“A hundred years on, would those suffragist women feel it was worth their collective effort and what it cost them as individuals?”
One hundred years ago today, protestors gathered outside Buckingham Palace under the banner of ‘Votes for Women‘. It was barely a year since the death of Emily Wilding-Davison at the Derby in June, 1913. Possibly the best known of the women who had campaigned in the suffragist movement (1), made famous after she died from her injuries after being trampled by the King’s horse Anmer at Tattenham Corner (2). There is still debate whether it was suicide or accidental.
The National Union of Women’s Suffrage (the NUWSS) had failed through peaceful means to reach their goal despite having the support of men and members’ bills in Parliament. The Sufragette group, the WSPU, were less patient.
Under the slogan ‘Deeds not Words’, the anniversary of Emily Wilding Davison’s death last summer triggered a spate of features. There was an excellent historical account delivered in Parliament, by Dr. Mari Takayanagi (4), which includes how the movement and ‘votes for women’ and first female MPs appeared to have made a difference in Parliament.
“There was a raft of legislation passed throughout the 1920s on issues that affected women’s lives and gender equality – including things like the Sex Disqualification Removal Act which allowed women to practice as lawyers, to enter professions like accountancy and become vets and so on for the first time. There were acts about things like pensions; there were acts allowing women to inherit property; there were acts about things like the age of consent and the sale of alcohol to young people. The list goes on and on.
And none of this kind of thing was passed before the First World War and you’ve got to think it’s because women are part of the electorate now and the male MPs had to sit up and take notice of their views as they hadn’t before.”
However, what has been done since the anniversary to address the importance and relevance of women’s votes today and to encourage electoral engagement before these European and local elections on May 22nd 2014?
A hundred years on, would those suffragist women feel it was worth their collective effort (3) and what it cost them as individuals?
In 2013 my local election saw the Conservative candidate win only 231 votes ahead of UKIP – both candidates attaining over 1000 votes, in a turnout of barely 32%. I spoke to her and others, after that vote, on the subjects of women in politics and the continued importance of women’s rights and activism.
Pat Arculus, is our Conservative County Councillor and an Adult Safeguarding Champion. She said,
“It’s a funny game politics, how can we change it? I’ve just been watching Question Time. They’re arguing about the Health Service. You watch it and think, how is this relevant? Why don’t they just get together and sort it out? I think that may be it, women just want to get things done. You run a family, you have a problem, you sort it out and get on. You don’t spend hours arguing about it. Perhaps that’s what puts women off politics.”
Women today in the UK get to participate in the democratic process thanks at least in part, to the efforts and commitment of those women, not so many generations ago But do women today see the need for their active participation? According to Mrs. Arculus, her recent experience of electoral engagement is poor.
“There is a complete disaffection. It’s not even apathy. It’s “we don’t like politics”, “it doesn’t make any difference,” and “it doesn’t matter who we vote for.” If our young people hear that, then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“I was delivering leaflets and teenagers in the garden, I don’t know if they were of voting age, said, “no no take it back, we don’t vote for them.” I was shocked. As a mother it’s not my place to tell them who to vote for. I’d say to young people, read everything, read them all and make your own mind up. If you go into schools and they run mock elections, they are more active than we give them credit for. They seem to lose it, when they get older and don’t see any point.”
But this comment from a year ago, is what we must encourage the major parties pay attention to now, for the 2015 General election:
“In the last election, my majority fell from 2,800 to 220 and that all went to UKIP. So the public are feeling angry, about something.”
Emily Davison, with a first class degree in English as a man, could have walked into many jobs. In her time, with the equivalent as a woman, she was unable to participate in various circles, and found work as a governess and then, as a result of her activism, was sacked.
The issues of equal employment rights, pay and the role of women in childcare and the home are as current today as they were then. We should not take women’s rights to vote here, or in non-UK locations for granted even in countries we may not expect it. Switzerland granted women the vote only in 1971, and it wasn’t until the 90s in some municipalities. And it is easy to forget that full Parliamentary equality in the UK was not achieved until the Peerages Act of 1963.
Women as MPs, mothers, as managers, all as ordinary citizens need to stay as alert as ever to the equality of rights we have come to expect as the norm, to preserve them and to pass on their worth and relevance to our children. Men need to as well, just as importantly.
Rosamund McNeil, Head of Education and Equality at the NUT told me,
“Sometimes it is taken for granted that women today can have public roles, a life outside the home and can speak for themselves. The suffragettes must be celebrated because it reminds us that change and progress is hard won, and that gains for women must be guarded and not reversed. By looking back, it can generate creativity about how to take forward the debate on women’s inequality. I think their stories can inspire young women today to take control of their lives, to make their voices heard and to defy the stereotypes that remain about what women should say, think and do.”
So are the voices of our young women being included and heard in the current election? The suffragist women campaigned with passion for enfranchisement, for the right to vote and to have woman’s voices heard. One may say today, to become empowered.
There is a feeling about voting today, that it has lost its power. Not just for women. As exemplified in Pat Arculus’s story, the feeling that whoever we vote for makes no difference, it’s all the same anyway. Talking to people on the street this week about the European Election on May 22nd, I heard the same things.
Worryingly for me, I’ve found there is an undercurrent of nervous excitement when someone mentions UKIP. In our exchanges in the street, whilst out campaigning to encourage voting participation (of any party) on the European Election, there was a spark in the conversation. People talk openly between each other, of a shake up, of change. Men I spoke with seem quite unconcerned with racism or policy, almost as if acknowledging that there’s a touch of racism and misogyny in all of us, just the ‘real politicians’ are too plastic to let it show. A few men brushed aside hard questions, with a hand flutter of bravado. You get the feeling, there’s almost a hint of ‘at least he’s himself, flaws and all.’
Our respected elder statesmen, have for the most part, left the House of Commons. We hear staged soundbites and laugh at PR gaffes. But is this to the detriment of politics seeming real? Has spin created an image of politics so worried about what it looks like in the press (5), that to the people it looks like nothing we can connect with or trust? So afraid of making a mistake, that can be exploited by the other side, that the leaders have forgotton who they really are at heart and why we should trust in them?
I feel it is this, which women in England feel disaffected by, why politics seems like a man’s game. But both men and women appear to feel disenfranchised, that mainstream parties are too similar, and anyway, ‘they’re all politicians’. 72% of adults surveyed by Ipsos Mori last June felt in general MPs could not be trusted to tell the truth (10). We don’t trust most politicians, we can’t be bothered with all the game playing and word play behind ceremony and late night debates with party political point scoring. We’ve too much else to do with family, work, volunteering and caring, and everything else women take on and juggle. That’s the impression and sentiments I have been given listening on the street to the middle aged and younger voters.
The risk is, through lack of political involvement we disempower our voice. It is even harder to influence politics from outside. The broader risk is, we also see women falling away from the polling booths as was reflected in some of the women I spoke to this week, who either weren’t aware of the election or did not plan to vote on May 22nd. Political apathy leads to electoral apathy as well.
We also risk passing on that disinterest and lack of knowledge to our children. As one 17 year old girl told me when I asked how they would feel about voting in the next General Election,
“I don’t know anything about it. I don’t think it matters what you vote for, so I don’t think I would. I thought Tony Blair was Prime Minister till someone told me last week he’d changed.”
Her friend added,
“It’s quite exciting though. Seeing as we would be allowed to (vote) for the first time.”
I’d like to think that spark of excitement, could be spread, and underpinned by some conscious thought, to make a difference in the future. But surrounded by friends or family who are apathetic, without encouragement, it is likely to be put out.
Women who choose not to vote run the risk that we will enable men with the hints of the Farage to become empowered through our inaction. I’m not saying all men, and all women, revealed this split in tendencies by any means. Or that support of any party is gender based. But it was a noticeable enough trend in a spread of white, middle class Sussex adults whom I spoke with this week.
As it appears manstream parties which have become ever closer together are not representing the views of many people and are not to be trusted, people are looking at the outer wings of the political spectrum, and looking to people who may be imperfect, but look and sound real.
Overall, people just want a decent life in which people get on, are safe, thrive and look out for one another. Most people, like society to be inclusive. That’s what I picked up in a the majority of opinions. But they don’t appear to believe that common sensed approach is well enough represented in politics. Because party politics skews it.
Just talking to people, it appears a common thread that when it feels that manifestos are meaningless especially in coalition (6), people fail to trust them and the parties who propose them. Unable to be convinced by policies, they are instead attracted to people they believe in. We need people with whom the disenchanted can connect in a sensible way without having to reach out to the extreme margins of politics. We need policies and politicians we can trust. We need genuine, passionate people we can believe in.
We need to see that there is value in our vote and see a need to use it wisely.
As the Rt Hon the Baroness D’Souza reiterated in a presentation (7) last autumn,
“political engagement is not a luxury which can be tacked on to society, once it is sufficiently developed. It is a basic human right which affects our lives and livelihoods.”
You could argue that where people’s priorities are simply subsistence and survival, political empowerment is low on their agenda. Standing up for political and electoral involvement should not be a luxury in the UK, where we might believe developmental barriers do not stand in our way to political engagement. But there are many families and individuals in this country for whom economic security or access to further education are not a given. Government policies which undermine either for any parts of society, risk not only harming parity of esteem, but risk undermining the opportunities for full & equal access to involvement in political engagement, which undermines basic democracy.
The electoral commission, identified (8) that those suffering from social deprivation tend to also be the most politically excluded in society and political disengagement can itself be a form of social exclusion.
A basic lack of trust in our elected representatives, is a sad state of affairs. Combined with a lack of knowledge, a cynicism about politics is shaping politics in ways which mainstream parties should be taking seriously and acting upon.
“Public cynicism with politics is nothing new, but it looks like it has become entrenched. Disenchantment with politicians is shared across supporters of all parties – but is noticeably higher among UKIP voters, who seem most unhappy with the current political scene.” (Ipsos MORI 10)
It might not be sweet in reality to become actively, politically involved, like Disney’s Mrs. Banks would have us believe of the suffragettes, but we need to remember their ‘Deeds not Words’ of the past. We need to remember why it is still necessary today. And we need to encourage our friends, family and daughters to remember Emily and all the ordinary women who made a difference, so that we may have the choice to vote as a right, one which they had to fight for.
No matter how disenchanted we feel, we are no longer disenfranchised unless by choice. Women, get out and vote. Get electorally involved at least. Remember what others sacrificed for us to be able to do so. Well done sister suffragette!
If the majority of the population don’t vote, we shouldn’t be surprised if the collective majority opinion, is less represented than it should be. That allows the extreme views, over representation.
We need our collective engagement just as much today, as a hundred years ago.
2. British Pathe – Emily Davison and the Derby
6. Defending the Coalition will cost the Lib Dems letter from Social Liberal Forum, August 2013
7. Towards Political engagement for women Rt Hon the Baroness D’Souza presentation Nov 2013, Parliament Week 2013
9. Ipsos MORI December 2013 poll. Ipsos MORI interviewed a representative sample of 1,286 adults aged 18+ across Great Britain.
10. Ipsos MORI 2013 Trust in MPs poll, Ipsos MORI interviewed a representative sample of 1,023 adults aged 18+ across Great Britain. Data are weighted to match the profile of the population.