1918 had ended with British women voting in a general election for the first time ever. But it was only those aged 30 or over and who met a property qualification who could vote.
That general election saw the first woman elected, but the successful candidate, Constance Markiewicz (pictured), refused to take her seat in the British Parliament that she and her Sinn Fein colleagues did not recognise as legitimate. Instead, Constance became Minister of Labour in the Dail Eireann, the first female Cabinet minister in Europe.
The Labour Party pushed for extension of women’s rights, and in March 1919 introduced the Women’s Emancipation Bill, to allow women equal voting rights and to hold civil and judicial appointments. It passed through its readings in the House of Commons without amendment, but in July, the unelected, aristocratic House of Lords blocked it.
The battle for equal votes for women continued internationally as well. On 17 February, the Inter-Allied Conference of Women’s Suffrage Societies met.
In 1918, the US House of Representatives had agreed to amend the constitution to allow women to vote, but the Senate had then voted down the proposal. American women continued to fight for the vote. On 9 February, police arrested demonstrators for women's suffrage and those arrested began a hunger strike; on 4 March 1919, police and soldiers attacked suffrage demonstrators outside New York Metropolitan Opera House.
Exactly three months later, the US Senate finally passed the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. Starting with Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan six days later, state after stated ratified this. However, tax, literacy and nationality laws were used to exclude native and some immigrant women and men from voting until several decades later.
1919 saw women win the vote in several other countries too, including Luxembourg, Sweden and the Czech part of Czechoslovakia. They lagged behind Russia, which had given votes to women straight after the revolution in 1917. Russian women marked International Women’s Day on 8 March 1919 with the slogan, is ‘All to the Red Front!’
In Britain, working women still faced poverty, low pay and poor working conditions as well as voting inequality. On 15 February, trade unionists launched a Working Women’s Charter at a mass meeting at the Royal Albert Hall.
Two days prior to this, an explosion of gun cotton had killed five women workers at Edmonton Munition Workers. Many women had entered factories to carry out wartime work such as this, and to replace men who were away at the front. However, with August’s Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act providing for returning servicemen to get their old jobs back, many now faced unemployment.
Employers tried to exploit the situation, but while some trade unionists prioritised the men’s interests, others fought for equality. On 16 November, London members of the Packing Case Makers’ Union instructed their executive to ballot them for strike action against the employers’ breaking an agreement to pay women workers the same as men.
Moreover, discrimination against married women continued: future Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin told Parliament that a married woman could not be a permanent civil servant as this was incompatible with her domestic duties.
In New England, USA on 15 April, women telephone company operators began a strike for better wages, and the next day the men employed by the telephone company walked out in solidarity with them. After five days, the strike won.
Women also campaigned against social injustice. In October, the Women’s Freedom League marched to Holloway Prison to
demand the release of Elsie Smith, unjustly imprisoned following the death of her child.
On 29 October, New Zealand, where women already had the vote, adopted the Women’s Parliamentary Rights Act, allowing women to stand for election to Parliament. A month later, Britain finally had its first woman sitting in the House of Commons, as Tory/Unionist Nancy Astor won a by-election for the Plymouth Sutton seat vacated by her husband.
Two days before Christmas, Parliament passed the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, falling well short of full equality for women but allowing women to enter the secular professions. The year ended with Lincoln’s Inn in London admitting its first female bar student, and the swearing-in of Ada Summers, Britain's first woman Justice of the Peace.
To read more about working-class struggle in 1919, buy this pamphlet.