by Rosemary Lucy Hill, Acting Director, Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies
When I was a lass I used to go and stay at my grandma‘s house and read the books from when my mum was a little girl. One of those books was the Girl annual from about 1956. The annual included the story of the suffragettes. I was astounded by the pictures of women changed to railings and smashing windows, and I was horrified by the force-feeding. This was my first encounter with the campaign for women’s right to vote.
As I grew up the injustice that women could not take part in the electoral system became more obvious to me. Now, as a grown woman and a lecturer in gender studies, I think about these women’s bravery and how they were prepared not only to go to prison for the right to vote, but also die – and I am thoroughly inspired, indebted, and in awe of their determination.
Today the 6th of February 2018, marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act when 8.4 million women in Britain first gained the right to vote. The same act enfranchised 5.6 million working class men who had previously not been able to vote. Not all women gained the vote: only those over 30, with property or a university degree or a member/married to a member of the Local Government Register were eligible. It wasn’t until 1928 that women had the right to vote on the same grounds as men. Nevertheless the act marks an incredible move forward for the recognition of women as human beings, as people who could make their own decisions about their lives. There is still work to be done to fully realise this ambition (for example, taking abortion out of criminal law to enable women to have a say about their own healthcare), but 1918 marks a significant moment.
At the time not everybody agreed that women should have the vote, and I’m not just talking about some Conservative men here. Anarchist women did not feel that the vote was worth fighting for when it would only provide access to an already broken system. However it strikes me that it still necessary to take part in the existing political system even if it does not fully represent the world that we would like to see. How can we change things for the better if we cannot participate in the decisions that are made?
Louise Thompson, Student Education Services Assistant
Now we take the vote as a right, which is as it should be. We tend to forget all the heartache and hard work that women prior to us had to put in to get that right. And this was in only very recent times. I always vote. To me if you don’t vote then you’ve no right to complain about the way the country is run. It’s something we should all do.
Joanne Greenhalgh, Associate Professor
The vote means I can exercise my right to have a say in who gets to lead the country I live in. It sends a signal that I am being treated equally as a citizen when everyone has the same right to vote. I used to be a bit disinterested in voting in my early twenties– but I remember in my first job, I shared an office with the female PA of the head of school. She was outraged that I was considering not voting and explained that other women had died so that I had a right to vote. She personally drove me to the polling station. I loved her for this, for making me realise that my right to vote had been hard won, and I have always exercised my right to vote ever since.
Amanda Gannon, Student Placement Officer
The vote was a massive move forward at that time. It still wasn’t equality because of all the conditions of age and class. So it was massive, but still a long way to go. It wasn’t just equality of women, it was equality of classes that still needed significant change. But there is a difference between being able to choose not to vote and not having the right to vote.
Anne Mansfield, Student Support Officer
It’s about having the opportunity to shape things within your community and society as a whole. As a woman you’re potentially giving voice to other women and their struggles, or other groups that are considered disadvantaged by current powers and structures. It’s a good to look back now at advances in society and ask are we pulling everybody up? Because only certain women originally got the vote so if we’re being critical about that we need to be considering what we are doing to ensure that doesn’t happen again. Women from ethnic minority backgrounds or trans-women or migrant women don’t have the same rights as middle-class women.
Julia Bahner, Marie Curie Postdoctoral Research Fellow
I think the centenary is a bit ambiguous because it didn’t include all women. I am a migrant woman in the UK: I can’t vote. I’m from Sweden where women got the vote in 1919. Well, all women except intellectually disabled people, who didn’t get the vote until 1985. There is still a problem that information to enable people to make informed decisions about who to vote for is lacking and this significantly affects intellectually disabled people.
Julia Swallow, Research Fellow
I vote because people fought for us to vote. But it’s also about recognising that women have a long way to go. We need to think about who has the capital to vote and remember that policies don’t always affect women positively. We are still only making slow progress, but I think it’s important that I as an individual voice my opinion… but I don’t think the vote does this well. Is positioned as a mark of women’s equality, but I don’t think it does that, especially for lots of women who I can’t vote or feel about it doesn’t extend to meaningful change for them.
Choon Key Chekar, Research Fellow
It’s a surprise how recently the right to vote was granted: in South Korea women didn’t get the vote until 1948.
Kate Hall, Student Education Officer
I’m grateful that I have a chance to vote and my voice is heard. I always exercise my right to vote. I never miss a vote.
Karen Throsby, Associate Professor, Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies
I love going to vote – always in person whenever I can and as early in the day as possible. I like the physicality of marking and folding the paper and sliding it into the ballot box; a moment to be visible, to be heard. And while I’m doing it, I remember the incredible courage of those who fought so that I can vote, and those who are still fighting around the world for that same right.
Anne Kerr, Professor of Sociology
When I vote and see other women voting it’s a powerful reminder of the victories in women’s long battle for equality and a source of inspiration to me to continue to try to challenge sexism and discrimination. I asked my daughters about this and their answers give me a lot of hope for the future. They said women and men should have equal rights and women winning the right to vote was a big step forward, but there’s lots more still to do.
Sharon Elley, Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy
The vote to me means recognising how much women, who I will never personally know and only read about, sacrificed to make it possible for me to vote. It means rejoicing in our achievements and reflecting on the battles still to be won. When I post my vote, I think – smash patriarchy and be counted.
Leslie Hart, Cleaner
I think it’s important to vote. In some foreign countries people die or queue for days in order to vote, so we should vote. I’m not too sure if it makes a difference or not. Hopefully it does. Politicians all seem to be the same, all the parties seem to be the same.
Kim Allen, University Academic Fellow – Urban Sociology (Youth and Inequality)
For me the vote symbolises a recognition of my agency and right as a political actor to speak for myself rather than be ignored or spoken on behalf of by men. As a woman I feel it is my right and responsibility to vote – however frustrated or despondent I might feel at times with the political system (and after 8 years of a Conservative-led government it’s hard not to be). Using my vote is a responsibility to past generations of women whose actions and sacrifices meant that I can go to the polling booth, put a cross in one of those boxes, and for this cross to count. But I also feel a sense of duty to women of today and to future generations of women because the decisions made by those in power affect women’s lives differently – and in most cases adversely. We’ve seen this with the Conservative government’s austerity policies which have disproportionately impacted upon women, especially BME, working-class and refugee women. Foregrounding women’s needs and demands in the decisions we make about who we elect is one way in which we can support women’s rights. There are many things that are flawed with electoral politics and I have some empathy for those who feel that it is better to put your energies into other forms of grassroots political activism. I believe that it’s vital that we engage in both. Electoral politics is not perfect and it’s certainly not the only way to change things but it’s also a privilege that many women still do not have.
Besides, my hero Leslie Knope would be very disappointed if I didn’t use my right to vote.
Amina Easat-Daas, ‘Counter-Islamophobia Kit’ Project Officer
I actually looked at Muslim women’s political participation in France and Belgium for my PhD – so this is something I am quite passionate about. As a young, ethnic minority, visibly Muslim woman I would say that women’s right to vote is hugely important, as it contributes towards underlining the presence of women as an active part of society and the political process. Nonetheless, the right to vote is not the end point, rather going forward there should be greater emphasis on the meaningful political representation of women and involvement in the political decision making process.
So today we remember, thank and celebrate the women who campaigned at great personal cost for our right to vote here in the UK and around the world.
There are many events taking place this year to celebrate the centenary – see https://www.vote100.uk for more information.
For more on the campaign for the vote in the UK, our own Jill Liddington’s books are a great read. Jill also gives talks and walking tours. See http://www.jliddington.org.uk/index.html for more information.
For more on Amina’s work on Muslim women’s political participation see https://leeds.academia.edu/AminaEasatDaas
I want to thank all my colleagues who gave me their time to think about what the vote means to them.