There was no actual law before 1918 forbidding women to become MPs. But because women couldn’t vote, they didn’t try to stand as candidates either. After (some) women got the vote in February 1918, the decision whether to accept a woman as a candidate in an election was left to the discretion of individual returning officers in each constituency – a recipe for chaos!
The first woman to try and stand as a candidate was Nina Boyle, from the Women’s Freedom League.
Boyle, a great feminist campaigner for women police among other issues, put herself forward at a by-election in Keighley, Yorkshire, in April 1918 as a test case. She warned the Women’s Freedom League conference in February that Parliament might try to bar even women who were elected, recalling the example of Charles Bradlaugh.
Bradlaugh was elected MP for Northampton five times between 1880 and 1885, but was not allowed to take his seat because as an atheist he could not take the Oath of Allegiance. He was arrested in Parliament a number of times, and even spent a night in the Prison Room of the Clock Tower.
Nina Boyle’s test case helped ensure no woman would be in doubt as to whether she could sit in the House of Commons, like Bradlaugh. Her candidacy was refused on a technicality, as her two nominators were not eligible, but the Keighley returning officer was clear he would have accepted it otherwise. Boyle had succeeded in establishing a principle and setting a precedent. A number of other women were then encouraged to put themselves forward as candidates for the upcoming General Election, and this was a large factor behind Herbert Samuel’s motion to put the matter beyond doubt.