“VOTE MUPPET” the sign reads in my neighbour’s front garden with a cheery picture of Kermit the Frog, “You’re going to get one anyway.” Personally I think the comment is an insult to all muppets everywhere, but that’s not the point I’m wanting to make today.
On Thursday 7th May I will be heading to my local polling station to vote for my choice of political party, however, there are a group of people I have to thank for this privilege.
In the nineteenth century only a small privileged minority of the popuIation were given the right to vote: property owning men, over the age of 21. At this time there was a huge amount of inequality felt by many, not least by well-educated property owning women. They paid their taxes, observed the laws of the land and yet were not allowed to have a say in how the country was run. Many of these women had men that worked for them that were allowed to vote and yet they were not. By the late nineteenth century many women were beginning to feel the unfairness of the lack of political equality they had with men. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed in 1897 and was lead by Millicent Garret Fawcett. Fawcett and the NUWSS adopted a peaceful and non-confrontational approach to reaching their goal of women receiving the same political rights as men. They believed they could succeed through argument and education. They tried to raise their profile peacefully with posters, leaflets, calendars and public meetings.
Yet, the progress of the NUWSS was slow and many women felt angry by this. In 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union was formed by Emmeline Pankhurst. These women were prepared to take a more forceful approach to achieving their goal. They heckled politicians, held marches, members chained themselves to railings, attacked policemen, broke windows, slashed paintings, set fire to buildings, threw bombs and went on hunger strike when they were sent to prison. One very famous suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of the king’s horse during the Derby, which was believed at the time to be an action of martyrdom to the cause. Whilst the NUWSS was against the violent approach of the WSPU it was certainly proving to be a more effective way in getting their voice heard and some would say they were even driven to it.
In 1918 The Representation of People Act was passed which allowed all property owning women over the age of thirty the right to vote. This was a huge accomplishment. The government said it was a way of rewarding the women for all they achieved in supporting the war effort during WW1, however, this reward is unlikely to have happened without all the protest by the suffragettes prior to the war. Full equality regarding suffrage was given ten years later in 1928 with the Equal Franchise Act.
It doesn’t feel right to say that I’m proud of what these women did to achieve votes for women. I’m not proud of violence, attacks and vandalism; but, I wonder how long it would have taken to get the change they did if they had continued acting peacefully in their protest. I believe they wouldn’t have done what they did unless they felt it was the only way of getting their voice heard.
So, on Thursday May 7th I will be voting. It doesn’t actually matter WHO I’m voting for. What matters is that I vote: for Millicent Garret Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Wilding Davison and all the many, many other women who campaigned, protested, were imprisoned, went on hunger strikes and were beaten just so that I could exercise my right to vote and have a say in how our country is run. To them, thank you.