February 2018 marked 100 years since the right to vote was given to the first women in the U.K. To mark the centenary of this landmark accomplishment, the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Suffragettes (the militant counterpart to the moderate Suffragists), spoke about how far the women’s movement has yet to go, and how #MeToo and #TimesUp have invigorated the push for equality.
In honor of International Women’s Day, we explore the legacy of the women’s suffrage movement in the U.K. and how it’s fueling this year’s theme, #PressForProgress around the world.
“I think we’re at that moment where things are changing,” activist Dr. Helen Pankhurst told the Sydney Morning Herald1 in February.
Descending from a line of ardent feminists, including her great-grandmother, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, Dr. Pankhurst has been disappointed in the women’s movement over recent decades. She has found the passion and radicalism that fueled first-wave feminists lacking, and as a result, she believes progress has been stalled.
“2018 has become symbolic in its own right,” apart from the centenary of women’s suffrage, Dr. Pankhurst said. “We’ve got enough women speaking up, supported by enough other women and men saying, ‘it’s not good enough, all of these norms we’ve had for a century, for longer, we’re just fed up with it and we need a change.’”
“We are witnessing something momentous,” she added.
Hannah Stephenson of Belfast Telegraph2 noted in February that “women have come a long way in the past 100 years – from getting the right to vote to becoming prime minister.” But in also speaking with Dr. Pankhurst, who has recently published a book on how women’s lives have evolved over the last century, considered the areas where progress has yet to be made.
According to Stephenson’s article, current areas of ongoing struggle include backlash against feminism and feminists, the gender pay gap, sexual discrimination, and violence against women.
“Violence against women is the one factor that infects every aspect of women’s lives. Unless we address that, other aspects [of women’s progress] will be slower to change,” Dr. Pankhurst said.
Documents from the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women3 underscore Dr. Pankhurst’s assertion about the impact of violence in the lives of women all over the world.
Particularly, annual reports from this commission make it easy to trace trends and priorities in relation to woman’s issues from year to year over the course of decades. One of the themes to emerge in these observations is how violence is used to hinder women’s involvement in social policies, and how this impedes the development of nations and states.
A parallel theme that runs through these reports is concern about heightened violence against women and children in nations struggling with instability, particularly where there is ongoing armed conflict, in the forms of rape and sexual abuse, trafficking, domestic violence and traditional practices such as genital mutilation.
It causes one to wonder about the relationships between these factors. Do nations that struggle with instability and armed conflict also see more violence against women? Are these nations the same nations which also use violence to inhibit women’s participation in the political process?
And, on the flipside, do nations which have equal involvement from men and women in politics and social policy see less violence in general, and against women specifically?
Such questions take us back over 100 years and return us to the topic of women’s suffrage. The suffragists and suffragettes certainly saw a relationship between the abuses against women and their inability to represent themselves politically. They lived under a system where men were meant to protect them and look out for their best interests, but quite frequently that proved not to be the case.
Besides, shouldn’t women living according to the law also have a say in what the law is?
An illuminating way to understand how the struggle for women’s suffrage unfolded is by exploring the petitions registered with Parliament,4 including the petition presented in 1866 by Parliamentary member and Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill on behalf of the Kensington Society, “discussion group for middle class women,” according to an article on the Parliament website.5
“The 1866 petition marked the start of organized campaigning by women for the vote,” the article noted. “Overall, more than 16,000 petitions for votes for women were received by the House of Commons and House of Lords between 1866 and 1918.”
Mill, who with his wife published one of the century’s most influential essays on gender equality, The Subjection of Women6 in 1869, continued to campaign in Parliament on behalf of women, believing that the education and emancipation of women would benefit all of society.
As he wrote:
That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes - the legal subordination of one sex to the other - is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.
Fast forward to 2018, as we continue to see the subordination of women hindering human development around the world. In response, people all over the globe are taking advantage of International Women’s Day to educate and organize around women’s rights and gender parity. How are you honoring this opportunity to keep the momentum going in the #PressForProgress?
For further research
From Suffragettes to the “Me too” movement, give students access to primary sources to develop critical thinking and diverse content that deepens research. Watch the video sample Changing the World, in Makers: Women Who Make America, available in Academic Video Online and explore related resources.
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Also see ebooks on a range of women’s movement topics, including voting rights.