The ‘Forgotten First’ in women’s suffrage

By Ade Daramy

2018 has been marked by numerous events commemorating and celebrating one hundred years of women’s ‘universal’ suffrage (the right to vote in all elections) in the United Kingdom.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the 1918 Parliamentary Act, which brought about this momentous change, was the first instance women anywhere had been ‘enfranchised’, having been disenfranchised for so long.  Yet what the Representation of the People Act 1918 bill, enacted on 6 February 1918, did was that it enfranchised women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications.  The law which would entitle all women to vote in the United Kingdom, The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act would not be passed for another ten years (1928).  It extended the franchise in Great Britain and Northern Ireland to all women over the age of 21, granting them the vote on the same terms as men.

Most of the laws preventing women from voting had, of course, been passed by all-male parliaments in the UK and elsewhere. Yet, the granting of the vote to women in the UK was not a first in Europe; Finland (1907), Denmark (1915) and the Soviet Union (1917), among others all got there before the UK.  Other countries to grant universal suffrage alongside the UK in 1918 included Georgia and Germany.

However, one landmark that ought to be celebrated and which dwarfs all of these is hardly, if at all, mentioned.  One must dig into academic tomes to discover that in 1792 (no, not a typo!), women in the ‘Province of Freedom’ (in Sierra Leone), had the right to vote.  As with many instances where women had the right to vote, the initial right was not ‘universal’.  Writing in Rough Crossings, Simon Schama recalls: “In the 1792 elections all heads of household could vote and one-third were ethnic African women.

Among the centenary celebrations for 1918 have been films, exhibitions, conferences etc. and yet when 1792’s bicentenary came and went (in 1992), there was not even a murmur.

In the book ‘Bury the Chains’, writer Adam Hochschild not only mentions this, he probably best captures how this remarkable occurrence has come to be viewed.  Writing about how Granville Sharpe’s influence had waned in the colony he had helped to found, he states:

“…some idealistic touches stayed in force. Although the administrators sent by London kept most power out of the hands of the electorate, the colony was the only place in the world where – if they were heads of households – women could vote.”

Lest one imagines this to be some sort of peculiar ‘stand-alone’ aberration, it is worth giving some context in recalling some of what now seems truly remarkable for its time, laws that operated in the colony at the time:

  • In court cases, at least half of every jury had to be the same race as the defendant
  • Officials had to “employ in your service, so far as you are able, black and white men, indiscriminately, and when you discern in any way, to endeavour to call these talents into action and afford them all possible means of cultivation and encouragement.”
  • There was no death penalty in the colony
  • All children (and some adults) were in school – it was compulsory.

With these and more, it can be seen why many came to regard the Sierra Leone Colony as an ‘experiment at creating a utopian society’. More likely the iniquities of slavery, that compelled them to seek a new land, may have also driven them to try and create a new, more equal world, as far removed as possible from the one they left behind.

With that knowledge, perhaps we should not be surprised that this was, indeed, the first place in the world to ‘enfranchise’ women.


Image: ©Heard, William H. (William Henry), 1850-1937 – Internet Archive, Open Library (Book contributor: Hathi Trust), Public Domain.