Centenary of votes for women must be used to re-galvanise the fight for equality, campaigners say

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The centenary of the first votes for women should be used as an opportunity to “re-galvanise” the battle for equality, leading feminists have urged.

Laws passed on February 6 1918 gave certain women over the age of 30 a vote.

But a century on from the landmark legislation the way women are treated is in some ways “worse” and a culture of misogyny dominates British life, according to campaigners.

Millicent Fawcett, who founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage, speaks at the Suffragette Pilgrimage in Hyde Park.
Millicent Fawcett, who founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage, speaks at the Suffragette Pilgrimage in Hyde Park (PA).

“I think we have changed the mood but now what we have got to do is change the reality,” she said.

“I think the momentum is growing and it will snowball. As more women get in (to positions of power) it opens up the path for other women, who can then do more for other women.

“It’s very hard if you are the one women there to effect change. Numbers matter.”

Labour MP Harriet Harman at the despatch box in the House of Commons when she was acting Labour leader
Labour MP Harriet Harman at the despatch box in the House of Commons when she was acting Labour leader (PA)

“That is how she will be judged and it is too early to judge her on that because she has only been Prime Minister since 2016 but let’s see when she leaves office whether she has moved the needle for other women,” she said.

Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for gender equality and women’s rights, said the anniversary must be used to tackle long-standing inequality.

“The moment is here,” she said.

Ms Smethers said there is a culture of misogyny that “seeps out” in life in the UK.

“You can see it,” she said. “It seeps out everywhere. It’s in our online culture, the street harassment women experience, the way women are treated in Parliament and by their own political parties, the way they are treated in the media when they do challenge it, the way that they are treated in the workplace.

“If you raise a voice and raise a challenge you become the target.”

It is “surprising and disappointing” that some of the discussions being had 100 years ago are still relevant now.

“Some things seem to have got worse,” she said. “The level of abuse and hatred online targeted at women for example, or the way it is OK to elect a president of the United States who has admitted to sexually assaulting women.”

“Overall, we are making progress but sometimes it’s hard to see it when you are in the eye of the storm.”

The organisation is launching a campaign, Our Time Now, to coincide with the anniversary that will focus on the challenges that remain for women.

“Every time you sit back and take your foot off the pedal then you will go backwards,” she said.

Under the Representation of the People Act around 8.5 million women met the criteria to be eligible to vote.

The act lifted existing restrictions on which men were able to vote, allowing all those over 21 a say at the ballot box.

In December 1918 women took part in a general election for the first time.

It followed decades of campaigning for reform. Early campaigner Millicent Fawcett led the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which lobbied for change through peaceful means.

Emmeline Pankhurst took a more radical approach, calling for “deeds not words”. Founding the Women’s Social and Political Union, she led a highly organised group that took direct action to demand reform.

The women chained themselves to railings, damaged property and went on hunger strikes in their battle for reform.

Emily Wilding Davison became a martyr for the cause when she died after running in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

Since 1918, there have been 489 women MPs. In the current parliament women hold 208 of the 650 seats.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who is also minister for women and equalities, said the Government was providing £5 million to mark the centenary.

“The centenary marks a pivotal moment in women’s history, which impacts on the life of every girl and woman in the country,” she added.

“I am humbled to think of all the visionary women who sacrificed so much to pave the way for future generations to achieve great things in political and public life.

“It is impossible to underestimate how significant it is that women and men now have an equal say in the decisions that affect us all.”

Home Secretary Amber Rudd
Home Secretary Amber Rudd said the centenary was a pivotal moment (Peter Byrne)

“Apart from anything else, it is a helpful reminder to us of what women went through to win the vote – they did not win it by asking. They fought, they went on hunger strike, some of them died in battle.

“That should galvanise us today to challenge a political establishment that has not taken sexual harassment seriously; that has not achieved equal pay, that has overseen cuts to services women rely on, and that time and again invests in physical infrastructure rather than social infrastructure. It should give us the hope we need to keep fighting.

“We have waited 100 years to be seen by the politics we vote for. Now we’re putting our foot down.”

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