Modern feminists can learn a lot from Suffragette sitcom "Up the Women"

Many of the questions faced by the women's movement today are played out in Jessica Hynes' new show. In a world where feminism still viewed by many women with distrust, wariness and even alarm, there's a lot we can learn from the ladies of the Banbury Int

As longtime fans of the television series Spaced (has a sitcom before or since so hilariously conveyed twentysomething experience?), we were extremely excited about Jessica Hynes’ new venture, a comedy called Up the Women focusing on a Banbury craft group’s sudden interest in the Suffragette movement. The first two episodes of the three-parter aired on BBC4 this month, and it has already been recommissioned for BBC2, news that is unsurprising for anyone who’s seen it. Its slightly stagey feel lends itself well to the razor sharp lines and its comic characters have been well rendered, particularly that of Helen, a Lady Bracknell-esque character and the craft circle’s chair (played by Rebecca Front), who disapproves of women’s suffrage, saying "the present system works perfectly well. My husband votes for whom I tell him to vote. What could be a better system than that?"

There are certainly elements of the series which recall The Importance of Being Earnest, not only because of the costumes and characterisation but also the wit of the writing. Helen’s mother Myrtle (played by Judy Parfitt) is a red haired bohemian with a sexy past who one suspects of having been a pre-Raphaelite. She is in constant conflict with her daughter, who claims that her mother has no understanding of the domestic duties of women. "I’m sure as I lie on my deathbed, I will cast my mind’s eye over all the table arrangements I never made," she says, sarcastically. Perhaps most reminiscent, however, is the farcical nature of the plot, which, rather than focusing on the central, founding members of the Suffragette movement, instead follows a group of parochial nobodies and their attempts to come to grips which the huge social changes of the last century, with predictably mixed results.

Hynes’ character Margaret returns from London having been caught up in a Suffragette rally, and suggests that the "Banbury Intricate Craft Circle" rename itself the "Banbury Intricate Craft Circle Frankly Demands Women’s Suffrage". It is in the group’s unwillingness to cause a stir that much of the farcical humour can be found, for what use is a radical protest group which is too frightened to do anything radical? Though the youngest member of the group, Emily, is keen on direct action ("Kill the king!") she’s somewhat compromised by her romantic attachment to resident "mansplainer" Thomas, who appropriately describes himself as "a spanner in the works of your oppression".

For a comedy set in the Edwardian era, Up the Women documents some very modern problems as far as feminism is concerned. In fact, if anything the series shows how these problems can be seen to have stemmed from the very outset of the movement and have endured. Simply becoming a cohesive group with shared aims is difficult enough, without the scaremongering that tyrant Helen uses to dissuade the others from joining and undermine enthusiast Margaret’s attempts at leadership. Helen demands to know whether Margaret’s husband is aware of her new feminist principles and that she is "cavorting with skirted anarchists" (he doesn’t as "he’s been very melancholic since Nietzsche’s death") and terrifies mother-of-fourteen Eva into joining her counter-movement by asking her to imagine her children orphaned and in the workhouse. This shitty kind of manipulation – the placing of equal rights in stark opposition to traditional female roles, such as motherhood – endures in the right-wing media today.

We see the Banbury Intricate Craft Group (Politely Demands Women’s Suffrage) face all this in the first two episodes, as well as some well-worn questions (Do we let men join? Should we change our tactics? What is an acceptable euphemism for vagina? Can’t somebody just DO something?) Up the Women is timely considering how we are seeing a new generation of feminists who don’t take themselves too seriously and seem more capable than their predecessors of laughing at themselves (though there’s still a long way to go, frankly), and it’s refreshing to see some well-written female-led comedy on prime-time telly. Though Up The Women draws on the past, it’s not so rooted in history and theory that it becomes alienating – a technique the feminist movement would do well to learn from. But perhaps most importantly this new comedy mirrors feminism’s reception in the outside world, where it is still viewed by many women with distrust, wariness and even alarm, and the idea that it is not something that women need persists. Just as the members of the craft group are unsure as to whether they need the Suffragettes at all, many women today remain unconvinced of feminism’s relevance to their lives, and those ensconced within their liberal bubbles would do well to remember that. 

Rebecca Front and Jessica Hynes in "Up the Women". Photograph: BBC

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Our trade unions are doing more for women than ever before

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women.

Reading Carole Easton’s article on women and unions was puzzling and disappointing in equal measure. Puzzling because it paints a picture of trade unions which bears little resemblance to the movement I know and love. Disappointing because it presents a false image of trade unions to women readers just at a time when women need strong trade unions more than ever.

While it is right to say that too little progress has been made in closing the gender pay gap or tackling the scourge of zero hour contracts, it is wrong to suggest that trade unions have been twiddling their thumbs.

Like our friends at the Young Women’s Trust, equality is at the heart of what unions do. This work isn’t measured in the number of high-profile women we have at the forefront of our movement – although we’re not doing too badly there, as anyone will attest who has seen Frances O’Grady, the first female general secretary of the TUC, speaking out for ordinary women workers.  

Trade unions contribute to equality for our 3 million women members every day. For us, that’s about the thousands of workplace reps supporting individual women facing discrimination or harassment. It’s about health and safety reps negotiating for protective clothing and better workplace policies on the menopause, terminal illness and many more issues. Our work is unions taking employment tribunal cases on behalf of women who could never afford the tribunal fees without us. And always, at the heart of everything, our work is about the collective power of workers joining together to bargain for fair pay and decent work.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women. Several unions have successfully organised cleaners, supported them to take strike action for better pay, and won. The RMT is just one example of many. Unite is busy organising London’s low-paid and often exploited hotel workers. Unison organises teaching assistants, fights for better pay and conditions, and even runs a Skills for Schools project to help TAs develop in their careers. Unison and the National Union of Teachers – both unions with over 75% female membership – organise childcare workers and fight not just for better pay but also for training and development opportunities. Over in the retail sector, Usdaw and GMB are fighting the good fight for their women members in supermarkets and shops, not just on pay but on pensions, health and safety, carers’ leave and protection from violence at work.

Women have much to gain from trade union membership. Male union members are paid 7.8 per cent more than men who aren’t in a union – but women union members are paid 30 per cent more than non-members. A recent EHRC report on pregnancy discrimination found that employers who recognised unions were less likely to discriminate against their pregnant employees.

Yes, it’s true that too few young women are union members. This summer, the TUC and our member unions will launch a new organising and campaigning effort to spread the benefits of union membership and attract a new generation of women (and men).

But starting new women-only unions is no form of progress. That’s where we started out over 100 years ago. Now women workers are at the heart of all our unions, across all sectors. Women’s concerns at work are trade union concerns. And every day we make practical progress towards women’s equality at work through patient representation and negotiation and active campaigning to challenge bad bosses. Young Women’s Trust should work with us to get more women the benefit of union membership.  

Scarlet Harris is women's equality policy officer at the TUC