Did you know that the University of Glasgow used to be its own constituency? And that graduates got an extra vote? Today, as we commemorate the Centenary of the Act that first gave the vote to some women, University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections (ASC) have been reflecting on the university’s historic role in parliamentary elections, and what this meant for women. Things have certainly changed a little along the way.
The practice of allowing the four ancient Scottish universities to elect members to Parliament was well established by the time King James VI inherited the English throne in 1603. He chose to bring this tradition to the English Parliament, which promptly provided representatives to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge in 1603, and representatives to the University of Dublin ten years later. The Treaty of Union in 1707, however, dissolved these seats. In 1868 the four Scottish universities were re-enfranchised, with Glasgow and Aberdeen together electing one member, and Edinburgh and St Andrews together electing another.
Graduates of the universities made up the constituencies’ voters. This meant that a graduate could vote more than once, in his university constituency and in any other constituency he was entitled to vote in, such as the result of owning property or business. This was the practice of plural voting which was based on the idea that enfranchisement was a reflection on a person’s interest in having a ‘stake in the country’; property and business owners and graduates were thought to have the most interest in the way the country was run.
This all brought to light the question of women’s suffrage. By the end of the nineteenth century the University of Glasgow was providing the first higher education opportunities for women in Scotland. Women could be graduates of the University of Glasgow, but they were still not entitled to vote. In the run-up to the 1906 general election, women graduates began to request voting papers from the Registrar. A letter signed by a host of women including Marion Gilchrist (MBCM), dated 21st January 1906, reads,
We understand that the voting papers for the forthcoming election for parliament in connection with the universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen have been sent to members of council. As our names stand on the roll of the members of council of Glasgow University, we should be much obliged if you would inform us why no voting papers have been issues to us.
(Reference: GUA 11281)
The next day, Catherine Smith (MA, ChB), wrote,
I am informed that I am entitled to vote at the present parliamentary election for the University of Glasgow. I therefore demand the necessary papers for the purpose of voting.
(Reference: GUA 11288)
However, these women’s requests were not acknowledged in the University’s Court or Senate Minutes. The only reference to women graduates enfranchisement outside the Registrar’s office and women graduates’ correspondence was in a letter discussing the 1906 election. It states,
As the test for a vote is graduation only, and no doubt the ladies think this case will advertise and strengthen their general claim to have votes, or it may possibly help to extinguish University representation altogether.
(Reference: GUA 11429)
This could explain some of the reluctance felt in offering women the vote, should it jeopardise or call into scrutiny the status of university constituencies. Ignoring these women’s demand for enfranchisement could be seen as more of a desire to maintain the status quo rather than disregarding women’s demonstrable capacity to have a stake in the country. It would be another twelve years before some women were given the vote in 1918, the same year the joint Glasgow and Aberdeen universities constituency was pooled with Edinburgh and St Andrews to form the Combined Scottish Universities seat. This constituency elected three members between the four universities until 1950 when the practice was abolished. Fluctuations in the electorate are a fascinating reflection of the country at a given time. This snapshot of the run-up to the 1906 general election captured in these women’s correspondence show how the dialogue for change was well and truly underway.
Based on a blog by Gabriella Laing first published in 2015. ASC would like to thank Bethany Lane for providing the original research for this blog post.