Female suffrage: A century for women?

The vote was finally won in 1918, but the battle for equality continued. Sarah Crook offers her thoughts on the hard-fought struggle for women's rights that followed

A century since women's suffrage. (Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare for BBC History Magazine)

This article was first published in the February 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Asked for her address in the 1911 census, Emily Wilding Davison gave the unexpected answer “The House of Commons” – as indeed she was entitled to, for she had spent the night before hiding in a cupboard in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in the Palace of Westminster. Just two years later, Davison would die after throwing herself at (or, arguably, under) the king’s horse, perhaps the most famous fatality in Britain’s move towards a more democratic politics.

As these two actions show, women’s campaigns for equal rights in 20th-century Britain required courage, creativity and sacrifice. Not all sacrifices were as visible or as notorious as Davison’s, of course, and the work of black and working-class women has been critical to, and comparatively unsung, in feminist activism in 20th-century Britain. As we edge towards the centenary of women’s suffrage, we are provoked to look back and to ask what has been achieved, how, and for whom. Have “deeds not words”, the slogan of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union, changed women’s lives across the last 100 years? Have women moved from the cupboard to the cabinet?

Not exactly. While the 1918 Representation of the People Act allowed some women over 30 to vote, women were to wait a further 10 years for the passage of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act to attain the same voting rights as men. Although they did then achieve equal voting rights, they did not achieve the same levels of representation.

It was not until six decades later, in the 1987 election, that women finally made up over 5 per cent of the Commons. Significant for another reason, 1987 also marked the election of the first black woman to parliament, Diane Abbott. The 1980s were not a decade of unfettered feminist progress, however. Margaret Thatcher, who ascended to the post of prime minister in 1979, was no ally to the Women’s Liberation Movement (which in 1978 she declared to be “too strident”). The movement, which had emerged from the student movement and the ferment of 1968, in turn viewed her as, at best, symbolic of female empowerment and, at worst, an enemy of it.

Perhaps it is outside Westminster and inside lecture theatres that we can see more dramatic social change. When historian and writer Sheila Rowbotham joined Oxford in 1961 in a “beatnik uniform, sandals and black sweater”, she was not only representing the changing sartorial conventions, but joining an expanding cohort of female students. As historian Carol Dyhouse has noted, while only a small number of women had degrees in the early 20th century, this increased significantly during the 1960s and 1970s. These institutions would propel women not only into professional employment but also into a world of political engagement. Set against the backdrop of the political tumult of the late 1960s, a generation of women came of age when social norms were in flux, when the aspiration of domestic motherhood – itself only ever available to middle and upper-class women – shifted to make way for the possibility of alternative careers and lives.

Equal recognition was not conferred by equal education or skills, however. When 850 women machinists at the Ford plant in Dagenham went on strike in 1968, pay gaps were widespread, and persisted even after the passage of the Equal Pay Act 1970. Meanwhile, in the Grunwick strike between 1976 and 1978, led by the working-class Asian woman Jayaben Desai, women had to fight for trade union recognition. Women were not going to be passive in the face of their oppression.

Taking reproductive control

Of course, the aspirations of women could only be fulfilled when women had access to – and control of – their reproductive health-care. Family size dropped dramatically across the century as women gained information about and access to birth control methods. Maternity and child welfare centres were established through the 1920s, seeking to extend practices from the middle classes to working-class women, although debate about reproductive control didn’t hit its zenith until the 1960s. In this decade, campaigns for the liberalisation of abortion law culminated in the passage of the Abortion Act 1967. While it was a male MP, David Steel, who introduced the bill to parliament, it was the work of women’s campaigning organisations such as the Abortion Law Reform Association that built momentum towards the change. Pointing to the dangers posed to women by backstreet abortionists, campaigners argued that access to legal terminations would not only save lives but would enable women to be better mothers to their existing children.

The ability to choose to be a mother was enhanced by the introduction of the pill in the 1960s, after which sex became less risky for women. Sexual liberation was to be a central theme of the 1970s feminist movement, as the academic and writer Lynne Segal recalled: “In an affirmation of the sexual radicalism of the sixties, feminists in the early seventies took their own search for sexual pleasure very seriously.” Gay and bisexual women were also increasingly able to express their desires and identities, forming organisations that grappled with the discrimination facing their communities. They worked in groups that demonstrated solidarity with other movements, such as in Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, founded in 1984.

So how different are the issues facing women in 2018 from those faced by women in 1918? How recognisable would contemporary feminist activism be to the suffrage campaigners in the early part of the 20th century? The extension of the vote was not inevitable, but arose from a hard-fought campaign that made the issue inescapable, challenged social norms and drew women onto the streets. These days the streets are again being reclaimed as sites of feminist activism, and social media platforms are providing new locations of feminist consciousness-building (one can imagine that ‘#votesforwomen’ would easily trend on Twitter and that the glass from broken shop windows would have been captured on Instagram) around which new solidarities have been built.

A look back at this century tells us that advances in women’s rights have rarely been easily won, and that just as these battles can be fractious, they can also be joyous. Deeds not words, indeed.

Dr Sarah Crook is the Sir Christopher Cox junior fellow at New College, Oxford

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Listen again: To hear Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the rise of 20th-century feminism on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, go to bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00545b0