DOWNLOAD – WHS Suffrage Scotland – Introduction

This learning resource has been produced by Women’s History Scotland Steering Committee members Esther Breitenbach, Linda Fleming and Valerie Wright to commemorate the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which awarded the parliamentary franchise to women of 30 years and over, and who had the relevant property qualifications. Though 1918 is celebrated as the year that women got the vote, it was not until 1928 that all women over 21 had the right to vote and therefore finally had the vote on the same terms as men.

Many popular accounts of the campaign for votes for women have focused on the period of suffragette militancy, which began in 1905 and lasted until the outbreak of war in 1914. The movement for women’s suffrage began a long time before then, in 1867, following the failure of the attempt to include the franchise for women in the Reform Act of that year (the Reform Act for Scotland was passed in 1868). It continued until 1928, since the 1918 Act, welcome though it was to many women, did not fully satisfy their demand for political rights and representation.

Outlined in this resource are key phases of the movement’s activity in Scotland. It is often not appreciated how extensive the movement was, as well as how long campaigning went on. In the early years of campaigning after 1867, numerous suffrage societies were formed across Scotland, though many do not appear to have had a long lifespan. In the 1880s women began to join political party organisations, taking the debate about women’s suffrage into the parties and associated bodies, such as the Primrose League and Scottish Women’s Liberal Federation. The emerging socialist parties of this period also debated women’s suffrage, with the Independent Labour Party being particularly enthusiastic in its support.

By the late 1890s there was a revival of women’s suffrage organisations, and in the first decade of the twentieth century there was a mushrooming of organisations which supported votes for women, including men’s organisations and church organisations. The rise of militancy around 1905 brought the issue much publicity, but despite involving only a small minority of women activists, this has tended to obscure the wider non-militant and constitutionalist movement in many popular accounts. The rising support and multi-faceted campaigning in favour of votes for women in this period also provoked the response of organised anti-suffragism in the form of the Scottish League for Opposing Woman Suffrage.

The movement in Scotland thus consisted of a range of organisations and many branches across Scotland, as was also the case in England, Wales and Ireland. Scottish activists were invariably connected to wider networks, and as the movement developed it formed international links and alliances. Particular interest was taken by activists in the progress of women’s suffrage elsewhere – by the end of the nineteenth century women had gained the vote in New Zealand, South Australia, Western Australia, and some states in the US.

Popular accounts of the campaign often end with the outbreak of war in 1914, commenting that (some) women were rewarded with the vote in 1918 in recognition of women’s war effort. Women’s organisations, however, reacted in various ways to the war. Militant activity was ended, and some leading militants took to recruiting men to fight in the war, but other suffrage campaigners dedicated themselves to campaigning for peace, through the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom or the Women’s Peace Crusade. Many non-militant suffrage organisations actively contributed to the war effort, one of the best-known instances being the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, which provided medical facilities in Serbia, France and Russia during the war. Nor did activity around the franchise question cease, particularly since in early 1917 the question of the franchise for women was discussed at the Speaker’s Conference, a parliamentary cross-party group examining electoral reform. It was out of this that the 1918 Representation of the People Act emerged. In 1918 also a separate Act was passed allowing women to stand for Parliament.

With partial enfranchisement, many suffrage organisations transformed themselves into Women Citizens’ Assocations or Societies for Equal Citizenship, while other organisations such as the Co-operative Women’s Guild and the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute promoted active citizenship. Scotland’s first woman MP, the Duchess of Atholl, a Unionist and former anti-suffragist, was elected to represent Kinross and West Perthshire in 1923. In the same period more women sought election to local government bodies. Lobbying for the full franchise continued, and was finally achieved with the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928.

Historians Elspeth King and Leah Leneman emphasised in their work in the early 1990s that studies of the Scottish suffrage movement were important to redress the balance of histories of the movement in Britain, which tended to be focused on London and on the short period of militancy in the years before the First World War. Regional studies in other parts of Britain, such as Lancashire and Liverpool, have also emphasised the need for a more comprehensive history which takes into account local variations in activity and differences in relations between suffrage organisations. King and Leneman also argued that researching the suffrage movement would redress the balance in political histories of Scotland, from which women were largely absent.

Our focus here is on the activities of the movement in Scotland. To date, histories of the movement in Scotland have provided a general basis for our understanding of women’s activism, and have also indicated that there was considerable local variation in the types and extent of activity. Militant organisations, for example, tended to be supported mostly in urban areas. The histories have also shown, however, that women’s suffrage campaigning occurred in many places in Scotland, from Dumfries and Galloway to the Highlands and Shetland. There are still many gaps to be filled, and our aim in producing this resource is to encourage research, particularly at a local level, that will help to fill these gaps.


Women’s History Scotland exists to promote study and research in women’s and gender history, particularly for those working in Scotland or working on Scottish themes. It has a commitment to history at all levels and aims to provide a network of information and support to all. Browse our website for news of activities and projects concerning women’s and gender history in Scotland.


Esther Breitenbach

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