The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, is given royal assent on November 21, 1918. It gives women over the age of 21 the right to stand for election as a Member of Parliament (MP). At 27 words, it is the shortest UK statute.
The Representation of the People Act 1918, passed on February 6, 1918, extends the franchise in parliamentary elections, also known as the right to vote, to women aged 30 and over who reside in the constituency or occupied land or premises with a rateable value above £5, or whose husbands do.
In March 1918, the Liberal Party MP for Keighley dies, causing a by-election on April 26. There is doubt as to whether women are eligible to stand for parliament. Nina Boyle makes known her intention to stand as a candidate for the Women’s Freedom League at Keighley and, if refused, to take the matter to the courts for a definitive ruling. After some consideration, the returning officer states that he is prepared to accept her nomination, thus establishing a precedent for women candidates. However, he rules her nomination papers invalid on other grounds: one of the signatories to her nomination is not on the electoral roll and another lives outside the constituency. The Lords of Appeal in Ordinary are asked to consider the matter and conclude that the Great Reform Act 1832 had specifically banned women from standing as parliamentary candidates and the Representation of the People Act had not changed that.
Parliament hurriedly passes the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act in time to enable women to stand in the general election of December 1918. The act consists of only 27 operative words: “A woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage for being elected to or sitting or voting as a Member of the Commons House of Parliament.”
In the December 14, 1918 election to the House of Commons, seventeen women candidates stand, among them well-known suffragette Christabel Pankhurst, representing the Women’s Party in Smethwick. The only woman elected is the Sinn Féin candidate for Dublin St. Patrick’s, Constance Markievicz. However, in line with Sinn Féin abstentionist policy, she does not take her seat.
The first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons is Nancy Astor on December 1, 1919. She is elected as a Coalition Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton on November 28, 1919, taking the seat her husband had vacated.
As Members of Parliament, women also gain the right to become government ministers. The first woman to become a cabinet minister and Privy Council member is Margaret Bondfield who is Minister of Labour in the second MacDonald ministry (1929–1931).