Martha Price reflects on the complexities of celebrating women’s suffrage.
Centenary celebrations were in full swing on the 6th of February, honouring the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918. The Act saw women granted the vote for the first time ever, politics having previously been systematically dominated by men.
The tenacious campaign leading up to the Act involved some incredibly admirable figures and saw the emergence of two seminal groups within the women’s suffrage movement: the Suffragists and the Suffragettes. Millicent Fawcett was seen as the pioneer and leader of the Suffragist movement, which employed non-violent tactics within the remit of the law. The Suffragists defined their campaign as a non-militant one and were skilled in organising lobbying and peaceful marches, as well as orchestrating petitions. Fawcett was also the President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies which attracted a large membership.
The Suffragettes also played a pivotal role in the move towards suffrage for women, albeit via a markedly different tactical approach. The Women’s Social and Political Union, headed by Emmeline Pankhurst, engaged in a militant-esque campaign. Their radical style led to frequent arrests and their infamous hunger strikes provided them with a vocal platform to facilitate mass support.
These campaigns gained the necessary momentum to spark the passing of the Act in 1918, and the celebration of this historical landmark remains huge. The Victoria Rooms were lit up in the purple, green and white colours of the movement and the lantern parade through the city was buzzing. Excitement and pride were palpable and recognition of the centenary came in a multitude of forms. In London, there is currently an image exhibition of central figures of the movement in Trafalgar Square, and the Act itself was on display from the Parliamentary Archives. This isn’t just limited to a single day either; on the 6th February, Amber Rudd announced the Women’s Suffrage Centenary Grant Scheme of £2.5 million aimed at funding celebrations of the centenary and ‘for projects running throughout the centenary year to encourage communities to celebrate and to help make modern politics more accessible’.
Such a wave of celebration should be welcomed and participated in. It hails the achievements of women who challenged a system which excluded them purely for being women, and acknowledges the first step towards a major citizenship right, the right to vote, being based on grounds other than gender.
However, it should not be forgotten in this excitement that the 1918 Act had its limitations. The women who were entitled to vote following the Act were those over the age of thirty, who also met the property-owning requirements. The threshold was high and therefore it actually only enfranchised around 8.5 million women. The majority of these would have been white women of middle and upper-classes given the restrictive social hierarchy of the time, and it was therefore massively exclusionary.
This also meant that some women who formed part of the movement were likely to have been excluded by the Act that came as a result of it. This concept of excluding those who campaign for change is not one of the past either, as arguably many women who are integral to the feminist movement of today often do not benefit from the rewards brought about by the successful change. There is a clear divide between women in the movement, which in the political context is notably present, and there is a necessity for a focus on intersectionality to create a movement which includes all women. It was a further 10 years before suffrage was granted to women on the same grounds as men, and on this basis, some are arguing that we shouldn’t be celebrating to the extent we have been.
This is an important point and one which must not be undermined or drowned out by celebration. In fact, such criticism serves to highlight the fact that the struggle for women’s engagement in politics is not over even today. Yes, women MPs are at a record high of 32%, but this doesn’t match the demographic and is therefore far from being totally representative. The statistics for women MPs from BAME backgrounds are even more unequal, comprising 4% of the total House of Commons. 45 MPs openly say that they are part of the LGBT+ community and whilst there are no obtainable statistics of disabilities amongst MPs, it is suggested that the figure is also small.
These statistics reflect explicitly the level of challenge left to overcome before politics is an equal space. In celebrating the centenary and the efforts of the suffragists and suffragettes, we should do so in a way that recognises the wider struggle and target some of the overwhelmingly positive energy of the centenary celebration into tackling the political inequality of today.
Illustration by Maria Paradinas.