Hurrah! Today marks 100 years of having the vote – for propertied, 30+ women that is
Turns out the 1918 Representation of the People Act wasn’t very representative at all
If you go on Twitter today you'll see the trending list filled with things such as #100YearsofVoting or #VotesforWomen. Today is the anniversary of a significant day in history because ‘women’ got the vote – at least that's what you're led to believe. Except, the Act that gave 'women' the vote only gave it to propertied women over the age of 30, where all men over 21 could vote.
The suffrage movement has falsely been displayed as an inclusive group that unites all women from different backgrounds trying to right a shared wrong. If you watch Sarah Gavron’s film Suffragette, for example, you see working class Maud (Carry Mulligan) unite with people such as Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) in jail. Whilst this is loosely based on a true story, the suffrage movement was actually characterized with deep ideological divisions which separated both the women in the movement and the Pankhurst family.
Emmeline Pankhurst came from a privileged, albeit surprisingly left wing background for the time – with her parents supportive of many US abolitionists. Pankhurst and her husband, Richard, continued to support socialist principles throughout Emmeline’s early adulthood, up until she was rejected from Manchester’s Independent Labour Party because she was a woman. It was this which led to Emmeline’s calls for an ‘independent women’s movement’ to advance women’s rights and call for female suffrage, something Labour at the time did not support. It resulted in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) that eventually linked with the Labour movements.
This sounds great on face value, an organisation truly for women, but sadly this was not the case. It couldn't be true representation when not all women were included. Whilst it was a good thing for some women, today isn't a day for women of colour or working-class women to celebrate – we were left out of this crucial piece of history.
In the WSPU, Emmeline sought suffrage on equal terms as men. As only propertied men could vote, it neglected approximately 40 per cent of the male population. On the other hand, the newly established Labour Party, led by Keir Hardie, sought for universal suffrage: votes for men and women regardless of class or wealth. The Pankhurst’s feared however, that female suffrage would be an afterthought as the Party did little to campaign for it and so the WSPU focused on the equal bill, seeing it as the most pragmatic option. This is where the movement gets divisive.
Christable, one of Emmeline’s daughters, argued that the new Liberal government would be more impressed with the ‘feminist bourgeoisie’ over the proletariat activists and began to sympathise with the Conservative party, believing that the WSPU’s middle class stronghold would be most befitted through the Tories.
Moreover, women who supported the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party candidates were expelled from the suffrage movement. Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst were literally expelled from the movement because of their socialist tendencies – in fact, Adela was shipped off to Australia by her mother on a one way ticket. Talk about family dilemmas. It’s interesting to consider how the movement arguably changed Emmeline, who was once so invested in socialism yet was a member of the Conservative party by the time of her death.
Yet it could also be said that their careerists methods, catering to those in power at the time that enabled any sort of female suffrage, even if it was not in the most desired form. For a mother to send her own daughter to a different continent because she didn't agree with her organisation shows that she must care about the cause, but at the same time it’s as if the suffrage movement became so intense to Emmeline that she neglected her more socialist roots and the working class women that helped begin the movement all for a chance of success – some might call it heroic, other’s might say she submitted to the times and gave in to popular politics.
Whilst I think women from either end of the political spectrum, Labour or Conservative, deserve the right to vote, I can’t help but think that Emmeline drifted to the Conservatives because it benefited her lifestyle choice, and as such differed from the child who would go around the streets raising money for newly freed slaves.
Sylvia Pankhurst, on the other hand, must be given some recognition, as she’s often forgotten about in the face of her sister and mother. The movement she founded, the East London Federation of Suffragettes, was not as successful as the WSPU, but they established a firm organisation that incorporated feminism and socialism – some might think she was bold and an idealist, but I think that the honesty she has displayed to herself is only commendable.
So in 2018, perhaps when you’re tweeting about this milestone for women, remember that Universal Suffrage is only 90 years old this year, and that whilst women still have a long way to go it has to be from a united front of all socio-economic backgrounds. Don't have yourself fooled.