100 years ago today, British women won the right to vote. Except they didn’t. At least, not women of my colour or class. And today of all days, it’s important that we recognise this; and that we use that failure to bind us in the commitment never to make the same mistake again.
Some women are more equal than others
The 1918 Representation of the People Act extended the vote to white, land-owning women (or women with landowning husbands) over the age of 30. It wasn’t until 10 years later that all women were given the vote, and on the same terms as men.
There are a couple of ways to react to this news. For some, it’s an uncomfortable and inconvenient stain on a day of celebration. They ask for unity in the women’s equality movement, and say that bringing up these inequalities just sows division. In reality, that’s just people with privilege asking those without it to quit reminding them. It’s selfish. But worse, it’s wasteful. Nothing is ruined by acknowledging the reality of privilege. If we have the generosity of spirit just to sit with the brutal truth, we could help transform the next 100 years.
Racism and suffrage
New Zealand led the way in female suffrage, granting all women the vote in 1893. But for white, middle-class suffragists in the UK, the fact that Maori women could vote and they could not was offensive for all the wrong reasons. As historian and author Jad Adams told The Telegraph:
I certainly know that British women were angry because Maori women had the vote and they didn’t. Prominent suffragists, [who preferred more peaceful protests] like leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett thought it was appalling that white women with a certain station in society didn’t have the vote in the home of the empire but in one of the colonies they did.
I mean, just try and name me one black, British suffragette. Not easy is it? Well, there are no widely celebrated black faces of the UK suffragette or suffragist movements. Because we weren’t welcome. The movement was not about us. It was about middle-class white women. And while Indian women fared a little better, the name Sophia Duleep Singh still means nothing to most.
And things were even worse in the US, where the women’s suffrage movement fully embraced white supremacy in pursuit of its own goals. Celebrated US suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt once said:
White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.
And her sister-in-struggle Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, the first (white) woman to serve in the US Senate, said:
I do not want to see a negro man walk to the polls and vote on who should handle my tax money, while I myself cannot vote at all.
Uncomfortable, right? Well, it should be. But we can use that discomfort to bind us together, in a commitment to do better.
The present and the future
The only way we can create a better present and future is by reconciling fully with our past. Not just the past of 100 years ago, but the last year and the last week and today. Everyone who has found themselves wishing (aloud or internally) that non-white women would just shut up and embrace this celebration can stop now. They can choose to be different right now. Because there are many more struggles we need to face together. We need each other. And we should never again ask those less privileged than ourselves to get to the back of the queue for the sake of expediting our own advances. Never again. That goes for those on the left who call for feminists and anti-racism campaigners to give them a pass in the name of a unified class struggle. It goes for the white liberals who say “I sympathise with your case, but…” whenever under-privileged groups fight for their rights. And it goes for those on the right, who see the loss of their own privilege as equal to someone else being denied basic human rights. All these behaviours are choices, and we can make better ones. It all starts with a little honesty, and a little understanding.
– Join Bristol’s Lantern Parade to celebrate suffrage.
– Support the work of Hope Not Hate.
– Support the work of Stop Funding Hate.
We need your help to keep speaking the truth
Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.
Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.
We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.
In return, you get:
* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop
Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.
With your help we can continue:
* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do
We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?