The Suffragettes and 100 Years On

6 June 2013



This week marks the 100th anniversary of the shocking death of Emily Wilding Davison, the Suffragette who was killed under the hooves of King George V’s  horse at the Epsom Derby.

At the time, sporting venues had become a prominent field of operations for the campaign for Votes for Women.

Two months earlier, an attempt had been made to burn down the members’ pavilion of the Dundee Tennis Club .

This was reported as far afield as Australia , in the “South Adelaide Advertiser” and in New Zealand , in the “Auckland Star”.

Perhaps the interest in such events here in Britain from newspapers thousands of miles away  came from bewilderment that women in Britain still did not have the franchise.

Australian women had already won the right to vote in 1902, and in New Zealand in the decade before that -  and this had not caused the sky to fall in.

Dani Garavelli described in the “Scotsman” this week how a minority of Suffragettes focused on attacking golf greens  in 1913.

She quotes the then editor of “Golf Illustrated” as being unmoved by “the scraping and scratching of a few greens” to publicise and advance the cause of votes for women.

He mocked the women's tactics, saying:

“On the same principle we ought to give votes to worms, moles, rabbits and other pests.” 

In the same decade, the idea of an International Women’s Day gathered strength and at its centre was the promotion of women's right to vote.

The United Nations records the development of IWD:

1910  The Socialist International, meeting in Copenhagen, established a Women's Day, international in character, to honour the movement for women's rights and to build support for achieving universal suffrage for women. The proposal was greeted with unanimous approval by the conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, which included the first three women elected to the Finnish Parliament. No fixed date was selected for the observance.

1911  As a result of the Copenhagen initiative, International Women's Day was marked for the first time (19 March) in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where more than one million women and men attended rallies.

In addition to the right to vote and to hold public office, they demanded women's rights to work, to vocational training and to an end to discrimination on the job.  

1913-1914   International Women's Day also became a mechanism for protesting against World War I. As part of the peace movement, Russian women observed their first International Women's Day on the last Sunday in February. Elsewhere in Europe, on or around 8 March of the following year, women held rallies either to protest against the war or to express solidarity with other activists.

The outbreak of the First World War saw Emmeline Pankhurst declare that Suffragette activities should pause, and that women should instead fight for inclusion in the war effort.

(Her daughter Sylvia, however, as a pacifist and socialist as well as feminist, refused to place patriotism before principle, and carried on campaigning, often with her close friend Keir Hardie by her side.)

Involvement in war work gave women the opportunity to show competence far beyond the usual restricted range of employment traditionally permitted.

This evidence of female ability at "men's work" undoubtedly helped to persuade many that women were not second – class citizens, were every bit as good as men, and therefore should have the right to vote.

Nevertheless, it was only towards the end of the next decade, in 1928, that women over the age of 21 were granted voting rights in Britain.

One hundred years on, a great deal still remains to be done.

The Suffragettes’ motto was “Deeds, not words” and gaining the right to vote was far from the end of the campaign.

To improve women’s lives the vote was necessary, but this has to be followed by more women in Parliament in order to raise issues important to women, to foster a welfare state of cradle-to-grave proportion, more educational opportunities and jobs for women, better pensions, and to attempt to secure “a fair day's pay for a fair day’s work”.

One of the best ways that we can carry forward the Suffragettes' legacy today is to ensure that more women stand for election and that women go out and vote.

Suffragettes were imprisoned for their beliefs, suffered verbal, physical and sexual violence, and the torture of force-feeding, all for a women’s right to vote. A hundred years later, in the Scottish Parliament election of 2011, around half of the women in Scotland who had the right to vote did not do so.

Yet, politics today is alive with issues that the Suffragettes would have acknowledged as their own: policies of austerity that primarily impact on women; reductions in the general standard of living; child poverty; sex inequality and the pay gap; lack of affordable child care; the raising of the retirement age; and men's violence against women.

We need to engage with these non-voting women, to help to reconnect politics with their lives.

And when Labour return to power, we can work to retain their involvement in politics by following the Suffragettes’ motto , “Deeds, not words” and making a real difference to their lives.

Video clip from the BBC 1974 series "Shoulder to Shoulder"


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