The history of women’s right to vote in Malta

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The history of women’s right to vote in Malta

The journey of the women’s right to vote start from their contributions in WW1. Maltese women indirectly contributed to winning World War I by taking care of up to 80,000 soldiers and prisoners of war while food was running out and death rates were going up. After World War I, the Sette Giugno riots in 1919 showed how class and political issues were stuck. The first National Assembly, which met in 1919 but didn’t include women and didn’t know about the UK’s progress in 1918 when women got the right to vote, only talked about local authority. British suffragettes pushed for more rights for women across the Empire and criticized Malta’s male leaders for keeping women out of politics. In 1921, British feminist Eva Hubback asked the Colonial Office if women could be included in Malta’s self-government Constitution. This was part of a larger imperial feminist movement to give women the right to vote.

Malta National Assembly - 1919

At the time, women still didn’t have access to much education, which was mostly meant to help them get married. When schooling became required in 1946, things changed, but by 1921, not many girls were going to school past the basic level. The University of Malta’s statute from 1921 lets both men and women take exams and get degrees. This was a big step forward, but women’s involvement in politics, like in the National Assembly of 1919, was still behind.

Women’s groups were shut out of the National Assembly, Manwel Dimech, who was exiled and jailed in Egypt at the time, was the only public person in Malta fighting for women’s rights. His writings in the early 1900s were similar to those of suffragette groups around the world; they both stressed the importance of education as a way to move up in society and free women. The fact that Dimech says, “The right to vote is one of expressing one’s right to self-determination and this is everyone’s birth right” shows how progressive he is. Even though he had a hard life, including his family having a hard time while he was in jail, Dimech’s work for gender equality sparked the early labor and women’s rights movements in Malta, even though the Church and other conservative members of society were strongly against him. His complicated and disputed legacy shows how hard it is to find the right balance between personal belief and public action to make social change. After a generation, he was still largely vilified by conservative writers. In fact, Herbert Ganado, a politician after the war, called Dimech’s ideas “extremist” and his language “inflammatory.”

The Amery-Milner Constitution gave Malta its own government and led to some calls for women to be able to vote, which were based on communist ideas or were meant to give educated, privileged women more power. Dom Degiorgio’s “A Survey of the Woman’s Movement in Malta” was published in The Dawn, a publication of the Labour Party. It talked about efforts to give women the right to vote and social aid programs like Widows Pensions. Liza Fenech and Vincenza Flores, two early Labour activists, looked to women parliamentarians in the UK to inspire them to speak out and get involved in meaningful action. Lord Gerald Strickland, in particular, fought for educated women’s right to vote and stressed how important it was for women to speak out and work together for social change.

Ten years later, Mabel Strickland, Lord Strickland’s daughter and assistant secretary of his Constitutional Party, fought to make Maltese women’s democratic rights equivalent as those in the British Commonwealth. Notwithstanding her astute political acumen, she was unable to galvanize widespread support for this reform, primarily due to her affiliations with the Anglo-Maltese elite, who favoured the status quo, and her lack of proficiency in the Maltese language, which stemmed from her upbringing in Australia prior to relocating to Malta. Like her father, she faced a lot of opposition from the Church. Even though there was resistance, Mable still got 428 women to support her and led a petition to a Royal Commission to support women’s right to vote in parliament. The petition, which was based on ideas put forward by Eva Hubback earlier, sought to improve government and show support for the British Crown. The Commission, however, ignored it and left the problem of women’s voting rights up to local efforts and insisted it shouldn’t impose them from outside the country.

Mabel Strickland, editor of the Times of Malta. She formed and led the Progressive Constitutionalist Party

Women’s right to vote became a major topic again in Malta after WWII. It gained strength with the help of the newly formed General Workers’ Union (GWU) in 1943, which later joined forces with the Labour Party to form the Labour Front. Mabel Strickland started talking to the Royal Commission in 1931, but she had no idea that her work would be linked to that of Josephine Burns de Bono, who also worked for her at the Times of Malta. Burns de Bono would become a leading voice for women’s right to vote, and GWU’s founder, Reggie Miller, would strongly back her. Women’s lives changed a lot during World War II, mostly because Malta was directly involved in the war. During the war, men were forced to join the army, and women took their place, even in places like the Dockyard that were traditionally male.

In 1943 Josephine Burns de Bono led the movement and made big steps toward getting women in Malta to work together by forming the Women of Malta Association, which was formed in January 1944 and had about 80 members, making women’s political participation even stronger through a number of resolutions.

Josephine Burns de Bono found opposition from William E. Chetcuti’s, a battle which they fought using the written word. They fought this battle through writing. In a 1944 essay, Chetcuti said that women’s involvement in politics would be bad for families, saying that a home without a mother would fall apart. According to Burns de Bono’s response, “Female Labour and Sex Hostility” (1945), women had to work because they had to in order to make money. She said, “The low value of money and the high cost of living made it necessary for these women to contribute to the family budget.” She fought for women’s right to work and be involved in public life without having to give up their honour or fear being accused of hurting family values. This conversation took place during a time of hope and movement for constitutional freedoms and more independence in Malta after World War II. It shows how the debate about women’s roles in society and politics is changing over time.

Following World War II, the debate over women’s suffrage in Malta intensified, with the Labour Front, aligned with the Labour Party, primarily focusing on male breadwinners’ demands. While some members of the Labour Front initially overlooked women’s suffrage, the General Workers’ Union (GWU) expressed concerns about women’s presence in the labour market potentially undermining work conditions and male union demands. At the GWU’s 1944 Annual Conference, there was a motion to exclude female workers from the union, which was opposed by GWU Secretary General Reggie Miller. Miller advocated for equal representation and rejected gender discrimination within the union, instrumental in establishing the Women of Malta Association for female suffrage. Post-war economic challenges led to discontent, with Josephine Burns de Bono addressing Malta’s issues at national and international levels, while Mabel Strickland remained dedicated to the women’s cause despite disagreements with trade unionists. Tensions within the GWU arose over allegations of female employees being replaced by men, reflecting broader societal attitudes and economic concerns during this critical period in Malta’s journey towards women’s suffrage.

Adding women to the National Assembly was met with strong resistance, especially from religious and conservative groups. But Reggie Miller stepped in and changed the Women of Malta Association’s application to separate acceptance from the concept of equal rights. This was done with the help of GWU officials who were delegates to the National Assembly. But not many people showed up to the Assembly’s third meeting. That’s when the Labour Front delegates saw an opening and boldly put forward a vote in support of the Association’s application, stressing that women should have the same rights as men in politics. Even though there was some opposition at first, the Association was eventually allowed to join the Assembly. This was a big step toward recognizing the concept of equal rights and women’s right to vote. Mabel Strickland, who was already a member and represented the Times of Malta, backed the application and stressed how important it was for women to be involved in national matters.

Two days after Harold MacMichael arrived in Malta, he addressed the people of the island on cable radio, saying that he wanted to learn more about them and the area. As the Constitutional Commissioner, MacMichael tried to find a way for Maltese people to want self-government while also protecting Britain’s foreign interests. Addressing the Assembly on October 9, 1945, he outlined his terms of reference, emphasizing the granting of autonomy akin to the period between 1921 and 1933. MacMichael’s recognized changes, such as the idea of women having the right to vote, were supported by most people and helped Malta become more democratic. The proposed Constitution was very similar to the self-government plan from 1921, but it included important changes that changed Malta’s political landscape, most notably the right of all men and women to vote.

Agatha Barbara addressing a Labour Party meeting in her first election
Agatha Barbara addressing a Labour Party meeting in her first election

In the summer of 1947, Malta held its first election under the new constitution. This was a big change because parties had to appeal to a wider range of voters, including men and women over 21 who had not previously been able to vote. With 140,000 eligible voters, most of whom were women, getting ready to make the electoral register started in January 1947. This made sure that women could participate in the voting process. There was still proportional representation in all eight electoral divisions, which means that people with different views were fairly represented. Even though there are a lot of women in Malta, there were worries about their political knowledge and stability. Five parties ran candidates in the election, which took place from October 25th to October 27th, 1947, but only two women were on the ticket. At the time, Helene Buhagiar was a well-known name among women activists. She ran for office as a candidate for the Democratic Action Party. A young woman running for office with the Labour Party, Agatha Barbara, was the other one.


Sammut, Carmen. The Road to Women’s Suffrage and Beyond : Women’s Enfranchisement and the Nation-Building Project in Malta. Central Bank of Malta, 2017. Print.

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