100 years ago today, the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed, allowing some women in the UK the right to vote for the first time. It is bittersweet to celebrate the centenary of women’s right to vote in a year that has so far been dominated by conversations on gender pay gaps, sexual harassment and gender inequality more broadly. But perhaps it is also a timely reminder that despite the vast achievements of the suffragettes, there is still a lot that needs to be done.
Indeed what the last year has especially highlighted is that we still need feminism as much as we did 100 years ago. To identify as a feminist today has almost become taboo; honest and much needed conversations about the gap in women’s pay and attitudes towards sexual harassment are often interrupted with “well what about.” But discussing the gender pay gap in the BBC or sexual harassment endemic in some business cultures does not diminish the impact nor the importance of issues such as female genital mutilation (FGM) or the lack of basic female rights in countries such as Saudi Arabia. In fact it serves to highlight the continuing endurance of negatives attitudes towards women in all societies and the action needed to eradicate these pernicious beliefs.
The history of the suffragettes has become so sanitised that it is easy to forget that the suffragettes themselves faced a huge backlash for wanting to achieve political equality for women and that this backlash came not just from men but also from other women who felt that women lacked the capacity to understand politics and branded the suffragettes as “ugly spinsters.” Such attitudes are unthinkable today when we have female presidents, prime ministers and heads of state.
So this year, while we honour and remember the sacrifices made by the women who fought for the right to vote, we should also recognise and honour the women that are still fighting, not just in far flung places across the world, but also here at home. The fight for women’s rights anywhere does not diminish the fight everywhere else. Injustice anywhere is felt everywhere, no matter how small. After all, how can we tell other people to clean up their backyards when we have weeds growing in our own?