Continuing our series on ‘Women and Parliament’, Dr. Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of the House of Commons, 1832-1945 project, looks at a landmark reform to the municipal franchise in 1869.
Today – 2nd August – marks 150 years since the 1869 Municipal Franchise Act received royal assent. This measure widened the municipal franchise for the town councils created in 1835 by reducing the amount of time that a voter was required to occupy a ‘house, warehouse, counting-house, shop or other building’ in a municipal borough from three years to just one. What made it a landmark piece of legislation, however, was not this change, but the fact that, thanks to the efforts of the Liberal MP for Manchester, Jacob Bright, it extended the municipal franchise to women. Its ninth clause stated that
wherever words occur which import the masculine gender the same shall be held to include females for all purposes connected with and having reference to the right to vote in the election of councillors, auditors, and assessors.
However, as Bright was at pains to point out when he introduced his clause on 7 June 1869, this was not ‘an innovation – a departure from the custom and customary legislation of the country’, but a restoration of ‘long established rights’. Echoing the 1832 Reform Act, the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act had specifically excluded women voters, disfranchising many who had previously enjoyed this right. Yet as Bright noted, women continued to be entitled to vote as ratepayers in towns which had not been incorporated under the terms of the 1835 Act. He cited the example of Southport, where in 1866 women made up 588 of the 2,085 electors qualified to vote for the improvement commissioners – the local body responsible for the town’s government. However, when Southport was incorporated in 1867, ‘these votes were extinguished’. Such anomalies – and the fact that women were allowed to participate in other local elections, such as those for parish vestries (as outlined in this guest blog) – highlighted how illogical the existing law was.
Speaking on behalf of the Gladstone ministry, Henry Bruce, the Home Secretary, gave Bright’s clause his ‘cordial support’. It was agreed to ‘amid cheers’, with no speeches in opposition in the Commons. Lord Redesdale’s objections to it in the House of Lords on 19 July 1869 were swiftly quashed by the Earl of Kimberley, who emphasised that
this Bill merely restored to women a franchise which they formerly enjoyed, and their Lordships were not discussing the wider and more doubtful question of extending to women the right to vote at Parliamentary elections.
Endorsing this reform, Lord Cairns contended that
as an unmarried women could dispose of her property, and deal with it in any way in which she thought proper, he did not know why she should not have a voice in saying how it should be lighted and watched, and generally in controlling the municipal expenditure to which that property contributed.
As Cairns’s speech hinted, however, there was a crucial difference in the position of married and unmarried women. Just three years later, a court ruling in the case of Regina v. Harrald (1872) decided that married women were not eligible to vote at municipal elections, since ‘by the common law, a married woman’s status was so entirely merged in that of her husband that she was incapable of exercising almost all public functions’. This restriction on married women voting in these local government elections remained in place until 1894. The question of whether to lobby for the parliamentary vote for all women or unmarried women only was to prove a complicated one for the women’s suffrage movement.
Despite the importance of Bright’s alteration to the municipal franchise, the Hansard report of proceedings in the Commons on 7 June 1869 made no mention of it, merely recording that the Municipal Franchise Bill was ‘considered as amended’. This stemmed not from a lack of interest in this reform, but was due to the fact that Hansard relied heavily on press reports for its information at this time. Since the discussion on Bright’s clause took place at 2 a.m., it only received brief coverage in the press: The Times devoted just 45 words to it, while the Morning Post gave it 85 words. However, Thomas Hansard clearly recognised the significance of this debate, since he subsequently printed a fuller account – covering four columns – as an appendix to the bound volume of Hansard which contained that day’s proceedings. This report had been supplied to him by an unnamed MP ‘who was interested in the subject’. It may well have been Jacob Bright himself, who continued to be one of the leading parliamentary advocates of female enfranchisement, introducing a bill the following year to give women the parliamentary vote.
For more on Jacob Bright and his election for Manchester in 1867, see this earlier blog from our Victorian Commons team, and on women’s participation in local government elections, see this blog on women and politics, 1868-1918.