On 6 February 1918 women in Britain first got the vote. Ninety years later, it is useful to consider the lessons of this struggle.
Any gains such as the right to vote, to protest, to be organised in trade unions through to today’s equal opportunities and abortion rights legislation have all been hard fought for.
The issue of votes for women sparked a long running debate in the working class movement.
The Chartist movement, which fought in the 1830s and 1840s for radical democratic change, did not make votes for women a central demand.
But the demand was taken up by some in the movement who saw that without including women in the fight, they could not achieve the goals of working class people.
Support for women’s right to vote was contested within the working class. There was a battle in the unions. Many trade union officials supported reactionary establishment notions of a woman’s place being in the home.
The millions of working women were mostly not organised so were ignored in this analysis.
Emma Paterson of the Women’s Protective and Provident League was greeted with shouts of “Go and get married” when she stood to speak at TUC conference in 1875.
Women workers came to the fore, however, during the New Unionism – the wave of strikes led by largely unskilled and unorganised workers, beginning in East London in 1889.
In 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded at the Manchester home of Emmeline Pankhurst and her elder daughter Christabel. The Daily Mail dubbed the new organisation the “Suffragettes”.
The aim of the WSPU was to win women the same rights as men to play a full part in public life, especially through the vote.
In 1905 two Suffragettes disrupted a Liberal Party rally in Manchester. Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, a textile worker and trade unionist, simply asked if they would grant women the vote. Both were ejected onto the street.
The WPSU grew rapidly into a nationwide force. Its direct action tactics caught the imagination of large numbers of women. The landslide election of a Liberal government raised hopes that votes for women would be granted.
As these hopes were dashed, the Suffragettes began hounding Liberal cabinet ministers and disrupting their meetings. Mass arrests just further swelled the movement.
When the Liberals scraped back in for a second term in 1910 and still refused to budge, the Suffragettes turned to more militant tactics such as smashing windows and starting fires. Jailed Suffragettes repeatedly went on hunger strike, and many were brutally force fed to break their protest.
On 18 November 1913 a bill granting votes for women was rejected without a debate. Crowds of women besieged parliament and battled with the police for six hours.
Days later the government announced that no further bill would be presented. This sparked another riot, known as the Battle of Downing Street. Some 185 demonstrators were arrested.
The Suffragette movement split with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst advocating increasingly elitist tactics involving individuals or small groups targeting politicians or property.
Sylvia Pankhurst, Christabel’s younger sister, wanted to maintain mass mobilisations. She moved to the left, focusing on socialist and working class politics.
She identified with the massive strike wave that rocked Britain between 1910 and 1914.
In 1914 Emmeline and Christabel backed Britain’s entrance into the First World War whereas Sylvia vehemently opposed it. The decision to grant women the vote was taken during the war. Even then only women over 30 (or propertied women over 21) could vote. Men could vote at 21.
The vote was granted against a backdrop of increasing numbers of women joining the workforce in the war industries.
The ruling class had been shaken by the pre-war labour unrest, the growing rebellion in Ireland, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and by the women’s revolt. Even those who had previously made some of the most bigoted speeches against women’s equality realised that concessions had to be granted.
It took until 1928 for women to win the vote without property restrictions. However, despite the whole of the adult working class having the vote, improvements still had to be fought and won in the unions, in the workplace and on the streets.
Women had to wait until 1970 for the Equal Pay Act. It took a series of strikes for equal pay, beginning at the Ford plant in Dagenham to win that. Even so, women today are still paid on average around 17 percent less than men.
History shows us that for women and men to win equality in a society riven by class division takes a fight by the whole working class.
Women organising alone across class lines will soon find that the fundamental interests of one woman directly contradicts that of another.
While we fight for progressive changes to defend or extend abortion rights, for equal pay and for decent housing we must also set our sights higher than reform.
The system must be overthrown to win a truly equal society for women and men. The struggle for the right to vote should be an inspiration to all those trying to change the world today.
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward
We shouldn’t let them hide from the truth