Let the bells ring out. A hundred years ago this February, British women won a great war. Not the Great War: Germany wouldn’t agree the armistice that ended World War I for another nine months. The Representation of the People Act, which gained royal assent on February 6, 1918, signified a different kind of surrender, by the male political establishment to the suffragists and suffragettes who had fought—sometimes literally—for the right to vote. The new law enfranchised women and heralded a greater victory still: full equality.
This is the history I learned at school—and it is bunk. As the UK prepares to mark the centenary and, later this year, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act permitting women to run for Westminster, it’s important to acknowledge not only the huge significance of these laws but also what they did not mean. In 2018 women in the UK still own less and earn less than men, frequently occupy the worst and worst regulated jobs, undertake the lioness's share of caregiving and unpaid domestic labour, are subject to discrimination, harassment and sexual violence, and may be doubly or triply disadvantaged by the intersections of race, age, sexuality, gender identity, disability and poverty. Not only that, but rights and protections we thought secure are endangered by the rush to write into UK statutes employment and equality directives from Europe.
The real lesson of history is that equality laws are essential to female progress, but cannot, of themselves, create equality. Sometimes the legislation is itself deficient. The Representation of the People Act granted the vote only to the 40% of the female population over the age of 30 who owned property or met other criteria designed to exclude the majority of women from eligibility. These new voters got to flex their newfound influence at an election in December 1918 in which just 17 female candidates participated and only one, Constance Markievicz, triumphed. Along with her colleagues in Sinn Fein, Markievicz never took her seat.
“It is perfectly evident to any logical mind that when you have got the vote, by the proper use of the vote in sufficient numbers, by combination, you can get out of any legislature whatever you want, or, if you cannot get it, you can send them about their business and choose other people who will be more attentive to your demands,” declared Emmeline Pankhurst. This has proved wildly overoptimistic. Westminster extended the franchise to all adult women in 1928, but remains a male bastion that to this day fails to reflect—or to connect with—the wider population. Its narrow mindset is more often reinforced than challenged by a media establishment drawn from a similarly narrow gene pool. When the 2017 snap election snapped back at the UK’s second-ever female Prime Minister, depriving her of a parliamentary majority and denying her a clear mandate, her critics damned her not just as a lacklustre politician (she is) but as an avatar of female failure. Being a woman almost certainly diminished Theresa May’s chances of forging the strong and stable government she invoked on the campaign trail, but this has nothing to do with the ways in which she, as a woman, operates. She picked up the keys to Downing Street at a time of unprecedented turmoil and amid the implosion of male vanities. Her ascent is a prime example of the glass-cliff syndrome identified by researchers at the University of Exeter, a phenomenon that delivers leadership opportunities to women at times of crisis, when the odds against successful leadership peak.
The election did improve the diversity of the House of Commons, but from a shockingly low base. The picture is even worse in other parts of the political system. Since co-founding the Women’s Equality Party in 2015, I have come to understand the multiple forces that keep women out of politics, from the first-past-the-post electoral system that favours incumbents and has been shown globally to exclude women and minority perspectives, to the teeth-rattling expense of campaigning, for parties and individuals (and the gender pay gap, combined with caregiving commitments is a huge barrier for many women). Then there’s the hostility that greets any woman who puts her head above the parapet.
In the final stages of last year’s election, Women’s Equality Party candidates and workers ignored threats of violence to keep campaigning. I took this photograph of one of the candidates, Nimco Ali, as she canvassed the day after receiving death and rape threats. On new year’s eve, Nimco posted on Facebook about the encounter. “I had no idea Catherine Mayer who was standing with the girl’s mum took this photo but it speaks so much of how bitter and painful but yet beautiful and powerful 2017 was,” she wrote. “This little girl whose name was Amina left seeing someone who looked like her standing for what she believed in and her mother saw that her hard work will pay off.”
It is in this spirit that we should celebrate the coming centenaries. The laws could not of themselves lift women to an equal footing with men but laid the foundations of a new architecture. They were also harbingers of hope, of female potential.
Hope may appear in short supply these days, with a misogynist in the White House and strains of toxic populism seeking to unpick progress in many countries, yet the same turbulences making space for Donald Trump and tin-pot demagogues across the globe also signal scope for benign change. It’s no coincidence that the UK passed landmark equality legislation at the end of a world war. At its start fewer than a quarter of women worked outside the home; by the end, that total had risen to almost half. The conflagration weakened the old order, shook old certainties and showcased what women could do, for the benefit of everyone.
We are not yet embroiled in World War III (despite Trump’s best efforts), but we enter this centenary year at a moment of profound upheaval—and huge opportunity. The best way for women to celebrate our right to vote and the election of Westminster’s first female MP is to use those votes to get more women elected, across every form of government, to campaign for those women or to run for office ourselves.
Seize the turbulence.