Becoming Citizens: The British Women's Suffrage Movement, 1918-1928
Dr. Marc Baer
Prior to the passage of the Representation of the People Act on February 6, 1918, the British law code stated that women were the legal equivalents of male infants, lunatics, idiots, paupers, and criminals. Since access to citizenship in the United Kingdom was determined by sex, every British man had the potential to become a citizen but this privilege was not extended to a single woman. Therefore, enfranchising women would threaten the nation’s sex-based political dichotomy of Man is to citizen, as Woman is to not citizen. However, the nation’s binary definition of citizenship disappeared when Parliament passed the 1918 Representation of the People Act. While approximately eight million British women age thirty years and above became the legal equivalents of British men age twenty-one and older, newly-enfranchised women remained greatly disadvantaged because they still had to learn how to act, think, and organize as citizens. Therefore, I argue that it is more accurate to state that enfranchised women started the process of becoming citizens on February 6, 1918. Because the 1918 Act restructured the boundaries that defined the United Kingdom’s traditional sex-based political dichotomy, enfranchised British women had to reconstruct their own identities and redefine their relationships with men and disfranchised women before they could navigate the political world as citizens and effectively lobby for an equal franchise a decade later.
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