This Thursday is International Women’s Day, and this year’s celebration is more important than ever. As UN Women explains “[this year’s event] comes on the heels of unprecedented global movement for women’s rights, equality and justice”, communicated through marches, strikes, campaigns on social media and at public events all around the world.
This year is also the 100th anniversary of the Representation of People Act which allowed women to vote for the very first time. Whilst it is important to recognise that this was limited to women of a certain status, it was a significant step in the fight for equality and, particularly as it is now part of our local history, a good starting point for our #SGxIWD campaign.
The History of the Suffragettes
On 10th October 1903, a frustrated Emmeline Pankhurst and five others, including her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, set up the Women’s Social and Political Union in Manchester (WSPU), under the powerful slogan ‘deeds not words’. Few thought that this small yet ambitious society would win any women the right to vote, yet alone be still studied and celebrated 100 years on.
We’ve created this timeline which shows the struggle from the rejected Great Reform Act in 1832 to the first female MP in 1928. Click here to view the full timeline.
Suffragettes in the Press
Emmeline and the WSPU were, as history knows them, game changers, particularly in the ways they gained media attention for their cause.
Moving away from the polite petitions, parades and strongly-worded letters of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, the WSUP organised a series of demonstrations which often resulted in violence to ensure their message was being heard. From smashing windows and setting fire to politicians’ postboxes, to going on hunger strike and chaining themselves to railings. Emily Davison famously died for the cause by walking out in front of King George V’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby.
Whilst they certainly grabbed the headlines, these revolutionary women were not popular in the media. The very word we used to define them – ‘suffragettes’- was coined by the press. With the movement being centred on universal suffrage, the press paired ‘suffrage’ with the degrading suffix – ette – taken from French to denote something smaller, and often more inferior. The word may have been used to mock them, but it ended up being reclaimed by the movement. To be a suffragette was to be a go-getter; determined women who would stop at nothing to have their voices heard. The word suffragette was a platform for the militant women and the whole movement to spread the message, under a unified identity.
They were continually ridiculed in the media, which depicted them as ugly, unfeminine, and neglectful of their families. If you are interested, there is a brilliant article which analyses how the suffragettes were treated by the contemporary media in more depth over at Bustle.com, which has some pretty shocking examples!
Women all around the world are still facing injustice in all spheres of modern life. In the workplace, issues such as gender pay gaps, sexual harassment and lack of representation in leadership positions can dissuade women from living their dreams and reaching their potential. We must all, regardless of our own gender, draw inspiration from the determination and strength of the suffragettes and speak out against inequality and accelerate change.
This is why, this week and throughout March, we will be both celebrating the achievements of women and calling for action to achieve gender parity. Join us and be inspired by following our #SGxIWD campaign on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.