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Opinion Articles

100 years of suffrage

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On 6 Feb 1918, the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave women over 30 in Britain the right to vote. This landmark legislation is being celebrated nationally, as a stepping stone towards full gender equality. It was not until 1928 that women received the franchise on equal terms to men. But the 1918 victory was a powerful ‘thin end of the wedge’, and the product of decades of campaigning. Many policy makers had been long convinced of the justice of women’s claims, but there seemed little urgency in giving government time to a women’s suffrage bill. Edwardian constitutional crises over the powers of the House of Lords and the government of Ireland took precedence over women’s suffrage, despite the glaring injustice of men’s monopoly of political power. Today, when the complexities of Brexit threaten to monopolise the government’s attention, policymakers would be well advised to ensure that pressing day to day concerns do not shoulder aside deeper thinking about social inequalities and the rights of citizens.

Campaigners might also note the essential work of building coalitions and sustaining public interest through innovative media campaigns, which suffragists excelled at. By pilgrimages, rallies, prayer meetings, tax resistance and dogged local organising, the suffrage issue rose up the agenda between 1867 and 1918. Sustaining such momentum for 50 years took exceptional commitment, and despite controversy over methods, these campaigners should be celebrated for their ability to think and work over the long term to ensure success.

The vote did not give women equality, but it did make it harder for politicians to ignore their demands. Almost immediately, it produced tangible gains: women were given the right to sit as MPs, the professions were opened up to them, and reforms to family law improved the lot of wives and mothers. This was a start, but the struggle for equality is ongoing. Today’s controversies over sexual harassment and equal pay suggest that feminist organising still has an important role in public life. Elections are rarely fought on issues of gender equality, but the deep anger of many women and men at the behaviour of some men towards those with less power – women, younger people, sexual minorities, the economically marginalised – is a sentiment that politicians will ignore at their peril at the next general election. Feminist anger remains a powerful force for change. 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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