It is an indictment on those who hold power and are resistant to its democratisation that days such as yesterday’s International Women’s Day remain such an important reminder of the discrimination women face throughout the world. Here in the UK, it is particularly poignant given the upcoming general election, where women’s role in politics is still far outweighed by men; though I do like to think it is no coincidence that the more progressive political parties of the United Kingdom, the Greens, Plaid Cymru, and SNP are all now led by women.
The suffragette movement of course was instrumental in creating change. But I used to think it was portrayed as a rather middle/upper class movement, when, this is clearly not the case. There are many examples of working class women involved in the movement, and campaigning for equal rights many years before the turn of the century.
A programme just this week on BBC television, Suffragette’s Forever, showed how in the 1850s, in response to the male dominated Chartist movement, there was the formation of the Sheffield Female Political Union, who proclaimed: “To the women of England, beloved sisters, it is our birth-right, equally with our brothers to vote for our destiny, …and we ask in the name of the new justice must we continue ever the silent and servile victims of his injustice? Is the oppression to last forever? We, the women of the democracy of Sheffield, answer – No!” As Professor Amanda Vickery says, ‘it disputes the idea that working class women were downtrodden and prepared to suffer and be still; but more than that it gives a lie to the idea that the suffragette movement was a snooty middle class affair born in drawing rooms in Kensington and Mayfair. It seems to me it was born here in Sheffield in 1851.”
Katrina Naomi’s elegiac poem ‘For Eliza (my great-grandmother) who ‘ran away to north London,/never spoke of home, fled as a child/from that gap on the form where your father would have been;’ and who went on to be part of a movement that changed the course of history ‘When you straightened up,/out of the poor light, you thrust a pin/through the crown of your best straw hat/worked amongst those with a larger vision.’ beautifully encapsulates the height of the suffragette movement, (more…)