Before the 19th century women were excluded from voting, but there was no explicit ban. Ironically, it was the Great Reform Act of 1832, which expanded voting rights and reformed parliamentary boundaries, which first stated that only men could vote.
For the next three decades, the political agenda was dominated by the debate over the remaining restrictions on male voting and redrawing the political map better to reflect the growing urban population. But with the passage of the Second Reform Act in 1867, which allowed most middle-class men to vote, attention started to turn towards women’s suffrage.
In the following election that year a female shop owner actually voted, although it was later voided. Three years later, the first bill to grant votes to women was introduced in Parliament, though it failed. Meanwhile, various lobby groups were set up, focused initially on normal political methods, such as parades and pressing MPs to introduce legislation.
By 1903 a growing number of women were angry at the lack of progress and so formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). This group used direct action tactics, including arson, to draw attention to their position. Although divisive, this further increased the momentum for change.
The breakthrough came in 1907 when women ratepayers were allowed to vote (and stand as candidates) in local elections. By 1918 the Fourth Reform Act was passed, eliminating remaining property restrictions on male suffrage and allowing women over 30 (who met certain property qualifications) to vote. In 1928, the voting age was lowered to 21 and property qualifications were abolished.