IT may seem difficult to be lieve, as we go to the polls next Thursday, that it is only a mere 50 years since a small band of women in this country were fighting to win equality with men in the political sphere.
We take our political enfranchisement so much for granted nowadays that it comes as almost a shock to realise that up until 1914, well within living memory, women enjoyed a very second-class citizenship in Britain.
Before 1914 the struggles of the suffragettes, dedicated to the cause of obtaining votes for their sex, were regarded by the Establishment with amusement at best, downright hostility at worst. Dame Millicent Fawcett, Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughter Christabel and a few determined friends braved all that society could do to show its contempt for them and its indifference to their efforts.
was during the First World War that women proved that they could do the work of men. when they had to be employed to replace the men who had been called away from civilian occupations into the armed forces. More, in the later stages of the war manpower became so critically short that women were actually allowed to become part of the military forces by joining the Auxiliary Services—something which had previously been unthinkable.
Even when the war ended,
however, political recognition of women's equality with men was not to follow as immediately as might have been supposed. In 1918 women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote, but it was not until 1928 that the minimum age at which women might vote was lowered to 2I—the same as for men.
NEARLY FORTY YEARS HAVE passed since then. A glance at the statistics of election candidates hardly seem to indicate that women have taken much advantage of their admission to the political scene.
Out of 618 candidates being sponsored by the Labour Party 30 are women. The Conservative Party is putting up 629 candidates of whom 21 arc women. The Liberal Party representative was not sure of the final figures when I telephoned but told me that out of their possible total of about 280 candidates 17 were women.
These figures, however, need not necessarily reflect the pro
portionate interest taken in politics by the sexes. After all, the majority of women must put home and family before a career as demanding and absorbing as a political one.
Moreover, the paucity of their numbers in the House of Commons does not by any means reflect their true power. What gives women voters their tremendous influence in the political life of the country is their numerical superiority over men. The office of the Registrar General found that in mid1965 there were roughly two million more women than men of voting age in England and Wales and a further 250,000 majority of women voters in Scotland.
If the women of Britain really made up their minds about some Parliamentary measure, therefore, and made a concerted effort to have their wishes implemented. there would be no stopping them. no matter how the men might disagree!
This being the case, the attraction of feminine votes is an important element in the campaign of any Parliamentary candidate, particularly as it is held by the pollsters that a disproportionately high percent
age of the "floating vote" is female.
WHAT MAKES US VOTE as we do, in the final analysis? That is a question which party headquarters would give a lot to have answered. There is little doubt that in casting our votes, as in so many other aspects of our lives, we are influenced greatly by childhood environment and prejudice.
It would be fascinating to see statistics on the proportion
of voters who vote as their parents did—even more interesting, though impossible, to find out, how many do so simply because their parents did.
Again, canvassers still come up against the impenetrable feminine tactic of : "Oh. I leave all that kind of thing to my husband. He votes for X and so do I."
A widely held, though untestable, theory is that women
are influenced by the looks and charm of candidates and even of candidates' wives. Not a subscriber to this view myself, I do, however, believe that good manners help to make up the undecided female mind.
As for those candidates who go in for baby-kissing, it seems more likely that any feminine votes they get will be in spite of, and not because of, this unhygienic and ridiculous exercise.
It seems a very short time since the last election. One hears many grumbles about the time devoted to political broadcasts on radio and television, the space allotted to the election in newspaper columns, the canvassers on the doorstep and even the manifestoes pushed through the letter-box. But this is the way our democracy works and no better way has yet been found.
So let's be grateful that we do live in 1966 when politicians find it essential to consider the opinions of the women of the country. There wasn't much social legislation passed before women got the vote. I don't think the suffragettes would have been so disappointed after all.