The British Representation of the People Act ." American Political Science Review. 12.3 (1918): 498-503.
  5. Ross, J. F. S. "Women and Parliamentary Elections ." British Journal of Sociology. 4.1 (1953): 14-24.

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