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History of rights

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Originally, people had rights only because of their membership in a group, such as a family. Then, in 539 BC, Cyrus the Great, after conquering the city of Babylon, did something totally unexpected—he freed all slaves to return home. Moreover, he declared people should choose their own religion. The Cyrus Cylinder, a clay tablet containing his statements, is the first human rights declaration in history.

Major points 

The idea of human rights spread quickly to India, Greece and eventually Rome. The most important advances since then have included:

9th Century :Legal codes of Alfred
1100: Charter of Liberties - set out the bind the king to certain laws.
1215: The Magna Carta—gave people new rights and made the king subject to the law.
1217: Charter of forests  - In contrast to Magna Carta, which dealt with the rights of barons, it provided some real rights, privileges and protections for the common man against the abuses of the encroaching aristocracy
1628: The Petition of Right—set out the rights of the people.
1679: Habeas Corpus Act
1689: Bill of rights (Declaration of right)
1776: The United States Declaration of Independence—proclaimed the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
1789: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen—a document of France, stating that all citizens are equal under the law.
1833: Abolition of slavery
1948: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the first document listing the 30 rights to which everyone is entitled.

Magna Carta meaning "Great charter" outlined basic rights with the principle that no one was above the law, including the king.
It charted the right to a fair trial, and limits on taxation without representation. No-one should be imprisoned without lawful judgement.
It inspired a number of other documents, including the US Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Women and voting

The Great Reform Act excludes women from the electorate by defining voters as 'male persons'

First petition on women's suffrage presented to Parliament

First debate on women's suffrage in Parliament, led by John Stuart Mill 

Women campaign to be included in the Third Reform Act, without success

The Women's Franchise League is formed and aims to win the vote for married women as well as single and widowed women

Formation of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929), drawing together peaceful campaign groups under one banner

The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) is founded in Manchester by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928)

Suffragette militancy begins

The Women's Freedom League is formed after a break from the WSPU

Hunger striking by Marion Wallace-Dunlop adopted as a WSPU strategy

Forcible-feeding begins

Parliament considers various 'Conciliation Bills' which would have given some women the vote, but none pass

The suffragette Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913) hides in a cupboard in the House of Commons on census night

The Prisoners' Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act, also known as 'The Cat and Mouse Act', is introduced, targeting suffragettes on hunger-strike 

Britain declares war on Germany on 4 August. During the war years, 1914-18, an estimated two million women replace men in traditionally male jobs

A conference on electoral reform, chaired by the House of Commons Speaker, is set up and reports in 1917. Limited women's suffrage is recommended

The Representation of the People Act is passed on 6 February giving women the vote provided they are aged over 30 and either they, or their husband, meet a property qualification

The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act is passed on 21 November allowing women to stand for Parliament

Women vote in a general election for the first time on 14 December with 8.5 million women eligible

The Equal Franchise Act is passed giving women equal voting rights with men. All women aged over 21 can now vote in elections. Fifteen million women are eligible

On 30 May women aged between 21 and 29 vote for the first time. This general election is sometimes referred to as the Flapper Election


In 1838 a People's Charter was drawn up for the London Working Men's Association (LWMA) by Thomas Lovett and Francis Place, two self-educated radicals, in consultation with other members of LWMA. The Charter had six demands:

All men to have the vote (universal manhood suffrage)
  • Voting should take place by secret ballot
  • Parliamentary elections every year, not once every five years
  • Constituencies should be of equal size
  • Members of Parliament should be paid
  • The property qualification for becoming a Member of Parliament should be abolished 
The People's Charter drawn up for the London Working Men's Association 1839 - First Chartist petition presented to House of Commons

Second Chartist petition presented to House of Commons

Third Chartist petition presented to House of Commons

Representation of the People Act (the second Reform Act) extends vote to urban working men meeting property qualification

Ballot Act introduces the secret ballot at elections

Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act 1883 effectively ends serious corruption in British elections

Representation of the People Act (the third Reform Act) addresses imbalance between men's votes in boroughs and counties

Redistribution Act boundaries redrawn to produce equal electoral districts. Single member seats become the norm

Representation of the People Act extends vote to all men over 21 and most women over 30

Government of Ireland Act 1920 and the Irish Free State Agreement Act 1922 creates the Irish Free State and reduces the number of seats for Irish constituencies at Westminster from 105 to 13 constituencies in Northern Ireland.

Representation of the People Act extends vote to all women over 21

House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act established four permanent boundary commissions for the UK and a regular system for reviewing constituency boundaries.

Representation of the People Act extends vote to men and women over 18

Voting Age (Reduction) Bill - a Private Members' Bill - to reduce voting age to 16 and over. Bill does not become law.