As the centenary of the death of suffragette Emily Davison draws closer, I’ve been thinking more about the importance of these women’s actions in our lives today. Being a fairly literal kind of person, it took me taking my Brownies on a tour of the Houses of Parliament to really bring home the importance of engaging with our political system – even if it often feels like a futile effort – in recognition of what women like Emily died to give us.
We didn’t get to see the broom cupboard where Emily Davison hid on the night of the census to have her address legally registered as the Houses of Parliament, but it was enough to know it was right there, under our feet (with a plaque sneakily placed there by Tony Benn to commemorate her audacious and imaginative act.)
The rarefied world of whips and committees can seem a million miles away from our lives, but in the last election I voted for Rushanara Ali, the first person of Bangladeshi origin to be elected to the House of Commons and that felt like tangible progress. Also, one of my Brownies wants to be Prime Minister when she grows up so I have high hopes for the next generation.
Kira Cochrane wrote an excellent piece outlining nine lessons today’s feminists can learn from the suffragette movement in the Guardian while Clare Balding recently made a fascinating documentary about Emily’s death - she was trampled by the King’s horse during the Epsom Derby on June 4 1913 and died on June 8 – and the other drastic actions taken by her and her fellow suffragettes in their struggle to gain the right to vote for women (you can watch it here – it’s incredibly moving).
Oh AND last night I watched the first episode Up The Women, a new suffragette sitcom (never thought I'd write that) written by and starring Jessica Hynes on bBC4. It's lovely to see this particular period of women's history being brought into the spotlight and treated with the same gentle humour (but also deep affection and huge respect) that you got in a show like Dad's Army.
Today we don’t have a single, straightforward goal like the suffragettes did – feminists’ aims are many, varied, and sometimes conflicting. There are different kinds of feminists and a variety of methods for campaigning – from organising petitions on social media to put pressure on brands to change their behaviour (see the amazingly effective #FBRape campaign which got Facebook to change its outdated moderator policy on misogynist posts - one of the founders wrote about it for xoJane here!) to the more direct action of groups like Pussy Riot and Femina.
Different issues matter more to individuals, so we should each put our energy into the ones that have real resonance for us and try to make a difference in any way we can. That might mean taking to the streets and marching against the government’s cuts (the Fawcett Society is great on this), or as consumers petitioning brands about sexist advertising, mentoring younger women and girls in your particular field to give them the confidence to realise their ambitions.
It could be volunteering at Brownies or Guides, or raising funds and awareness for charities in other countries like Dignity! Period. and the Campaign to End Fistula.
Let’s focus on strengthening the bonds between women of different generations and backgrounds rather than getting bogged down in semantics and petty squabbles over who is 'allowed' to be a feminist. I am grateful to all the women who fought to achieve the freedoms that I enjoy today and I want to pay tribute to their efforts in the struggle, while contributing in my own way.
There are no quick fixes or easy answers – the aim of true equality (for if there is a single aim for feminism, surely that’s it?) will take time and trouble to achieve. It’ll be messy, there will be schisms and steps backwards as well as forwards.
But as Kira Cochrane said in her article, it took women over a century to gain the fundamental right to vote – the seeds were first planted by Mary Wollstonecraft in her seminal work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 – so let’s celebrate every victory as a step in the right direction and refuse to give up on the cause.