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Posts Tagged ‘Suffragists’

When I first read Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, many years ago, it scared me witless. Watching the recent adaption for TV through my fingers, I’ve found it even more unnerving. After researching the conditions for women in Victorian and Edwardian England the world of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ feels all too recent and too real, and the rights women have won all too precarious.

But I’ve also learnt about an amazing heroine, and a courageous group of women who, although powerless, without even a legal existence of their own, fought the many injustices of such a system, and won.

 

If you’d asked me a few years ago about Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the suffrage movement in the UK, and now the first woman to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square in 2018, I wouldn’t have had a clue. I’d vaguely heard the name, but until I began researching for ‘The White Camellia’ I’d never (to my shame) thought to find out more about her, or even the difference between the suffrage movement and the suffragettes. Although main story of ‘The White Camellia’ centres on a crumbling mansion in Cornwall, and a feud that has torn two families apart, one of the characters becomes an early female photojournalist who finds herself inadvertently drawn into the transition point between the suffragists and the suffragettes.

It was when I began researching the background for Bea’s story that this new and riveting story of the suffragists had me transfixed. It’s a history that’s barely noted, but it is one of women (many proudly supported by the men in their lives) successfully outwitting, out-arguing, and out-manoeuvring politicians to establish so many of the rights we take for granted today.

What is even more remarkable is that when they began their campaign, around the 1860s, these women had no legal existence whatsoever. They were the property of fathers, then husbands. Even the richest woman lost any rights over her money and property once married, and even after a divorce, all her earnings still went to her husband, whose only obligation was to keep her out of the poorhouse (as in, the responsibility of the state).

 

It’s a long and fascinating story, of working-class girls risking everything to fight for a living wage for their work, for education and training. Of middle class women fighting for the right to take a degree and follow a profession, and proving such things didn’t send them mad or shrink their wombs to nothingness. Of the right for a woman to keep her children after a divorce, instead of being forced to flee abroad or lose contact with them forever. Of a recognition that prostitution was not a means of idly living in luxury, but rather a result of desperation and abuse, and of pitiful pay that forced even fully employed and skilled women to resort to the most desperate of measures to survive.

The suffragists were supported by many leading figures of the day, including Florence Nightingale (whose pioneering use of statistics to prove a point was adopted by many of the suffragist campaigns), Josephine Butler, and pioneering doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

And then there was the question of the vote, as underlying the position of women as rational human beings, rather than as being childlike, in need of guidance and protection. Again, I had no idea that, until the 1860s, very few men had the vote, or that the battle was such a long-fought one for both sexes, with the argument only finally won in 1928, when all men and all women achieved the vote. That’s a long time ago – but still within living memory, which, in the context of all of human history, is no time at all.

Single women (the only women subject to paying tax) braved the bailiffs being sent in, under the banner ‘No Taxation without Representation’, and the campaign gradually moved the idea of women voting from being laughable to MPs (all male, voted in by men) voting twice for women to have the vote, the first being passed by 100 votes, and the second private member’s bill in 1911 by 255 for to 88 against. Okay, so both times the democratic process was overturned, but that also puts quite a different slant on the direct action of the suffragettes. Women didn’t start their campaign for the vote by throwing stones and chaining themselves to railings, but such actions (along with the destruction of property) were the furious response to the democratic process being denied. Whether you agree with direct action or not, men have been known to have a similar reaction, too – and no one ever called them a bunch of raving hormonal hysterics whose real motive rested in being too ugly/old/clever to find love!

So hurrah for Millicent Fawcett, and the many and varied battles of the suffrage campaign battling to be the ones to walk in the sun, rather than as mere handmaids to their overlords. As a woman with a degree, who can vote and earn her own living, take part in sport, walk down the street unchaperoned, and live a fulfilled and independent life, I shall be cheering as loud as can be when that statue to my heroine, Millicent Fawcett, goes up in Parliament Square next year.

A woman Doctor. Now there’s a thought … 🙂

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