Votes For (Some) Women!
Updated: Dec 30, 2019
In 2018, I was one of the 100 community artists across the UK working with women* and girls* as part of ‘Processions’, a ‘mass participation artwork’ which celebrated the centenary of the Representation of the People’s Act (1918). This involved facilitating introductory sessions with a group of women* to develop their understanding of the suffrage movement and start discussions. From this, the group worked with an anarchist quilt maker to make a banner they could take on a national march.
I jumped at the chance to be on this project, because it included a mixture of my favourite things - using creativity to explore the past, discussing voting, purple (it’s my favourite colour), and constitutional law. I’m a huge constitutional law and voting rights nerd.
On that note, let’s talk about women’s enfranchisement. The Representation of the People Act (1918), also sometimes called the Fourth Reform Act, is credited as the law that gave women the vote. However, it’s not that simple. It gave rights to some women. Specifically, women over 30 who owned land worth more than £5, a total of 8.5 million women. (Roberts, 2001)
The other important thing to note was that the catalyst for the act was to enfranchise all men. If parliament did not want to give men returning from WW1 a vote, then women's enfranchisement may not have happened. In fact, there was a fear of women joining the electorate - the following is a quote by Lord R Cecil during a debate around an amendment which would limit women running for MP.
"That is the reason why the age limit of thirty was introduced, in order to avoid extending the franchise to a very large number of women, for fear they might be in a majority in the electorate of this country.” - Lord R Cecil
Women would not get the same enfranchisement as men until the 1928 Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act.
My workshops aimed to move beyond our traditional image and understanding of the
Suffragette era; to learn more about the untold stories and to draw comparisons with how the suffrage movement mirrors (or doesn’t mirror) our own understanding of women’s rights and the intersectionality within it.
We began by looking at leading members of the movement and drew parallels with our own identity, focusing on figures such as Sophia Duleep Singh. She was goddaughter of Queen Victoria and used her privilege to support the cause in ways other women couldn’t, for example by selling banned publications without facing prison time. Despite being one of the leading figures in the suffragette movement, the first book about her was not written until 2015 because of the whitewashing of history (Deb, 2015).
The role of Women of Colour, LGBTQ+ women* and disabled women in the suffrage movement has largely been sanitised by history. This is because history is written from a white, middle class and able gaze. Author Hilary McCollum notes that queer women played ‘prominent roles’ within the suffrage movement; “The history of the women’s movement has been largely recorded by male historians. And there are some very prurient attitudes… Lesbian and bisexual relationships have either largely been made invisible or, when they’re discussed, it is quite often in sensationalist terms.” (Braidwood, 2018).
“Women’s suffrage was far from a homogenous group of white women; it was a patchwork quilt made up of all kinds of activists, who campaigned side-by-side—sister-to-sister—to achieve a single aim. “ (Braidwood, 2018) whilst this is true, the way we have documented this history does not show that. But our history never shows nuance, does it? Will be better at preventing the sanitising of our own history? Or even prevent the whitewashing of current topics? The thing I loved the most about Processions was that the themes allowed for a deep discussion about systemic issues and how the future will be documented, all whilst using the past as a reflection and at times a safety blanket to talk about difficult things. For example, if we could read the history of our key cultural movements would it highlight how white women in particular, appropriate LGBTQ+ cultures? If I was doing these sessions today, I may also use them to explore how Greta Thunberg highlights the voice of activists from Indigenous communities, in order to prevent this white washing of youth climate activism. Or by asking ourselves the question, why are we more aware of Greta Thunberg than voices from Indigenous communities?
If you’re interested in reading more about the suffrage movement or the sanitisation of history, below are the articles I recommended following the sessions. I would also recommend the book ‘ Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary’ by Anita Anand, and I’d love to hear your book or link recommendations, or your thoughts.
The Queer, Disabled and Women of Colour Suffragettes History Forgot https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/9kz54p/uk-suffrage-centenary-anniversary-women-color-queer-disabled-activists
This is a really interesting article discussing the nature of the suffrage movement with historians, and exploring why some histories are santised.
The Black and Asian Women Who Fought for a Vote
Article by Elizabeth Crawford, a suffragette historian, looking in more detail at some of the women who formed part of the exhibition down in the theatre.
We Have Sanitised The History of The Suffragettes
Article by Fern Riddell exploring the militancy of the suffragette movement and the difference between suffragists/suffragettes.
BBC Archive: Suffragette Anniversary
Archived interviews from 1955 with those involved in the suffrage movement.
Cat and Mouse Act
The controversial Cat and Mouse act was created in response to women going on hunger strikes and being force fed in prisons. It involved releasing prisoners and then rearresting them once they had recovered.
Lastly, leading on from discussions in the workshops please find below:
The Craftivist Collective
A little information on the craftivist collective and on their understanding of craftivism.
Following on from the discussions we started around transitioning, this is the NHS guidance around gender dysphoria.