The claim that women first obtained the vote in 1918 is only a half truth. It is true about Parliamentary Elections, but false about Local Government Elections.
Please note that the statistics and cases I refer to below relate to England only - although the principles discussed have relevance to Scotland, Wales (and for the times covered) the whole of Ireland.
Women first qualified for franchise rights for parliamentary elections under the 1918 Representation of the People's Act. This entitled them to vote if they had six month's occupation of land or premises in an area or were married to a man who so qualified.
Women were required to be 30 years of age. Men under similar occupancy requirements only needed to be 21. The anomaly wasn't corrected until the 1928 Representation of the People's Act, when men and women qualified under the same requirements.
Board Of Guardian Votes
The 1918 and 1928 Acts also extended franchise rights for women and men in all forms of local government, including for Boards of Guardians.
The Boards of Guardians had first come into operation as a result of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. This provided for Parishes which then littered much of the country as the sole form of local government in many areas, to be united into groups for the operation of the outdoor relief system and for the harsh new system of workhouses.
There was a restricted property qualification for elections to the Boards, based on ownership and ratepaying. The assumption was that the Act applied to men only, for at the time property was overwhemingly in men's hands.
A more hopeful development for women's electoral rights emerged with the adoption of the 1870 Married Women's Property Act. In that year, Mrs M'Ilquham of Tewkesbury successfully claimed a qualification to vote in her Board of Guardian's election because she owned property separately from her husband in the form of a 75 acre farm. The door was now open for certain women of property to vote in such elections.
A Miss Merrington was the first woman to be elected to a Board in 1875, but she was disqualified in 1879 when she moved her house.
The number of women qualifying to vote for Boards expanded by 1914-15 and in England a total of 1,546 women then held seats as Poor Law Guardians.
School Board Votes
The breakthrough achieved with Mrs M'Ilquham in 1870 was quickly followed up in the London School Board elections in November that year.
The 1870 Elementary Education Act provided for the election of school boards for the running of schools outside of the voluntary system. County, District and Rural Councils had not by then been established. So as with Poor Law Boards, there was a need to draw Parish areas together to operate School Boards. This was even the case in London, where the first School Board elections were held.
Whilst women had obtained the right to vote (and to stand for office) in School Board elections, ratepayer and property qualifications still told against them. All the same an astonishing election took place in the Marylebone School Board Division, which covered the area of nine Parliamentary Constituencies.
22 people stood for 7 places. Elizabeth Garrett a local medical practitioner finished at the top of the poll with 47,858 votes. She obtained nearly three times the votes of the runner-up, T.E. Huxley (the scientist and humanist) who obtained 13,494 votes.
Emily Davies who was involved with the Women's College at Hitchen, also came top of the poll in the Greenwich Division. Whilst Maria Grey a founder of the Girls' Public Day School Trust was also elected for the Chelsea Division.
The reason these women did so well is that they had a high reputation for philanthropic work. They were popular amongst women voters who turned out in strength and amongst working class men, who appreciated the help they provided for their families. Elizabeth Garrett was pressed to stand by a deputation of Marylebone working men whose wives she had treat medically. She also had support in the London press. Although voters had as many votes as there were candidates, her committed supporters were organised into plumping only for Elizabeth Garrett.
By the 1914-15 period and in the run up to parliamentary advance of women's rights for the 1918 General Election, the number of women in England on school boards amounted to 680.
Local Government Votes
The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act introduced a male ratepayer franchise for those occupying a wide range of properties. This replaced a previously more restricted set of fancy and historical franchises, which had often included votes for the "freemen" of the municipality. A few of these beneficiaries had been women, who were then disfranchised by the 1835 legislation.
In 1869 an amendment to what became the Municipal Franchise Act gave women ratepayers in Boroughs the vote. Unfortunately, this was narrowed by a 1872 Court decision to cover unmarried women only.
Nevertheless, the 1870 Elementary Education Act with the breakthrough led by Elizabeth Garrett was followed by legislation in the late 1880s and throughout the 1890s which began to bring women's voting rights in line with men's under new Local Government structures effecting County, Rural and District Councils.
It was not, however, all a matter of slow but steady advance for women's rights. In 1889 for instance, Margaret Sandhurst had her election to the new London County Council overturned by the Courts. Yet Jane Cobden survived as her case wasn't taken to Court by the man whom she defeated. He supported votes for women.
Nevertheless, progress was being made. In England in 1914-15, 267 women were elected onto Councils, whilst they took over 2,700 places on School and Poor Law Boards.
Votes for women within a compex pattern of Local Authorities and Boards has a history which at times mingles with that of the struggle for the Parliamentary vote, yet also has a life of its own. See below for its key source.
The infomation I have culled the above article from is all taken from "Ladies Elect : Women in English Local Government 1865-1914" by Patricia Hollis (Claredon Press, Oxford 1987.)
It is a serious work of scholarship and a delight to read. I first came across a reference to this book last November, when I attended a Conference run by the Society for the Study of Labour History. She was one of the speakers and the documentation for the Conference referred me to this book. I had to borrow it via the public library loan system. Unfortunately, I will have to return it in the morning.
I am sending a copy of this article to the author at the Lords. She is now Baroness Hollis and was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Works and Pensions from 1997 to 2005 . She is also author of "Jennie Lee: A Life" (Oxford University Press. 1997). Hopefully, she will correct any blunders I have made in interpreting her work on "Ladies Elect."
In the area I live, the first woman ever to be elected to Parliament is the current M.P., Natascha Engel. She succeeded me at the 2005 General Election. What I don't know (but intend to research) is which local women were first elected onto the following categories, and when - (1) Poor Law Board, (2) School Board, (3) Parish Council, (4) County Council, (5) Rural District Council and (6) Urban District Council. That covers the area up to 1974 and I was then living here and know who was whom.
Others might like to undertake similar investigations in their locality.