Saturday, 26 May 2012

Fighting for Equality

by Zoe Dukoff-Gordon

A suffragette being arrested
(image source:
A radio talk show recently claimed that women were thought of as not as funny as men. This sexist viewpoint made me wonder: what was the world like before women’s rights? You may have heard of the Suffragettes and Suffragists in the early 1900s, but has our own society forgotten who they really were and what they really achieved? Are we a feminist or post-feminist society?

Fem-i-nism: The advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social and economic equality to men.
Fem-i-nist: a person (female or male) who supports feminism.

A group of women in the early 1900s decided to stand up for women’s rights and to start a non-violent campaign; they were called the Suffragists ("suffrage" means vote). They made posters, banners and started protests in order to win women the right to vote, to get the same jobs men could and to divorce a husband if need be. The Suffragists made some progress, got people’s attention but did not achieve their ultimate goal of women's right to vote. 

Therefore, women decided to create a more direct way of getting the British government's attention; this more radical group was known as the Suffragettes led by Emmeline Pankhurst. They would set fire to buildings, start fights and chain themselves to lamp posts; they achieved their aim, which was get arrested (see above left), thus calling into question the legitimacy of the laws that kept women as second class citizens.

The campaign of civil disobedience did not end once these women entered prison. Many of them went on a hunger strike which led the Home Secretary of the time to order the women to be force fed, using a particularly brutal method (see the film clip below) to prevent middle class women starving themselves to death which might have caused outrage among the wider public.  

anti-government poster
(image source:
However, the force feeding backfired because it made the government look brutal and made people more sympathetic towards the Suffragettes. The government therefore introduced legislation called "The Cat and Mouse Act", which meant that if an imprisoned Suffragette went on hunger strike she would be released from prison, on the assumption she would then start eating again, thus preventing the government from creating "martyrs" to the cause. Often, once the woman had recovered, she would be brought back to prison and the whole process would begin again. 

It wasn't "The Cat and Mouse Act" that ended the Suffragette movement, it was the First World War. However, by the end of the war, in 1918, the first legislation was passed giving women (at least property-owning women aged 30 and over) the right to vote. It is still disputed today whether the war or the militancy and violence of the Suffragettes were the primary cause of the women's right to vote. However, what is clear is that women still need to fight for their rights and for respect even today, nearly 100 years later.

Scene from Iron-Jawed Angels, in which one of the Suffragettes is force fed:

1 comment:

  1. A nice piece Zoe, but beware of seeing the First World War as the sole cause of women gaining the vote. Arguably the women who did much of the war work were those in their 20s and they didn't get the vote. I think it was as much about the need to review the male franchise. Many man had lost their right to vote because of serving in the armed forces and being away from home - obviously it wouldn't be right to allow that situation to continue so a Speaker's Conference to look at the franchise generally was convened. It was at that stage that it seemed churlish not to grant some women the vote.

    Also of course, because the suffragettes had proved patriotic during the war (helping with recruiting etc) it made it much easier for the Government to reward 'good behaviour' rather than being seen to give in to law-breaking. A bit like Northern Ireland and Sinn Fein embarking on disarmament/renouncing the use of violence - it made it possible for the Govt to include them in talks without being seen to sit down and negotiate with terrorists.

    So where does that leave the possibilities of sitting down tto tea with the Taliban...??


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