100 years since women’s suffrage in the UK: taking stock and not being complacent

IMG_4685On June the 10th, tens of thousands of women took to the streets in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London to mark 100 years since the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave some women the vote in the UK. Green, white and violet colours of the suffragette movement were proudly on display.

It was a day of celebration and respect, honouring the efforts of 100 years before us to bring about the change. It was also a day where women taking part wanted to make their voices heard now about some of the enduring injustices of gender inequality.

Seeing banners about poverty and state pension inequality for women reminds me that the fight for gender equality goes on. Women in almost every nation are still fighting for fair and equal treatment compared with their male counterparts. It is a fight that unites women across the globe, and is still very much an issue in the UK as it is in Malawi, as it is in Nepal, as it is in the USA.

In the UK, 100 years since gaining the right to vote, women are still speaking out and demanding equity in many aspects of our lives:

  • equal representation in parliament and as company board members,
  • the abolition of the tampon tax (feminine hygiene products being subjected to Value Added Tax). Although menstruation is not a choice, other products relation to reproduction and contraception – such as condoms – are tax exempt,
  • fair and equal rights for women in the military,
  • increased uptake of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects for girls,
  • a return to work after having a baby without fear of discrimination,
  • fair and equal access to contraception and family planning services, and
  • equal pay.

IMG_4686Two weeks ago, the Republic of Ireland voted to repeal the 8th amendment and pave the way for women to gain access to free, safe and legal abortions. This week, Argentina’s lower house backed a bill legalising abortion in the 14 weeks of pregnancy. These very welcome changes have been vindications of the rights of women, as the previous laws have been judged to be “incompatible with Human Rights.” Yet at the same time, the majority of comments in opposition and broadcast in the media are that of men, still completely comfortable to speak out against women’s control of their own bodies and fate.  Some age old questions endure, and women are still battling to claim their rights to speak for, and have control of all aspects of life.

Where are we now compared with 1918? We’ve certainly come a long way. But we clearly still have a long way to go…

Those first women who gained the right to vote in the UK in 1918 were privileged – it took a further 10 years for the same rights to be extended to all women, and not only be limited to women who were over the age of 30 years and who also owned property.

Like our predecessors then, what can we hope to achieve in the next 10 years specifically that will make gender equity even more of a reality for all in the UK? Perhaps not as much as we may hope for. A report published in 2017, the Gender Equality Index 2017: Measuring gender equality in the European Union 2005-2015, found very slow progress for gender equality in the past ten years for Europe as a whole. Thinking optimistically, I would hope for a more balanced picture in the workplace and at home as more men take up parental leave to care for their families, and more women are represented within boards of directors at work.

I wonder what those women who fought those early battles for us would make of today’s situation…

Sam Mudie


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