Historic items in Leeds that chart the struggle for women’s votes in 1918.

Richard High with a rare women's hunger strike medal from 1912. (Picture by Simon Hulme).
Richard High with a rare women's hunger strike medal from 1912. (Picture by Simon Hulme).
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When the Representation of People Act became law a century ago today, it was hailed as a landmark moment, for it meant women over the age of 30 who owned property, or were married to a man who did, were entitled to vote.

When the Representation of People Act became law a century ago today, it was hailed as a landmark moment, for it meant women over the age of 30 who owned property, or were married to a man who did, were entitled to vote.

Richard High, who works in the Special Collections department at University of Leeds, with  the 'Votes For Women magazine. (Simon Hulme).

Richard High, who works in the Special Collections department at University of Leeds, with the 'Votes For Women magazine. (Simon Hulme).

This empowered roughly 8.5 million women, which may sound quite a lot, but it still only amounted to around 40 per cent of Britain’s female population at the time.

So even though women had worked tirelessly in factories, and in some cases given their lives for the war effort, this still wasn’t deemed good enough to earn them all the same rights as their husbands, fathers and brothers – for that they would have to wait another 10 years.

The battle for women’s suffrage was long, hard-fought and at times bitter, and the acclaimed Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds is home to several historic items that help relay the story of this struggle. They include a magazine called Votes For Women, issued by the Women’s Social and Political Union, and a rare medal dating back to 1912, presented to a suffragette called Alice Davies for taking part in a hunger strike in protest against the treatment of women.

There is also an original women’s voting registration form relating to the 1918 General Election.

Richard High, Collections Engagement Librarian at Leeds University Library, says it’s an important document. “It was such a significant moment for women and this is the most interesting item for me because it is the real thing, it’s what somebody, we don’t know who for sure, would have been sent and had in their possession,” he says.

“We see today from different places in the world where countries are opening up to democracy and people can vote for the first time, just how enthusiastic they are with long queues at polling stations, and it must have been the same a hundred years ago in this country when women were taking part and voting for the very first time.”

Other significant artefacts housed in the library date back to 1912 and are tied to the women’s suffrage movement.

“They’re all part of the story. The medal was issued to women who’d been arrested during various demonstrations and who then took part in a hunger strike,” says High.

It was awarded by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the leading militant organisation campaigning for Women’s suffrage at the time, and is tied to a green, white and purple ribbon (representing hope, purity and dignity), which were the colours of the organisation.

The magazine, also produced by the union, was a weekly publication and highlights just how widespread the support for women’s suffrage was and charts the various demonstrations that took place and what happened to those involved in them.

The suffragettes were the forerunners of modern day campaigners and High believes these items offer a glimpse into the past and this pivotal moment in British history.

“As a group of objects they help tell the very important story of 1918 and women’s suffrage. For instance, the medal is a real rarity because we know that less than a hundred were made,” he says.

“We’re talking about a period where a significant number of women had taken over men’s roles in the workplace after they had gone off to fight, and we’re talking about a period where women for the first time had been involved with the armed forces, which was a great leap forward.”

Even though progress was stymied when soldiers returned home to reclaim their old jobs, the wheels of Women’s suffrage had been put in motion.

As High puts it: “Nothing was ever going to go back to how it was before the war.”