ON November 14, 1918, just three days after the Armistice, Bonar Law, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the wartime coalition government, announced that a general election would be held on Saturday, December 14.

The people of Britain, emerging from a hellish war, were to be rushed into electing a new Parliament before most of the troops had even made it back home.

But some prospective voters who had been waiting a long time for this day were determined to exercise their citizenship with purpose and ambition. A leader in The Vote (the weekly paper of the Women’s Freedom League) claimed: “The coming General Election will be historic, because for the first time in our history women have the right to elect their representatives and to be elected to the British House of Commons. [We] emphasise the need for every woman to rise to the responsibility which this new power has given her.”

The new power had been a long time coming. The campaign for women’s enfranchisement had begun formally in the 1860s, with Scots in the vanguard. Women from Shetland to Stranraer signed petitions to Parliament, wrote letters, addressed meetings, organised demonstrations. But after 50 years and millions of signatures, these tactics had failed to deliver votes. From 1903, there was a turn to militant direct action.

In Scotland, Ethel Moorhead, Helen Crawfurd, Dr Dorothea Chalmers Smith, Arabella Scott and others crossed the line into lawbreaking. They stormed meetings, confronted politicians, prayed aloud in churches, smashed windows, set fire to buildings.

They used courtrooms, prisons and the press as theatres of militancy, provoking outrage and dramatically raising the level of public debate.

In 1907 a breakaway group from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), objecting to the Pankhursts’ autocratic style and demand for total loyalty, set up the more democratic Women’s Freedom League (WFL). The WFL was particularly strong in Scotland, where many suffragettes didn’t take kindly to diktats from London.

They were militant in outlook, but eschewed the violent strategies of the WSPU. There were also attempts by constitutionalists to form an independent Scottish

organisation, and although that never happened, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies did lobby successfully for female enfranchisement to be included in the 1913 Scottish Home Rule Bill.

That Bill never made it onto the statute books, despite a second reading in May 1914; by the end of the summer, Britain was at war. When war was declared the Pankhursts ordered their WSPU troops to cease suffrage campaigning and devote their energies to the patriotic cause. Members of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and WFL also shifted focus to support women workers and the war effort. Dr Elsie Inglis instigated the remarkable Scottish Women’s Hospitals, flying the NUWSS colours at their field units.

From both wings of the suffrage movement there were women – including Chrystal Macmillan and Helen Crawfurd – whose political and feminist convictions led them into bold war resistance.

Pressure for women’s enfranchisement continued, but in a markedly different context. By 1916, it was clear that the pre-war electoral register, which had excluded not only all women but also around 40% of men, would not do.

A recurring argument against votes for women was that the ability to defend national security was the red line of citizenship. Yet most of the young working class men serving at the Front had no such rights, and MPs called for a “soldiers’ vote”. A cross-party Speakers Conference on Electoral Reform met in 1916-17 to discuss franchise reform; redistribution of seats; electoral registration reform; and method and cost of elections. Universal male suffrage was quickly agreed. A motion for equal universal suffrage was defeated – otherwise women would constitute the majority of voters!

Instead, women over 30 who were graduates, owned property or paid rates – or were married to a man who did – would get the vote. Lloyd George commented that the age limit was illogical, unpalatable and undesirable … but necessary to achieve consensus. It was enshrined in the Representation of the People Act 1918. Politicians and newspapers claimed that women were being rewarded for their splendid war effort – yet most of those who undertook munitions, agricultural, medical, nursing and other work were under 30. Along with older domestic servants, single or poorest working class women, they still could not vote. But theoretically, by an Act passed on the final day of the dissolving Parliament, they – indeed any woman over 21 – could stand as a candidate … and 17 did, including Eunice Murray in Bridgeton.

The general election of 1918 started to shape a different political landscape. The electorate in Scotland had grown from 760,000 in 1910, to 2.2 million – a 250% increase in urban areas. The Labour vote rose substantially while the Liberals went into terminal decline.

But this historic election was an ill-tempered, controversial and confusing affair, held in a shattered land ravaged not only by war but a devastating flu pandemic. Prime Minister Lloyd George and Conservative leader Bonar Law had cooked up a deal to endorse candidates who pledged to support the coalition government. The majority of “coupon candidates” were Tories, and Lloyd George was accused of reducing the election to “the lowest level of demagoguery” by exploiting a bellicose mood, stirred up by the “yellow press”, to “squeeze more juice out of the German roast”.

On election day, women were often first in the queue to vote. It seemed worthy of journalistic comment that they were exercising their new privilege intelligently, and required no guidance or instruction! In Leith, polling station creches were provided so that mothers could vote.

Feminist organisations had urged members to question candidates about their commitment. The Vote commented: “It is difficult to suppress a smile when we notice how candidates rival each other in the beliefs that they express about women’s equality … at long last this has penetrated men’s brains; we must keep it there and make it work.”

The coalition duly won a crushing majority, returning a Parliament of, as JM Keynes commented, “hard-faced men who look as if they have done very well out of the war”. The only woman elected was Countess Markievicz who, with 72 Sinn Fein comrades, refused to take her seat. Irish independence and partition was imminent. Not so for equal representation or an end to sex discrimination.

Women did not vote as a bloc, for their political standpoints and concerns were as diverse and class oriented as men’s. The macho Westminster bear pit remained overwhelmingly male, pale and stale.

In the century since that historic 1918 election, a grand total of 64 women have been elected as MPs for Scottish constituencies. In the 1999 Scottish Parliamentary election, 49 women became MSPs – more on one day than all 29 women MPs betweeen 1918 and 1999.

The struggle for justice continues, but much has changed – the 1918 suffragists would have rejoiced in a feminist First Minister who claims gender equality as a top priority for the Scottish Government. Delivering on that pledge requires much more than formal parity, but being in the places of political power matters, and it makes a difference.

Elsie Inglis once spoke “of the time coming when we, the women of Scotland, will help build the New Jerusalem with the weapon ready to our hand – the Vote!” She died before reaching that promised land, but let’s celebrate all the ground-breaking pioneer women who finally got to vote and to stand for Parliament because they wanted to build that new world. We stand on their shoulders.