100 years of suffrage

08 February 2018

This month marks 100 years since women were first given the right to vote. In this article, we look through the years at the battle for gender equality and how the power dynamic has changed over time. We highlight how we are supporting residents involved in a number of women’s’ projects to take control and affect change, empowering them to address inequalities at a local level.

Last year’s General Election saw a record number of 208 female MPs elected to the House of Commons. Since 1918, when Constance Markievicz became the first woman to be elected to Parliament, the total number of female MPs Britain has had is 455 - nearly the same number of male MPs who sit in the Commons currently.

According to a report produced by the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC), the UK ranks 48th in the world for parliamentary gender equality – falling behind countries including Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and Sudan. It argued that ‘the under-representation of women MPs does not only represent a serious democratic deficit; it also means that the UK is missing out on the benefits of having gender balance in its highest decision-making body.’

In Britain, progress has been slow. One hundred years ago this month, the Fourth Reform Act was passed into law which, for the first time, gave women the right to vote – but only to those aged over 30 and who owned property. This, in practice, meant only middle and upper class women were enfranchised.

It wasn’t until ten years later and the passage of the Equal Franchise Act that all women were granted equal voting rights to men.

In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed. Led by Millicent Fawcett, it brought together two competing groups both lobbying for women’s’ suffrage under the same umbrella; it was a movement to secure the vote for middle class, property-owning women through peaceful and legal means.

A lack of progress from law-abiding and peaceful tactics led to frustration and division within the group. More radical activists grew increasingly intense in their protests and demonstrations, and often became violent; they smashed shop windows, committed arson and even planted bombs. Many women were imprisoned as a result, and often underwent hunger strikes in protest, seeking to gain further media coverage for their cause.

Perceptions of women started to change in the eyes of the establishment during the First and Second World Wars. As men went to war, women took on the roles that they were traditionally denied. Between 1914 and 1918, an estimated two million women replaced men in employment.

As the years progressed, so did women’s rights – but not without a struggle. In 1958, women were allowed to sit in the House of Lords for the first time, and in 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime minister.  In 1987, Diane Abbott became Britain’s first black female MP.

Women make up 51% of the population, but are by no means in the driving seat. They hold just one in 10 of the top jobs in FTSE 100 companies and lose out on nearly £140bn a year in wages due to the gender pay gap, according to the Young Women’s Trust.

According to the Gender Equality Index, Britain has made almost no progress in tackling inequality between the sexes in the last ten years.

Their report takes into account a number of factors: the workplace, income, education, health and political engagement.

Last year, it was revealed that men working for the BBC earn an average of 9.3% more than women. The revelation led to high-profile women quitting the organisation in protest. In response, some leading male presenters for the BBC have accepted reduced wages.

Classical historian Mary Beard argues that women who are successful often mimic male characteristics; for instance, Margaret Thatcher had speech therapy to deepen her voice, and Hilary Clinton opted for pantsuits during the 2016 US presidential election campaign.

Her book ‘Women & Power: A Manifesto’ looks at the long history of silenced female voices, and she herself notes she has been the subject of abuse when she speaks publicly.

In the book, she says: “My basic premise is that our mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male. If we close our eyes and try to conjure up the image of a president or – to move into the knowledge economy – a professor, what most of us see is not a woman.”

Rather than trying to fit women into male power structures, she argues that we need to move away from society’s current constructs and start to think about power differently.

She writes: “You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession.”

People’s Health Trust is committed to people-led change as a way of challenging unequal power relationships.

Structural change should have a significant impact on inequality in a society and expose the population to both challenges and opportunities.

All projects funded by People’s Health Trust support residents to design and take control of their own initiatives and, in doing so, create new opportunities and choices.

When people feel they have control, individually or collectively, it empowers them to take action in other aspects of their lives, and that is when we start to see power manifested differently.

For example, Hometruths, a project funded through the Trust’s Active Communities programme, supports female survivors of domestic abuse. Through weekly sessions and activities, the women attending feel more in control of their own lives and decisions. A greater sense of control has led individuals to make changes in their own lives. Another Trust-funded project, Coffee and Laughs, has empowered women to develop new skills and, in one instance, two group members felt empowered enough to get up in front of hundreds of people to talk about how they left their countries of origin to settle in Wales and begin new lives.

Women getting the right to vote was an important milestone on the road towards equality, granting women greater control over their country which, as shown, can and has granted them greater control in their own lives. Equality remains, however, a journey that is far from complete.


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