Why it’s good that parliament’s suffrage debate became party political

Women's ability to stand up in parliament and argue with each other is a testament to the suffragette movement


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You wouldn’t think putting some women in a room and making them discuss their right to vote would produce a particularly contentious discussion. But if that room is the chamber of the House of Commons, and those women are MPs, it’s a different story.

One hundred years on from when some women won the right to vote, MPs gathered this afternoon for home secretary Amber Rudd’s statement on the suffrage centenary. For a brief moment when Rudd rose to the dispatch box, it looked like the traditional political colours would be cast aside for the day, and instead favour the purple, white, and green of the suffragette movement.

But it was not to be.

Rudd spoke in relatively non-partisan terms about the stories of the heroic suffragette protests that took place in Parliament, and condemned the sexist abuse that MPs of all parties are still facing. But when Labour’s Dawn Butler stood to speak, she took aim at the government, denouncing its track record on helping women: “This government talks about their commitment to equality but in reality the only thing they’re committed to is making announcements without action.”

Her partisan attacks were met with boos in the chamber, and Rudd said she was “disappointed at the tone” of Butler’s approach. But Butler, and the MPs that followed, showed that women still have much to fight for when it comes to the battle for equality.

Alison Thewliss of the SNP said she would be doing a “disservice” to the suffragettes if she didn’t point out the government’s policies that are affecting women. She criticised the social security cuts, which have disproportionately affected women as well as the so-called “rape clause” which forces women to disclose that they’ve been raped to get some child benefits.

Plaid Cymru’s Liz Saville Roberts accused the government postponing gender-based violence legislation again to instead focus on smart meters and space industry legislation: “When will the government stop procrastinating and start delivering on their duty to improve women’s lives?” Rudd said she “didn’t recognise the criticism”.

These sorts of commemorations can easily descend into backslapping fests - pushing aside divisions and ignoring today’s pressing problems in the name of celebration. Handing out a free pass to the government to walk through a debate on women’s rights with no criticism would have done a disservice to the history of the movement being celebrated. Indeed, if the women of 100 years ago sat in the gallery today, looked down at benches and saw women arguing about how to make life better for their own, they’d likely think their campaigning had turned out pretty well.

Rudd’s now is not the time attitude is a convenient way to dismiss those who criticised the government today as ungrateful and rude, and in doing so, disregarding their comments. But the underlying prejudices that ran through the anti-suffragette campaigns are still alive and kicking today, albeit in different, often more subtle insidious forms.

When it comes to political change, the suffragettes made it clear that there’s no right time to fight, you’ll have to just get on with it.