Yesterday we had elections for the European Parliament. As I returned from my polling place, I could not help wondering at how little interest this election arises. It is true that the EU has been through very difficult, unmotivating moments in the last few years, but if we look for options, they’re not really there, so I’m one of those who believe we should not give up on building a strong, united, focused, European Union with a strong currency – the Euro.
To vote or not to vote?
There was a very high abstention rate in Portugal, in fact higher than usual: almost 70%. A few days ago I saw a post on Facebook with a photograph of the 19th century women who fought an epic battle, often with terrible consequences for their lives, so that women might be able to vote. The message said something like: did these women fight so much for you not to exercise your right to vote? I agree with it. I think every one of us, given the chance to participate as citizens, no matter how disillusioned we all are with politics and politicians, should do so, and the more so us women, given the fact that less than a century ago we were confined to our homes, dominated by marriage and childbirth and with absolute no word to say about how we wanted the world to evolve around us.
Women in politics
Thank God – and those courageous women – we have come a long way. Now we are not only free to vote but can actually vote for parties who have women leading them as well – I know this is not a majority, but it will grow I think – and there have been many women representing their countries in the European Parliament and in charge of important files, from Competition to Justice, from Employment and Social Affairs to Trade, only to name a few. Right now, in Portugal one of the major parties, the Christian Democratic party, is led by a woman, Assunção Cristas, who is married and the mother of four, the last of which was born only a few years ago, with her mother already actively engaged in politics. Assunção is in her forties and strongly supported by her husband and they seem to be a happy couple. Why not? If men can do it, then so can women and she is proving it. But there are other examples, fortunately.
I felt I should write this post for all women, including those who stayed at home yesterday renouncing their right to vote, sharing the story of how women gained this most fundamental right.
A long fight
We might say in the UK it began in the 1860s when the suffragist movement – whose purpose was to campaign for the vote for women – formed local societies, which in 1897 became the NWSS – National Women Suffrage Societies. They were mostly constituted by middle class women who believed in a moderate campaigning style, organising public speaking events, writing petitions, lobbying and organising marches. However, little progress was made and some of its members concluded a different, more radical approach was necessary. With the motto “deeds, not words”, a belief that women should demand, not ask for their rights and a focus on the working class, in 1903 a group of women created the WSPU – Women’s Social and Political Union. In opposition to the first group – the “suffragists” – this new group was called the “suffragettes” by an unkind press. However, they proudly took up the name and soon it was clear their methods were radically different: they disrupted meetings, vandalised paintings and buildings and went on hunger strikes.
In 1905 some of the suffragettes were imprisoned after interrupting a political meeting and they bravely chose to go to prison rather than paying a fine, which of course called attention to their cause. Their militancy, street demonstrations and the force used against them attracted support from several quarters.
Two names became the symbol of these movements: Millicent Fawcett for the suffragists and Emmeline Pankhurst for the suffragettes. Names – alongside with many others – that should be remembered, particularly on election days.
In 1914, when the Great War began, both movements stopped their campaigns to support the war effort. And then of course the war changed everything – while men went off to war women took their roles all over the country in factories and in the fields. Women were intervening more and more in society and so it became increasingly difficult to deny them voting rights.
The right to vote
When the war ended in 1918, and after fifty years of fight, Parliament passed a law giving some women – those over thirty and owning property – the right to vote, but it was only ten years later that women acquired the same voting rights as men – vote for all, men and women at the age of 21.
Curiously – or not – New Zealand had been the first country to take this step forward and grant the vote to all women over 21 as far back as 1893. As for the US, the demand for women’s suffrage began in the 1840s, as part of the movement for women’s rights, but it was only in 1920 that the right to vote was established in all the states.
Strangely enough this is not a story I have read much or seen movies about. I wondered why and found a recent movie (2015) called “Suffragette” directed by Sarah Gavron and starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and the incomparable Meryl Streep in the part of Emmeline Pankhurst. Now I haven’t seen it but after reading about these women, and conscious that we owe them a world where in most countries – sadly, not all – voting has been an undisputed right for women for many years now, I certainly will.
A last word to say “Thank you” to suffragists and suffragettes.
Although with very different methods, both groups certainly played their parts and contributed to the result. Learning and sharing their stories is the least we can do to show our gratitude to these indomitable women who bravely fought for equality, suffering abuse and imprisonment. And, last but not least, exercise our right to vote on election days. After all, it didn’t come to us that easily, but through much hardship and pain.