Today marks one hundred years since the first women received the right to vote in the UK. However, is our knowledge of the suffrage movement limited to the small amount we were told at school?
It will come as no surprise that the history of women has been distorted and even erased over the years. Just take a look at the lack of public knowledge surrounding England’s early Queens, feminist thinkers or military leaders. However, the suffrage movement IS something that most school-children are taught in the classroom.
I thought I knew enough about those who campaigned for my right to vote. I remembered my history lessons about the suffragettes and suffragists fondly. I took every module I could whilst at University regarding gender equality and learnt more about the female writers who were denied a voice.
However, as I began to research the topic more and read fist-hand biographies from the women who lived through the suffrage movement, I felt ashamed as to how little I knew. I still do.
Even today, on this monumental occasion, I am still reading articles that are misinformed; women did not ALL receive the vote 100 years ago today, they only got it if they were married (therefore owners of property) and over 30. It took another 10 years of campaigning before, like men were granted in 1918, every single woman over a certain age was given the right to vote. The initial act of 1918 was supposedly needed to resolve the issue of soldiers returning from service in the First World War who were not entitled to vote. It was actually less about women than history has us believe.
Nonetheless, the reform was momentous and a step in the right direction. But it certainly wasn’t the end of the female suffrage movement. Modern day campaigners are still raising their voices all over the globe– just look at the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements.
Yet there are there still those who wish to divide the voices, to pick holes in the arguments of feminist ideology. In fact, the unhealthy obsession we have regarding painting the suffragettes as ‘militant’, is an example of this and one that has arguably fuelled the negative image of the modern-day ‘radical feminist’.
In history lessons the suffragettes and the suffragists are pitted against each other, but in actual fact they had more in common than we think. Their real enemies lay in the public figures they had to convince, people who today we view through rose-tinted spectacles. Winston Churchill, Arthur Conan Doyle (he called them ‘female hooligans’) and even Queen Victoria were disapproving of the suffrage movement. In later years, groups like the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage was set up…by a woman. It is astounding the amount of criticism the feminists had to deal with.
At least the suffragists and suffragettes were united in their ultimate goal. Yet while the suffragettes were inarguably more physical in their demonstrations, they were not using tactics the country had not seen before. Throwing stones at windows and chaining limbs to gates had been used for years by male uprisers – yet rarely were they given the harsh sentences or public treatment that the women received.
The hunger and thirst strikes (some also refused water) is also something that is massively underplayed. There are even reports that one woman, Fanny Parker, was force-fed through her rectum and vagina.
In fact, there is probably a lot about the prison sentences which we still do not know, for the wealthier women are the ones whose stories we read. Lady Constance Lytton proved that class and image still meant something in this movement; during one spell in prison she cut her hair short, made herself admittedly ‘uglier’ and changed her name to Jane Warton. She was treated far worse than she had ever been when imprisoned as her true self.
The working-class suffrage movement is something that I am particularly interested in, as really, these are the women who the vote affected the most. I’ve learnt recently that there was a WSPU group in East London – where the women of my own family originate from – who campaigned for other things alongside the right to vote such as housing, wages and work conditions. They were formally expelled from the WSPU for being too ‘mixed up’ in other things. Women of Asian descent were also heavily involved with the suffrage movement. Where are their stories now?
So this year, and every year, I call on you to educate yourself. Read a lesser-known biography, sign up for an online course (I registered for a FREE one last night!), or do a bit of online research past the newspaper headlines. We could learn a little more about the suffrage movement.