What the suffragettes started, we need to finish

Lee Webster | Feb 05, 2018
Women supported by Saathi in Nahar Tole, Godawari, Nepal

February 6th marks a hundred years since the British parliament passed the Representation of the People Act. The law allowed women over the age of 30 who owned property to vote for the first time, and paved the way for universal suffrage ten years later.

It was a landmark victory for the suffragettes and suffragists – the women’s rights activists who had campaigned long and hard, and at great personal cost, for their rights to vote.  Today we honour those women and remember their courage and perseverance.

Some of their names are familiar to us. From the remarkable Pankhurst family, including Emmeline and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, to Emily Wilding Davison who died trying to attach a suffrage scarf to the King’s horse during the Derby in 1913. 

Ordinary women, extraordinary actions

Yet beyond the famous names were hundreds of thousands of ordinary women who went to extraordinary lengths to establish women’s democratic rights.  And they were a much more diverse bunch than popular history remembers. 

Sarah Remond, an African-American anti-slavery lecturer, signed the first suffrage petition in 1866, and was the only black woman on record to do so.  Muriel Matters, an Australian-born suffragette, fearlessly piloted an air-ship emblazoned with “Votes for Women” over the Houses of Parliament in 1909, dropping leaflets for the pacifist Women’s Freedom League. Asian women, including Sophia Duleep Singh (also of Ethiopian descent) and Bhikaji Cama became powerful and influential suffragettes, campaigning both for Asian women’s rights and Indian independence. The East London Federation of the Suffragettes, championed by Sylvia Pankhurst, were a movement of working class women who widened the debate on women’s suffrage to include pay and working conditions, decent housing, and children’s health. 

If the suffragettes could see us now

If the suffragettes could see us now, what would they think?  A hundred years since British women first stood for parliament, still less than a third of Westminster MPs are women. The picture is much better in countries where affirmative action has levelled the playing field for women to get elected. Rwanda and Bolivia lead the field in women’s representation, with South Africa, Ethiopia, Namibia and Tanzania among those countries where women make up between a third and a half of parliamentarians. Yet globally, the average figure still stands at under a quarter.

And still violence against women continues to impact one in three of us.  The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements of the past year, as well as recent campaigns in India, Argentina and Kenya, remind us (should we need to be reminded) that we are still not safe. Women who stand up and speak out are at risk when they do so, just like the suffragettes who went before them.  We will never forget feminist MP Jo Cox, murdered by an extremist in 2016 whilst carrying out her job of representing the people of her constituency. She is much missed, and she is one of many women human rights defenders who are killed around the world every year.

A hundred years on from the struggles of the radical working class East London Suffragettes, women more than ever bear the brunt of economic policies that ignore or exclude us. Globally, women spend at least 2.5 times more time than men on unpaid care and domestic work, cooking, cleaning, fetching water and firewood and caring for children, the sick and the elderly. This work is essential to life and makes any other work possible but remains largely invisible. The global gender pay gap will take 217 years to close. And less that less than 20% of landholders are women, even though around the world their farming work ensures there’s food on the table.

Still much to do

There is still much to do. The suffragettes had great hopes and visions for a better, more equal society. As the Centenary Action Group campaign highlights, we’re #StillMarching. Today, we cannot and must not forget that our struggles are connected.  That whilst women in the UK campaign for justice for the two women a week murdered by their partners, women in Ethiopia are running shelters for women fleeing violence. While cleaners in Birmingham campaign for equal pay, domestic workers in South Africa are campaigning for a minimum wage.

Undoubtedly in the past century, there have been many advances in women’s rights, not least due to the sustained campaigning of a multitude of women’s movements, working from local to international levels, and ceaselessly demanding that rights are enshrined in laws, that laws are implemented, and that women can live as full and free citizens.

At Womankind, we have the privilege to work with and support cutting-edge feminist activists and movements.  Activists like Durga Sob, who was so determined to tackle the multiple discrimination faced by Dalit women in Nepal, she founded the Feminist Dalit Organisation.  And activists such as Thandiwe Chidavarume who mobilises women to campaign for their rights to land in Zimbabwe. 

Today, a hundred years after their first big victory, the spirit of the suffragettes lives on. And that spirit is global.  It is up to us, as feminists and as activists, to finish what the suffragettes started. 


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