Photo: Peta Barrett at Processions, in London on 10 June 2018.
The Circle Relationship Manager Peta Barrett shares her thoughts on the Processions march that took place in four UK cities on 10 June 2018 to commemorate the Representation of the People Act centenary. Peta marched in the Processions in London along with members of The Circle and thousands of other women and girls.
Central London has never looked as beautiful as it did on Sunday 10 June 2018. The sun lit the greens, purples and whites of the suffragette colours worn by smiling women and girls of all backgrounds gathered to commemorate 100 years since the first women received the vote in the UK. I was thrilled that one of the first banners spotted read “Sisters are doing in for themselves”, lyrics from The Circle’s Founder Annie Lennox. I grabbed the opportunity for photo because it made me feel connected to all the members of The Circle gathered in London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff, all of our members who could not be there in person and the women of The Circle connected to us by our projects near and far.
I looked around me at the costumes, the banners, the sheer positivity of the crowd and I felt the spirit of the suffragettes with us as we walked in memory of everything they have done for us and for the long road we still need to walk for gender equality. It was wonderful to be surrounded by women and girls of all generations, some of whom had travelled from all over the UK.
The morning after Processions a close friend asked me, “who received the right to vote in the UK one hundred years ago?”
To set the scene… Up until 1918 only men aged 21 or older who owned land had the right to vote in the UK. The suffragette movement lead to the introduction of the Representation of the People Act in 1918. This allowed women over the age of thirty who owned property, or whose husbands did, the right to vote. Not all women could vote. In fact, only 22% of women living in the UK at the time received the right to vote in 1918. It is also interesting and important to mention that the Representation of the People Act also further extended the right to vote to all men over the age of 21 regardless of their property ownership status.
It would be another ten years before the Representation of People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 was introduced into British politics, giving women equal electoral rights as men. What this tells us is that the suffragettes continued to fight together for equal rights. 22% representation was not good enough; the exclusion of any woman was unacceptable. The fight would continue until all women had the same right to vote as men. And finally, in 1928 all women aged 21 and older regardless of property ownership were given the right to vote. Sylvia Pankhurst is quoted in 1931 as saying ‘’as to the suffrage movement, it was a gathering of people of all sorts, united by one simple idea, which necessitated the surrender of no prejudice of race or class”. So, if you were at the Processions celebrations over the weekend, think of this as the dress run for some serious partying in 2028!
“What difference does political independence have?” you might ask. Women in the UK were given the right to vote in 1928 and are living in a country that the World Economic Forum (WEF) considers to be one of the most equal in their Global Gender Gap Report in 2017. By comparison, Saudi Arabia, which is ranked as one of the worst countries globally in the same report, only extended their women citizens the right to vote in 2015. Working for The Circle my focus is on the most marginalised women and girls, but I learnt that, despite having the vote for 100 years, the UK also has a lot of work to do to achieve gender equality. So as one of my favourite banners from yesterday reads – “We Have the Vote. Now We Want Equality’”. Equality for all women. And we will not stop until every woman is empowered to make her own choices and make change happen for herself.
In 2018 we find ourselves in a very different world where the stories of history are being re-examined and often criticised because they have often been told by the same perspective – overwhelmingly that of white heterosexual middle and upper-class men. Looking back on the suffragette movement I am thus further inspired when I really reflect on Sylvia Pankhurst’s words in 1931.
“… as to the suffrage movement, it was a gathering of people of all sorts, united by one simple idea, which necessitated the surrender of no prejudice of race or class”.
With only 22% of women receiving the right to vote and this being reliant on a property ownership, the majority of the women represented by that percentage would have been wealthy white women. The suffragette movement in the UK wasn’t directly campaigning with a racial agenda to exclude ethnic minorities, which was the case in examples seen in countries like the USA, Australia and South Africa. For example, the suffragette Sophia Duleep Singh, goddaughter of Queen Victoria, was born of Indian and German-Ethiopian ethnicity. Sushama Sen (a woman of Indian ethnicity) recalls in her book Memoirs of an Octogenarian that when the suffragettes heard of her activities campaigning for the women’s vote, they invited her to join their demonstrations in Piccadilly in 1910. However, through my research I have found no evidence to suggest that specific consideration was given to women of ethnic minorities who would have been less able to realise their rights due to the oppression faced in addition to sexism. What is inspiring about the suffragette movement between 1918 and 1928 is that despite the more privileged women in UK society having received the vote in 1918, the fight for political equality continued. It unified women from all walks of life, living in the UK, to stand together for political equality, regardless of who they were. We are celebrating today because together, they won.
In 2018 there are huge inequalities that exist between women and men. The experiences of those inequalities between women are also worlds apart. As a South African woman, the challenges I have faced because of my gender are hardly a drop in the ocean when compared to Siyanda, a woman who is committed to self-empowerment at the Nonceba Women’s Shelter in South Africa, a project supported by The Circle. The difference between us is that, in addition to sexism, Siyanda has faced challenges connected to her ethnicity, lack of access to education and financial independence, which are all beyond her control. Now in 2018 we have more knowledge, we have the gift of hind sight and we can see how the road to gender equality is longer for women who are facing discrimination on multiple fronts. I am part of the small percentage of women who are closer to equal rights than most. The suffragettes focused on women in the UK, but they did not have the internet to connect them to their global sisters. The suffragettes had bells to make noise, we have various forms of media. As women today, we also have networks and influence that the suffragettes could only dream of in 1918. With the inspiration of the suffragettes behind us and the winds of change in the global movement for gender equality powering our sails —I ask you to remember where we have come from and to please join me as we continue to fight for equality for all women, especially those who are still treated as far less equal than you or I.
Peta Barrett is a member of The Circle since 2016 and our Relationship Manager since 2017.