Suffragettes,_England,_1908

100 years after suffrage, UK women still chase equality

  1. Representation of the People Act gave limited suffrage to women over 30
  2. 'Still a massive under-representation' of women in power roles
  3. Men's activists call for minister for men to balance minister for women
  4. 'Democracy matters more for women because we had to fight for it' - MP

One hundred years since women won the right to vote in the United Kingdom from the sacrifices – even death – of suffragettes, a modern group of women’s rights activists and politicians see themselves still on the frontline of a struggle for equal rights.

A mainstream feminist movement which bridges party lines sees much still to do in a country which now has a woman prime minister and had arguably the best-known female leader of the 20th Century – Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher knew she was a role model but never considered herself a feminist.

The women leading the political and social struggle for equality are far more explicit about the feminist goals at the heart of their campaigns.

“Women are not equal in politics, we are not equally represented, we are not equally powerful,” said Jess Phillips, Labour Party member of parliament for Birmingham Yardley. She says she feels strongly influenced by the suffrage movement and argues that the power imbalance between the sexes creates a climate for exploitation, such as sexual harassment.

Despite Theresa May becoming the UK’s second female prime minister in 2016, women remain under-represented in British politics. Women make up 32 percent of the House of Commons after the 2017 general election and 26 percent of the House of Lords, parliament’s upper house which is record representation.

“There are more women in parliament than ever before … and what we’re seeing is a lot of strong women are making their voices heard and having a real impact,” said Andrew Bazeley, policy and insight manager at women’s rights organization The Fawcett Society, named after suffragist Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Women are yet to reach equal representation in politics and other fields.

Theresa May, Prime Minister, United Kingdom. Photo by: Arno Mikkor via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0
Theresa May, the second ever female prime minister of the United Kingdom. The first was Margaret Thatcher. Photo by: Arno Mikkor via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0

A century of female suffrage

On February 6, 1918, with the passing of the Representation of the People Act, the right to vote and stand in elections was given to women over the age of 30 who owned property – 40 percent of Britain’s total population of women at the time – and to all men over the age of 21. This was 25 years after then-British colony New Zealand granted women the franchise, two years before women in the United States, and almost 100 years before women in Saudi Arabia, who were granted the right to vote and stand in elections in 2015.

Women’s suffrage, the right to vote in elections, was the sole goal of the militant suffragettes and law-abiding suffragists across the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thousands of British women were imprisoned during the movement, often symbolized by the death of Emily Wilding Davison, a prominent suffragette who ran into the path of King George V’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. She was waving a suffrage flag at the fatal moment.

Despite a century of women’s suffrage in Britain – full suffrage for all men and women wasn’t achieved until 1928 – politicians and academics interviewed by WikiTribune argued that they’re a long way from achieving equal rights between the sexes. They said many British women remain disenfranchised. Revelations of systemic sexual harassment in Westminster and wider society indicate problems quite separate from achieving a presence in politics.

Suffragettes marching with flags to display their prison status. Pankhurst and her daughters were arrested on numerous occasions and, like many suffragettes, spent long periods in prison. Photo by: Julie Jordan Scott via Flickr
Suffragettes marching with flags to display their prison status. Around one thousand British suffragettes spent long periods in prison. Photo by: Julie Jordan Scott via Flickr

Parliament Square outside the Palace of Westminster has 11 statues of notable men from Winston Churchill to Nelson Mandela. The first statue of a woman, suffragist Millicent Fawcett, will be erected this year to mark the centenary.

The UK still has a long way to go for gender equality to be achieved, according to the European gender equality survey. This considers equality policy, numbers of women in power, and economic differences between men and women: the UK trails Sweden, Finland, The Netherlands and Denmark.

Suffragette city

“Across the board if you look at the Cabinet, the local government, police and crime commissioners [and] elected mayors, there’s still a massive under-representation of women in those roles,” said Bazeley from the Fawcett Society. “So whilst you have universal suffrage there’s a real need for us to do more to get women to stand [and] make sure the establishment is not designed with men in mind.” Basics like maternity leave and reasonable childcare are obstacles.

There are no formal arrangements on maternity, paternity, parental, adoption, or caring leave for British MPs. However MPs backed “baby leave”, a process that would allow new parents to nominate someone to vote in parliament on their behalf.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made headlines in January with her pregnancy. Reacting to questions of whether she could somehow manage the premiership as well, she made clear she was “pregnant, not incapacitated.”

A suffragette meeting in Manchester, England circa 1908. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Emmeline Pankhurst stand in the center of the platform. Photo by: The New York Times photo archive available in the public domain
A suffragette meeting in Manchester, England circa 1908. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Emmeline Pankhurst stand in the center of the platform. Photo: The New York Times photo archive, public domain

The drive towards gender equality, particularly the feminist movement and recognition of gender variety, has triggered counter-responses.

“We’re seeing huge backlash against women in power,” Bazeley said. “There is resistance to women making their voices heard.”

Some men say they feel victimized by the drive towards extra rights for women.

“In 100 years the gender pendulum has swung from one extreme with regard to family, which was patriarchal, where men and fathers had all the power over women, to another extreme where, certainly in the area of family law, women have all the power, women have all the control and fathers have absolutely no rights,” said Matt O’Connor, the founder of Fathers4Justice, an equal-parenting campaign launched 16 years ago. It made headlines with a variety of stunts in which its activists scaled major buildings or carried out protests wearing superhero costumes.

“The pursuit of equality for some people has now become … a journey from the oppressed to oppressor,” O’Connor said, likening the new era of the women’s movement to a “witch hunt” against men.

O’Connor wants the government to create a post of minister for men and boys. “How can you have a minister for women and equalities, but no minister for men? I don’t get it, I just don’t buy it … It’s deeply irresponsible, deeply irresponsible.”

The murder in 2016 of MP Jo Cox, who was shot and stabbed by a man shouting “This is for Britain”, is an example of the backlash against women making their voices heard, Bazeley said.

Matt O'Connor (center) at a Fathers4Justice protest in London. Photo by: Garry Clarkson and provided by Matt O'Connor
Matt O’Connor (center) at a Fathers4Justice protest in London. Photo by: Garry Clarkson, courtesy Matt O’Connor

Online abuse of women is widespread in the UK, according to human rights organization Amnesty International. Black, Asian and minority ethnic women MPs take the brunt of that, according to an Amnesty study. Labour Party MP and Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, the first black woman to hold a seat in the House of Commons, received almost a third of all abuse on Twitter aimed at women MPs in the run up to the 2017 general election.

Racial and sexual equality

Suffrage was achieved with the involvement of men and women from diverse social, political and religious backgrounds and from all over the British Empire, including people of color such as prominent Indian suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, according to the Fawcett Society. The British suffrage movement was more inclusive than similar movements in Australia or the United States, it says.

“There were a lot of women of color who were key in the suffrage campaign,” the Fawcett Society’s Bazeley said. “There were men of color MPs before women of color got the vote,” he said, citing the first ethnic minority MP to be elected, Dadabhai Naoroji, who was MP for Central Finsbury in London in 1892.

The rise of the concept of “intersectional feminism”, which considers racism and sexism together in the quest for equal rights, has uncovered what its supporters see as the whitewashing of parts of the women’s rights movement.

Actors in the 2015 movie Suffragette which starred Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep were criticized for racial insensitivity when promotional posters featured the all-white cast wearing T-shirts that read “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” (Irish Times).

Jess Phillips, Member of Parliament for Birmingham Yardley, has been a vocal proponent of women's rights. Photo by: Chris McAndrew for the UK government. Used under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0
Jess Phillips, Member of Parliament for Birmingham Yardley, has been a vocal proponent of women’s rights. Photo by: Chris McAndrew for the UK government. Used under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0

The most pressing issue is “pervasive” violence against women, according to Helen Pankhurst, a women’s rights activist and great-granddaughter of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst. She sees a spectrum of violence against women from rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment to female genital mutilation. “Violence affects women’s experiences and engagement in politics, violence affects women at work, violence affects women at home, violence affects women in the cultural spheres.” She also sees the objectification of women, driven in part by pornography, as a crisis. See interview with Helen Pankhurst.

“It’s if anything worse than it was 100 years ago,” said Pankhurst.

Violence against women and girls is “endemic”, a Fawcett Society report found earlier this year.

‘Democracy matters more for women because we had to fight for it’ – Jess Phillips MP

Prominent women might attract hateful attacks, but the situation is worse for those who are out of the public eye. Women of color, working-class women and disabled women are discriminated against at a higher rate, said MP Jess Phillips, who is part of a cross-party group of MPs working to address sexual harassment in parliament (The Guardian).

“There’s so much to do. It’s like Whack-A-Mole,” she told WikiTribune.

Suffragette Katherine Douglas Smith speaks to a crowd of men, c.1906-1914. Photo by: LSE women's library collection, no copyright restrictions
Suffragette Katherine Douglas Smith speaks to a crowd of men in English harbor town Portsmouth, c.1906-1914. Photo by: LSE women’s library collection via Flickr, no copyright restrictions

The only way the gender imbalance is going to change in politics, Phillips said, is if women are given more jobs. Women in Westminster also need to have posts that aren’t female-focused, she said, such as in the department for exiting the EU, which has one woman minister. “It doesn’t just mean pushing women forward, it means men taking a side-step and letting them all pass them.”

Phillips said she uses the suffragette legacy to inspire her female constituents today. “Democracy matters more for women because we had to fight for it, it wasn’t given to us … And it’s something that I try and evoke in women on the doorstep who say they’re not going to vote. I will say, you know, people died for you to vote – women literally died for us to be able to vote.”

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