If you’ve not seen the film Suffragette, you should do so. It’s the story of how one women gets drawn into the battle for women’s votes in the 1910s, and how she was excluded from her family and community as a result. It’s a sharp reminder of how activism often has a high personal cost. But I was mostly struck by the opposition to giving half of the population equal rights.
Looking at the 1910s from 100 years of history, it’s remarkable to think that there were many arguments about why women should not get the vote. They were similar to arguments I heard in the 1990s about women being ineligible to serve as church leaders, and similar to arguments I hear now regarding what rights trans people should have. Terry Pratchett nails this one neatly in his Truckers series:
“Why can’t women be Stationeri, then?” said Grimma.
“It’s a well-known fact that women can’t read,” said Gurder. “It’s not their fault, of course. Apparently their brains get too hot. With the strain, you know.”
John Clare has a website which neatly lists a number of the reasons given in the 1910s why women should not be granted a parliamentary vote, most of which are simply dripping with prejudice. As examples, women already influenced their menfolk, so didn’t need a direct vote; the interests of women were perfectly safe in the hands of men; Government relies on an element of force which runs counter to the female character; and, in any case, women couldn’t think things out clearly and calmly.
There were emotive posters objecting to women getting the vote – one memorable one has a man doing the laundry in a very large washtub, with the caption “I want to vote but my wife won’t let me”.
It’s important to also remember that some (many, even) women supported these arguments – a reminder, if one was needed, that some of the marginalised find the thought of change too difficult.
Personally I find the idea that someone should be denied the vote simply because of the sex they are or the colour of their skin abhorrent, and I think you’d struggle to find many people now who would promote the arguments of 100 years ago. There is no doubt that the presence of women in Parliament has had an effect on our social climate now – issues like equal pay, access to refuges and appropriate healthcare, and the myriad other issues faced mainly by women. All of these are easier to address if you have representatives of the affected communities actually in Parliament, entitled to speak up.
From my own particular corner of womanhood, that’s why it’s vital that we get trans representation in Parliament soon. Once again we will be debated about on the floors of both Houses (assuming Government goes ahead with its promised reform of the Gender Recognition Act) without any opportunity for someone directly affected to speak.
It’s also why I’m a firm supporter of changing the electoral system for both the House of Commons and our local councils. A proportional system of elections has the effect of including more marginalised voices, improving representation and encouraging collaboration for the benefit of the whole community. If I wasn’t on day 10 of fighting a particularly nasty virus which has meant it has been difficult to breathe(and sleep) for days, then I would have been taking part in the Make Votes Matter Hungry for Democracy day.
Yes, we should celebrate the achievements of the amazing women who have made it into the highest echelons of British politics over the past 100 years, and what they have done for British womanhood as a whole. But we should also recognise there is still much to do.