100 Years of Change

There are two things I want to celebrate in this blog. Those two things are basically the good that feminism does and the power of sport to show what women can do or, more specifically, the 100th anniversary of some women being allowed to vote, and the Winter Olympics that took place in South Korea.

Back in February 1918 when British women first gained the right to vote, there wasn’t much in the way of celebration. The First World War was still going on, and the suffragette movement had split due to disagreements over whether to pause its campaign because of it. Sylvia Pankhurst (we all know what an important role the Pankhursts played in the suffragette movement) said later that ‘The pageantry and rejoicing… which in pre-war days would have greeted the victory, were absent when it came. The sorrows of the world conflict precluded jubilations.’

A century later, though, we really must recognise and celebrate the achievement of the suffragettes – and we should never forget it. The 1918 Representation of the People Act added 8.5 million women to the electoral roll. Why only 8.5 million out of the perhaps 25 million who might have been included? Well, because the right to vote was only given to those over 30 who owned property or were graduates voting in a university constituency.

We should also recall that the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to 5.6 million more men because their voting age was lowered to 21, and the need to own property as a condition for voting was abolished. The general election in December 1918 therefore involved an electorate three times the size of the one before it – something that those in power saw as a dangerous development. One victory led to another and the 1918 election also saw the first woman being elected as an MP, though because she was an Irish republican, Constance Markievicz chose not to take her seat and Nancy Astor was the first female MP in the House of Commons in 1919. The 1928 Representation of the People Act then gave everyone over 21 the right to vote and this was lowered to 18 as recently as 1970.

There was, and in many ways still is, a long way to go however. In 1982, three years after Great Britain’s first woman Prime Minister came to power, there were still only 19 female MPs. And the 2017 election was the first time more than 200 women were elected – which is still a good bit less than a third of Parliament.

So, if it’s tempting to think that the way we live now is how it’s always been, it really hasn’t. And there is a long way still to go. Everything from the BBC pay row to the misogynist remarks of the American President and to the The Presidents’ Club, to take just a few examples, demonstrate clearly the need to battle on. The MeToo and TimesUp Campaigns amply demonstrate that women are no longer prepared to put up with unfair, demeaning treatment on any level. There is still so much progress to be made, so we should take nothing for granted.

The Winter Olympics are another great example of how things have changed – and of how women were treated in relatively recent history. When we’re watching the Winter Olympics today and seeing British women in particular doing so well, we naturally expect that in every event there will be a men’s competition and a women’s competition, don’t we? We wouldn’t expect there to be a view that some sports are for one gender or the other – in fact we’d probably be outraged. Well, in fact it was only at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia that 50% of the events held were for women. Go back to as recently as 1980 and the Lake Placid Games in the USA and there were 15 events for women and 38 for men – so women were not able to take part in nearly two thirds of the events held. And if that doesn’t grab your attention maybe the history of women’s running events will. In the Moscow Summer Olympics in 1980 the longest race for women was the 1,500 metres. And that had only been established in 1972; before then – and only since 1960 – 800 metres was the longest event run by women. And why was this? Why no 5,000, 10,000 metres or even the marathon? For women’s own safety, apparently – women’s bodies were just not designed to stand up to the demands involved. These were the same sorts of arguments used to keep women out of the sphere of politics. Women were just not up to it; their minds too feeble. Gaining the right to vote would upset the family structure. It just sounds so hard to imagine in a world where we’ve now had so many impressive women leaders and, for that matter, female long distance and marathon runners. The problem, the reason why it’s so hard to imagine, is that our memories are very short. Even those of us who are old enough to remember when things were still quite different often seem to have consigned these facts to history and chosen to forget. So my appeal is simple: girls and young women today should not take anything for granted and, when they are looking at the huge range of opportunities that are open to them here at school, and that will open up for them when they leave, they would do well to remember what a privileged position they are now in. And, remembering the efforts of all those who worked to change things, be sure they make the most of it.

Dr. Felicia Kirk, Headmistress, St Mary’s Calne

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