Vote 100: Suffragist or suffragette?

By Alice Lassman 

As we reach the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the UK, we have to find ways to keep the sacrifice and bravery of the suffrage movement relevant and applicable. It offers us the opportunity to reflect on our approach to women in politics, and while we recognise the role their actions continue to play in our society in granting women over 30 in 1918, and later all women, the vote, the ideals of the suffragettes are far from achieved. May’s comments seem largely irrelevant in a time where we should be commemorating and celebrating a moment of history. Unlike many women globally, Theresa May has an exceptionally strong and powerful voice – the leader of a country with a high degree of soft power. Such a public platform, on such an important event, was a prime opportunity to empower women and create a call to action for global gender equality, while condemning the 12 countries who still discourage and prevent women from voting.

While stating that she may condemn the violent tactics would be a neutral and non-contestable response, disregarding the role that suffragettes played in securing the vote is unconstructive and almost disrespectful. What we need to understand is that the suffragists’ lack of success often drew its followers into suffragette movement, which gained greater traction in percolating the issue of women’s suffrage. Much like Feminism, the ideals of the suffragettes mean that they hadn’t intended to exist – women should never have had to fight for the right to vote – but both have to exist while conditions are unequal. Formed in frustration at the lack of progress of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, the suffragettes, in the form of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) were driven to extreme tactics they had never intended to employ.

Where suffragists and suffragettes differ is their methodology – how they decided to tackle the issue of women’s suffrage. Understandably, May would have been scrutinised for advocating the often violent and extreme techniques of the suffragettes – which were designed to instil terror. As the leader of a country targeted by organisations labelled as terrorists, May’s approach to aggression in achieving a political goal is thus understandable and avoids her being accused of hypocrisy. However, May delves one step further by using the word ‘moderate’. It seems like a safe and stately selection of word, but when more carefully considered, a ‘moderate’ suffragist implies the weakest form of support for suffrage. A suffragist that is not overly enamoured with suffragism would nominally support the cause but not get involved. The idea that our country’s second female prime minister would not actively partake in pursuing rights for all women is a little disconcerting – that she is a woman alone will not advance women’s rights. She needs to actively present herself as someone that supports the advancement of all women.

May does later state, however, that “both (suffragettes and suffragists) had a role” and that this is “not an either/or”. Although this quote is ignored in the initial statement, I would agree with May here- suffragettes drew a vast amount of support and publicity, attracting newly enlightened women to the cause. Their “deeds not words” ensured that women’s rights were a topic of conversation, creating a platform for the voice of suffragists, who were able to negotiate the outcome we celebrate this year.

What May said is easy in retrospect – but inevitably such a statement is futile. Besides, how do any of us truly know how we would act under repressed conditions? If May were so interested in politics and not able to partake, who’s to say she wouldn’t have chained herself to the same parliamentary property she uses every day?

Photograph: No. 10 via Flickr

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