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Polling day in Sunderland, 1918

Women vote for the first time

From: 14-Dec-1918

Civil Parish: Sunderland

Article from the Sunderland Echo, 14 December 1918:


“And the women how are they voting?” I asked at several polling stations as I walked through several wards that lie between Mackie’s Corner and the West End”, writes an Echo reporter, “and the answer was always the same: “Well.””

One had only to stand awhile outside one of the placed, schoolrooms, chapels, houses and the like, to realise that the women were fully determined to use the privilege which had been won for them. In they went, sometimes singly, sometimes- and this was the general rule- in couples and occasionally in laughing bunches. But as a rule they didn’t laugh. One could see that the vote was a serious matter to them, one could see the half-timid, half- defiant way in which they sidled up to the polling stations, the glance round half proudly, to see who observed them and then (the vote cast and the paper dropped into the box where no unfriendly eye might see it.) The air of conscious power as they tripped once more into the street. For was not this what had been striven for for many troubled years, for which the Pankhursts and their gallant boisterous band broke windows, annoyed policemen, and badgered peaceful member of Parliament. Today is the realization of what the pioneers fought for and the women of Sunderland exercise the privilege gladly and with pride.

To be sure there are little errors. To a mere man, who has voted for countless years, such a mistake as going to the wrong polling booth could not occur. Couldn’t they? You ask the officials in the polling stations. But, anyhow, quite a number of women got to the wrong place this morning; they were soon directed to the proper place. And on the whole they voted in way which many men might envy. They did not require to be told, except in very few cases, that the ballet was secret. They had read or asked all about it in the way women have. But once or twice. . . .

I was standing in one polling station when a lady came in, and having supplied the particulars required, retired behind the little screen to vote. Then ensued a pause, fraught with great unspoken thoughts, and at length she popped her head put and asked ‘Where shall I put my name’?
Being told that no name must be written at all, but merely a cross inscribed against the candidate of here choice, she again disappeared and at last came out and flourished her paper before the official saying, “There is that right?” The official being an honest man, shut his eyes tight, and in a sad, patient voice told her to fold up the paper and put it in the box. So that it was all right.

To a committee room there entered a lady who had a grievance and grieved loudly. She had been to the polling station, she said, but they would not allow here to vote and she wanted to know about it. The man in charge looked up the register, and, not finding her name upon it, told her so. But he wished he had prevaricated, for the lady became most indignant and demanded in a loud voice to know what they meant by it. “We’ve won the vote,” she said, “and I am going to vote if I have to go to every station in the town to do it.” The gentleman in charge retired behind the counter and uttered soothing words, then, seized with an idea said:-“Madam, if it’s not an impertinent question, are you over 30?”

“No, of course I’m not,” she shouted, “I’m 27.”

“Ah, there you are,” he replied in triumph, and with low cunning of the perfidious male, “the vote’s only for elderly ladies over 30, you know.”
The storm subsided and the sun shone once more. “Oh! I see sir; well, in that case” . . . and with a beaming smile out she went. It was a triumph of diplomacy.

The women voted in the morning as a general rule, but after the buzzers had gone and the men returned from their work one saw married couples ambling amicably together to the polling booth. It was a walk that they had never taken together, and they seemed suitably impressed with the solemnity of the occasion.
“Who have you voted for, missus?” Asked one working man of his spouse as they left the station.
“Wouldn’t you like to know, Jem?” was the answer, and one could not help wondering whether their votes would neutralise each other or not. For, unfortunately, the ballot is secret, and thus are many family broils avoided.

But there was tragedy, too, to be found lurking in places where one did not expect it. A women in black with an expression which told of suffering and anxiety came out of a polling booth. She walked as one who had done a duty, but her eyes were wet, and because, perhaps, we looked sympathetic, she spoke to us. “I’ve voted,” she said, “but last election my man did it. He’ll never vote any more now, and I’ve got to do it, as I think he would like. But I’d sooner have my man than the vote.” The she brightened and the lines of resolve came into her face. “But I’ve Voted,” she added, “for the man who’ll punish them who killed my man” – and she went her way.

The nation Council of women, Sunderland Branch, recently asked the Sunderland candidates a series of questions bearing upon equality or opportunity, pay etc., as between women and men and on amendment of the divorce and other laws. All three candidates expressed themselves as in favour of the proposals put before them.

Polling Stations and Electorate

The first register of the Borough of Sunderland electorate compiled under the Registration of the People Act, 1918, shows that the electors number 73,121, of whom 43,775 are men and 29,346 are women. The Naval and Military voters (included in the above) number 13,883, three being women.

Contributed by Durham County Record Office | Kenneth Mankin

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