This year marks the centenary of the first women in Britain and Ireland winning the right to vote in parliamentary elections. The political establishment and right-wing propaganda have been celebrating the introduction of the 1918 Representation of the People Act. But it cannot be forgotten that this Act was a deeply classist compromise, and aimed only to enfranchise a small number of property-owning women from the privileged elite in society, whilst simultaneously ignoring millions of ordinary working-class women.
It took years of struggle and the largest mobilisation of women in Britain’s history to achieve this partial victory. Around the world today, from #MeToo to Repeal the Eighth, women have once more taken a stand and said, ‘enough is enough’. It is time to demand the right to abortion and control of our own bodies, the end of sexual harassment and violence at work and at home, and the end of austerity and cuts to women’s services.
With the potential for a new mass women’s movement on the horizon, we must remember the invaluable lessons that can be learnt from the suffragettes, from their methods of struggle and their ideology, which arose out of the different class interests of those involved in the movement.
Whilst many of the national leaders of the movement limited their demand to votes for women on equal terms with male voters, discriminating on the basis of class, many of its rank-and-file activists, especially in working-class industrial areas, demanded nothing less than votes for all women, and all men too.
These women were known as the radical suffragists, both because of their methods and their programme. They saw the vote not as an abstract democratic right but a tool which they could use to challenge the terrible social conditions and inequality they faced. They protested loudly and often, they were associated with trade unions and left-wing movements, and they criticised the elitist political establishment. As a result, they were continually criticised in the press, harassed, and arrested.
Now, look at today, at the contempt and the irony with which the political elite and the right-wing press sneer at modern day activist movements – the way they smear Jeremy Corbyn, whose policies are moderate and social-democratic in historic terms, as an extremist. Yet Corbyn’s militancy is far from suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst’s assertion: “I am going to fight capitalism even if it kills me”.
The lesson we can learn from the suffragettes is clear. We cannot expect to secure what is owed to us through powerful elites generously choosing to improve things on our behalf. We need a radical, grassroots movement from below, a movement that goes beyond polite lobbying, to demand that our voices are heard, that are needs are met and that we secure the rights to our own bodies and our own labour.
By Amy Ferguson