Guest post from Yvonne Jeffery, @bakingforpeace, campaigner at Save the Children, reflecting on the latest in Save the Children’s #changehistory series. You can read about and listen to earlier sessions here, here and here.
Like thousands of feminists across the country, I was eagerly anticipating the new film Suffragette, which charts a tumultuous period of feminism and the fight for equality in the UK in the very early twentieth century. After the screening, I was left asking myself two questions. What would I have had the guts to do in the position of these women in 1913? Secondly, and more importantly for today, can I say that I do enough to fight the inequality that still remains? In her talk on the history of The Women’s Movement, Nan Sloane (Director, Centre for Women and Democracy) argues that the period of pre-suffragette feminism was one of the most successful social movements ever, and yet we have lost this era and its learning from our history. She outlines five lessons.
Lesson 1: Campaigns should be unclouded and inclusive, in outcome if not in content. Campaign for all, not just some, women, spreading power to every class at every level.
Twentieth century suffrage campaigns ground to a halt partly due to the longstanding failure to achieve parliamentary enfranchisement. Under pressure, different factions appeared, and sought different levels of suffrage that would create a different outcomes and benefits for women and men. The movement lost clarity and unity.
For today, applying this test of clarity and inclusion to achieve change for women is still as important. For example, increasing the number of women in the courtroom, on business boards, and in parliament is only a means to an end; in themselves, these measures do not improve daily life for most women. Objectives must have actions that will translate into change on an everyday scale.
Lesson 2: Take help wherever you need or can get it.
The total number of female MPs elected since 1918 is 450. Today alone, there are 459 male MPs. In almost 100 years, as a country we have still not managed to elect the same number of women to parliament as we have men elected now.
Feminism needs men as men still hold power. Everyone must take on the fight for equality. One of the most recent campaigns to build an ambitious movement of 1 billion men worldwide to commit to taking action against gender discrimination is UN-Women’s HeForShe, which has so far gained only half a million pledges. Yet, it is only through the recognition that we all have a role to play that legislation to improve the lives of women will be enacted, and equality through social change achieved.
Lesson 3: Be opportunistic to seize the public imagination. Be constructive, imaginative, to ensure that people are talking about feminist issues, and in a way that gets them on to the agenda.
In 1867, the Second Reform Act extended the vote to all urban householders and people who owned small amounts of land in the country. Afterwards, a woman named Milly Maxwell managed to get her name on the electoral register. Lydia Becker, a leader of the suffrage campaign in Manchester, accompanied her to vote and they were ‘much cheered’ as they did so. Becker saw a campaigning opportunity, and ran a national campaign to get women to register to vote. As the rules stood, objections had to be made to remove people from the electoral register, but the rules were ambiguous, and barristers were forced to hear thousands of objections. Many women were removed from the register, but some barristers let women remain and be able to vote. This campaign helped to ensure that the franchise was slowly extended to some women at local levels, so that by the early twentieth century, Westminster was left as the only elected body where no women had any voting rights.
Today, you still need to be in the game to change the game. From women being classed as a non-person with no legal or financial identity and being expressly forbidden to vote in 1832, in 2015, the 18-24 female bracket is the least likely to vote. There is of course a lot of debate over how to get young females to vote, and efforts by political parties are to say the least unappealing, such as Labour’s pink bus or Ukip’s jump to promise to abolish the tampon tax and portray themselves as the party of young working women before the General Election this year. Communications and campaigns must show when, where, and how we all fit in to making equality a reality.
Lesson 4: See the whole game, not our own small part of it. See how our campaigns link to other struggles.
Empathy and understanding are powerful. Every campaigner needs to understand where the cause that they are fighting for sits in the context of the wider network of political and economic events. The votes for women campaigns are often viewed in isolation, without the recognition that they sprang from a longer campaign and sat alongside other campaigns for suffrage, and that other radical events such as the People’s Budget happened at the same time.
It is essential to recognise and understand the intersection of equality struggles, and to work together. Helen Pankhurst recently made this call at The Bechdel Test Fest discussion of Suffragette: ‘If each one of us took up an issue and held hands, we could achieve great change. We need less apathy!’
Lesson 5: Reclaim and remember our history.
Faye Ward, producer of the Suffragette film, has stated that ‘We are never taught history from the female perspective.’ In 12 years of primary and secondary education, the women’s movement never once appeared in my textbooks; I have only a single memory of my reception class teacher talking about Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes.
Recognising that our forebears did indeed change Britain profoundly, and that there are lessons that we can learn from them and apply today, would go some way towards reclaiming what has been lost and saluting the sacrifices that they made. The fight for equality still remains, and we can learn the lessons to make sure that we each do enough for it.