There has been some publicity given in recent weeks to the fact that 9 million women did not vote at the last election. At first glance this seems a very concerning issue and one which suggests that women are becoming more politically alienated than men, or alternatively, that they are politically more apathetic. However, it is important to set the figure in context, almost 8 million men did not vote at the last election and it is only since 1992, that the percentage of women who vote has demonstrated a falling trend. As is usual in these situations, there has been a tendency to assume that women are the problem, hence the focus on the 9 million women rather than the 8 million men. In fact the difference between the percentage of men and women voting is not so great. At the last general election, 64% of women voted and 67% of men. In order to engage women, we have seen the parties adopt various strategies to entice women to vote for them, including the launch of the pink bus and Harriet Harman’s promise to bring ‘politics to the school gate and the shopping centres’.
This approach relates to women voters in a way that emphasises the difference between men and women and has a long pedigree. The early suffragists often laid claim to the vote by arguing that because of women’s ‘special qualities’, their enfranchisement would create a more civilised and moral society. The suffragists capitalised on contemporary political concerns about the health and welfare of the nation which emphasised the importance of motherhood in improving the quality and quantity of the nation, by arguing that women’s expertise in this area justified their participation in the state. They also argued that women should be responsible for issues such as public sanitation and housing. As Millicent Fawcett, a leading suffragist argued, ‘We want the home and the domestic side of things to count for more in politics and in the administration of public affairs than they do at present’.
Although there were many different suffrage organisations, the majority of suffragists subscribed to the view of the distinct and separate nature of women, that is, women were equal but different, and they sought equality in difference. For only a small minority was it a means to bringing about a more radical transformation in gender identities and in the meanings of masculinity and femininity. Far from challenging contemporary notions of the female nature, the majority of suffragists were anxious to display their feminine traits and to distance themselves from the few ‘advanced’ women who cut their hair short and adopted a masculine mode of dress. Suffragists were sensitive to charges of being ‘unwomanly’, ‘harridans’ and ‘harpies’ and took care over their appearance, particularly when appearing in public. Lady Francis Balfour remembered that Millicent Fawcett defended one of their number, who had been criticised for her public remarks, by observing ‘besides she looks so nice’. In fact the London Suffrage Association allowed only docile and attractive women to sit at the front at public meetings.
The emphasis that the early suffragists placed on the differences between men and women reflected the realities of the many women’s lives, particularly the middle-class women, who comprised the majority of the suffrage movement. The vast majority were not employed for a wage, and domestic duties were their primary, and sometimes sole, concern. The reality of the majority of women’s lives has changed dramatically in the last hundred years or so. Although women continue to shoulder most of the responsibility for child care and care more generally, and the gender pay gap still exists 45 years after the Equal Pay Act, the vast majority of women work, there are more and more female breadwinners and there has been some cultural shift in attitudes to family roles. Any campaign to involve and engage women needs to do so in ways that reflect the structural, material and cultural realities of their lives and the broad spectrum of political issues that concern women. Conversely, issues such as domestic violence, childcare etc. should not be bracketed as ‘women’s issues’ but ones which concern everyone if we are to move to a genuinely inclusive society.
Indeed, it is only by seeing traditionally ‘women’s issues’ as part of the general picture that there is any hope of addressing the structural inequalities which beset both men and women’s lives and are multiplied when other forms of disadvantage exist. While the ‘group hug’ was heralded in the press as perhaps one way that women can change the face of politics, the relative absence of any non-white, non-able bodied faces across the campaign remains an indication of how far we have to go in that direction.
The rapid demonization of Nicola Sturgeon as ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’ echos arguments a century ago which derided suffragettes and ‘advanced’ women as ‘harridans’ and ‘harpies’ unfit to participate or negotiate on equal terms.
Whatever your political persuasion, it remains the case that what the suffragists and the suffragettes fought for, Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennet and Leanne Wood embody. Similarly, women’s groups such as the UK and Scottish Women’s Budget Group offer proposals which both address women’s proportional inequality and suggest economic and social change to benefit everyone, regardless of sex. These are voices which, a hundred years ago, would not have been heard. Whether they are heard today remains to be seen.