The Representation of the People Act 1918 meant that a greater number and a broader mix of voices could be heard at the polls. In 2018, we mark the centenary of the historic act on a UK 50p coin. Emmeline Pankhurst was a British Political activist and a leader of the British suffragette movement who played a crucial part in securing votes for women. In this guest blog, Emmeline’s great-granddaughter, Helen Pankhurst, tells us more about Emmeline’s impact on the passing of an act that has paved the way to our rights today.
On the 19th of March 1908 my great-grandmother, Emmeline Pankhurst spoke to her audience at the Royal Albert Hall. A transcript survives, held at the Women’s Library Archives of the LSE, the London School of Economics. It includes the following extract which I would like to share as a reminder of the humour and the determination that Emmeline brought to the struggle and how those in the audience listening to her responded.
For more than fifty years, women have been demanding that common elementary right. We have always needed the Vote, we have always wanted it, but never so much as we need it today. Today we have the new kind of politics, very different from the old-fashioned politics – because today politics means, as it never has meant before, interference with us all in our daily lives (‘hear hear’).
You have proposals out of Parliament, and in Parliament, for the regulation of our lives as we have never had before. No doubt with the best intentions – everybody intends well – but we women need new representation in order to see that this new kind of legislation is not to be worse tyranny and a greater oppression than any kind of legislation that has gone before (‘hear hear’).
They say women have no sense of humour (laughter) but if it were not too so serious, what is being done by men would create a sense of humour in women (applause and laughter).
I am sorry if some of the gentlemen in the audience may feel their susceptibilities wounded by what I am going to say now (a man: ‘No!’) but to a woman it is humorous to see how men seem to think they are fitted to deal with questions which ever since the human race existed have been left to women to manage, and which women understand (great applause).
How children, even, are to be brought into the world men in Parliament think they can decide now! The rearing and bearing of children, the care of the sick, the care of the old, the making of our homes, and the keeping of our homes, men are going to make laws to decide, without even giving us the elementary right of deciding who the men are to be who are to make these momentous decisions! (Applause)
… Well, I for one friends, looking round at the muddles men have made (‘hear hear’ – from men) looking round now at the starving children, looking round now at the sweated and decrepit members of my sex, I say men have had the control of these things long enough (‘hear hear’) and no woman with any spark of womanliness in her will consent to let this state of things go on any longer (‘hear hear’). So this year we are going to settle the business (‘hear hear’). We are tired and we want to be of use, we want to have this power in order that we may try to make this world a much better place for men and women than it is today.
This was before the hunger strikes which started in 1909, or the Cat and Mouse Act of 1913. It wasn’t until 1918 that some women and many more men, and then in 1928 that all women gained the right to vote on equal terms with men. The battle was longer and more bitter than Emmeline could have imagined.
One hundred years on from the first momentous victory, the right to the parliamentary vote and for women to stand as MPs, what impact did Emmeline, and the suffragettes more generally have on the rights that women enjoy today? There is some controversy over whether they or the war or a combination of the two finally forced the change. However, irrespective of line of causation in terms of the change in the law, without doubt the suffragettes remain in the public consciousness admired because of their unwillingness to be cowed, shaking the establishment and forcing changes in social norms and in their own sense of themselves.
On the centenary of the vote we honour their courage.
And that’s all very well, they would be saying, but how far have we come since then? The vote was from the beginning seen as a tool for wider transformation. How much has this been the case? What areas of women’s lives have altered the most? Where has there been the most resistance?
Answers to these kinds of questions form the basis of a book I have published called Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now. The overall assessment is that progress has been fitful and partial, with the greater opportunities for women to define their own destinies but also the continued quashing of their lives. This includes with threats of violence which have continued and also morphed – for example through social media – a new form of abuse yet one where the tone and intent is something which suffragettes would recognise.
Gender inequality remains entrenched in our society, interwoven with many other forms of discrimination, such as those based on class, colour and sexuality. Overall we have progressed in terms of women’s rights over the last hundred years, but we cannot take any of the gains for granted and there is still work to do in the forging of that ‘much better place for men and women’.
Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now by Helen Pankhurst is published by Sceptre, available now. Join me at CARE International’s #March4Women on 4th of March 2018 to celebrate the centenary and call for gender equality around the world www.careinternational.org.uk/march4women
To find out more about the significance of the Representation of the People Act 1918 being marked on a UK 50p coin, read our guest blog, Representation of the People Act 1918 – 100 years on by Mari Takayanagi; You can also discover what inspired, designer, Stephen Taylor in our latest behind the design blog.