One hundred years ago, the demands of my great grandmother Emmeline, my grandmother Sylvia Pankhurst, and tens of thousands of ordinary women were finally recognised when the government granted the first women in this country the right to a parliamentary vote.
This Sunday, I will be leading CARE’s sixth annual #March4Women, in advance of International Women’s Day. On this centenary year, the march will be a tribute to the suffrage campaigners, retracing the steps of many a protest, starting at Millbank and ending with a rally in Trafalgar Square led by the inspiring women of today. The tricolour of purple, green and white will be much in evidence, banners held high, voices raised, singing old song and new anthems. We will be jubilant.
But is not just about celebration. Many of us will be donning a sash and marching with some anger, remembering the thousands who were downtrodden, humiliated, vilified, stigmatised, beaten, and force-fed by a so-called Liberal government in so-called civilised society. The anger and pain is still there.
Our thoughts are also with the thousands of women who made enormous sacrifices for the vote and whose sacrifices and even their names have been forgotten. Thanks to the libraries and museums, the old recollections and wonderful new books, we are on a journey of rediscovery, but still there are too many that lie forgotten.
We will also be marching for the many women in the UK who continue the battle for gender equality, at great cost. The story of women’s rights, the continuity and the change has been crystallised for me through the process of writing my book, released a few weeks ago, entitled Deeds Not Words. The title of the book is almost as famous as the battle cry of “Votes for Women”. “Deeds Not Words” was the twitter hashtag of the day and the demand chimes with the current mood in the UK and around the world. It resonates with #MeToo, #TimesUp and all the media stories which are bubbling up, day after day, challenging the status quo.
Why do we have to wait until 2069 for the gender pay gap to disappear in Britain? Why, in 2015, did 11 per cent of women with young children who had worked during pregnancy say they had lost their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination? And why are we living in a global context in which one in three women experience physical or sexual violence?
Maybe we don’t need to. Right now, there is a spirit in the air, a parallel with suffragette resistance and with emotions that cry out “enough is enough, this has to change”.
But there are also warnings. Each generation of feminists have often fallen short of their own aspirations. While many suffragettes pushed against society’s rigid class distinctions, others reinforced them. The women who gained the vote in 1918 were those with pre-existing privileges. Though some accepted the compromise believing that it was a first important foot in the door, others were content with social change that benefited them, without challenging their own advantages.
The same applies today. I’m acutely aware that the women’s movement has made the most progress in areas that benefit those who are already in a position of comparative privilege, leaving behind multitudes of women whose disadvantages extend beyond their biological sex. This has to change, the legitimacy of our protests ring true only if the most disenfranchised amongst us has the greatest voice. Furthermore, our solidarity needs to extend beyond the shores of this country for many reasons including because ultimately, we share the same planet. I am excited that #March4Women will welcome Bangladeshi activist Nazma Akter, who founded a trade union for garment workers and is fighting against the exploitation of women in the industry
The struggle in 2018 is not for the change in a single law, it is now for the transformation of social norms. Since we all have a role in perpetuating or challenging norms, the resistance is not against a single leader or institution, it is between those – including men and boys – who want to live in a more democratic, accountable and transparent society and those who prefer to reinforce and perpetuate existing schisms and hierarchies. Reflecting this view, our event on Sunday is an inclusive one which recognises the contributions of male allies such as the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and the composer David Arnold both of whom in very different ways have provided the very life blood of the rally.
Campaigners, some dressed as suffragettes, attend a rally organised in October We will be united in the focus on women, across party political affiliations, across differences of age, gender, colour, sexuality and nationality. Together we will be weaving a rich tapestry, listening to the echoes of the past and building a more inclusive future.
The CARE International’s #March4Women takes place on Sunday 4 March, hosted by Sue Perkins and with speakers including Bianca Jagger, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Dr Shola Shogbamimu. Funds raised will support CARE’s ‘Help Her Live Learn and Earn’ campaign to help women and girls in the world’s poorest communities work their way out of poverty.