100 years ago today the first British women (those over 30, with property) were able to vote for the first time. The Representation of The People Act added 8.5 million women to the electoral roll. It also gave the vote to 5.6 million more men after their voting age was lowered to 21, and the property qualification abolished.
As a result, the general election in December 1918 consulted an electorate three times larger than the one before it.
Here are a few of those women who 100 years ago today voted for the first time, and their stories.
Gertrude Emily Luther, President of the Local Women’s Institute
My great grandmother, Gertrude Emily Luther, was 47 when she was able to vote for the first time in February 1918. Her brother, Herbert, was able to vote 17 years before his big sister could.
By the time Gertrude was able to cast her first vote she had raised a family of 11 children, worked as a nanny for the local vicar and opened a village shop.
During her life, she was President of the Local Women’s Institute and Secretary of the Mothers’ Union.
Frances Sylvester Ellis – a suffragette?
Frances Sylvester Ellis, born in 1888 in Folkestone, was Tooting member Suzanne Ellis’s maternal grandmother. In 1918, aged 30, Frances was amongst the youngest first-time women voters. In adulthood, Suzanne changed her name to Ellis to follow her maternal line.
Suzanne says she has always wondered about the sash her grandmother is wearing – she hopes it might be a suffragette sash…
Bedford councillor (Kathleen) Fleur Anderson is named after her maternal great grandmother, Kathleen Bond.
Born in 1862, Kathleen was 56 when she won the right to vote in 1918, ahead of her daughter, Fleur’s grandmother, who had to wait another 8 years before she could cast her vote.
Lillian Mabel Sharman – an advocate for workers’ rights
Mabel (3rd from left), as she was known, was Nightingale Candidate Rebecca Wilson’s Grandmother and the first woman in her family to vote. Born in 1907, she had to wait until 1928 to cast her first vote.
She spent much of her working life in service and then in the potteries in Stoke-on-Trent where she became a big advocate of workers’ rights, leading the women on the aero-graphing shop floor in her own quiet way.
She instilled the importance of voting in her three daughters, as did they in their children.
Nellie Florence Cunningham– first vote, first time in a Rolls Royce
Nellie Florence Cunningham, born in January 2, 1888 was Battersea Cllr Tony Belton’s paternal grandmother. Nellie must also have been among the youngest first time female voters in the country, having turned 30 just 35 days before the Representation of the People’s Act came into force.
Tony recalls his grandmother telling him about the first time she voted.
At the time, Nellie lived upstairs with 4 children aged between 2-8. Her downstairs neighbour came knocking to say that there was a man in the street offering to take them to the polling station in a big white open-topped car to vote, “but he’s a Tory”.
“Sod that”, said Tony’s Grandma, “it’s a secret ballot; of course we can accept a lift”.
It was Nellie Cunningham’s first and last time in a Roller.
That same year, her husband Ernest died in the flu epidemic of 1918.
Mary Ellen Slattery – Balham resident of 40 years
Mary Ellen Slattery (the baby in this photo) was the grandmother of Balham resident Jill D’Cruz.
Born in 1878, Mary was 40 the first time she cast her vote. A couple of years later, she moved to Ramsden Road in Balham where she lived until she died in 1961.
She ran the Holy Ghost parish from 137 Ramsden Road and was seemingly able to vet and approve all incoming Priests, always with a bottle of whisky on the table.
Bedford candidate Clare Fraser is named after her great aunt, Clare Huddart. One of 10 children, Clare was brought up in the Wirral and gained the right to vote in 1918.
Eliza Ann Knowlson and her locket
Liza-Ann as she was known, was born in 1866 so she could not vote until she was 52. By then she had had married, born 6 six children and lost two; Winnie and Connie, to flu and diphtheria.
Her daughter, my grandmother, wore Liza-Ann’s locket with a photo of her (and her husband) inside until she died, aged 106.
Grandma was 26 before she could vote in 1928 when women were given the same voting rights as men. Grandma went blind in her last years and would regularly ask me to write letters for her. In 2006 she asked me to write to Tony Blair to say she wouldn’t vote for him again because, she said, he was a liar and she couldn’t abide liars. When I pointed out to her that the next chance she would have to vote for him she would be 108, she said she didn’t care how old she’d be, she still wouldn’t vote for him.
She liked to say she’d voted Labour all her life, although, of course, she hadn’t been allowed to.
I was with grandma in her last hours when the person she called out for was her mother, whose locket I still wear.
My grandma, Rose Olive Bellamy
The thread that links these women to the men and women of today is not such a long one. I have photos of other female relatives who didn’t live long enough to ever cast a vote.
Women have seen revolutionary change over the last 100 years. Today, we have a lot to celebrate. We’ve seen female suffrage, female members of parliament, even female Prime Ministers. Unlike our foremothers, women today can have a career and marriage. But real equality between men and women is still a thing of the future.
To shape that future we must use the vote our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers fought for.
The next elections will be the local Council elections on May 3rd. It is easy to register to vote. https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote