It’s the local council and European elections in England and Northern Ireland today, which means that up and down the land, civic-minded people are sitting with long lists of electoral rolls, waiting to cross off your name and give you a ballot paper. The whole idea of democracy, of giving pretty much everyone an equal say in who represents them (regardless of their status and wealth) is so adorably generous, it verges on the insane.

The history of suffrage

The right to vote has been knocking around since the Magna Carta was signed, when King John grudgingly agreed that just being born king was not sufficient to entitle you to dictate the lives of an entire nation. At first, it was only a few men who owned land who got together and decided stuff, but then, as the population grew, and the powers of the king diminished, the idea of ‘representation’ meant that people had to choose someone to represent their interest through a voting process.

Several hiccups on the road to universal suffrage occurred – we tried to run England, Scotland and Ireland without a monarchy at all under Cromwell (which, with staggering irony, resulted in Cromwell basically trying to become an Emperor). The resulting fiasco, and Restoration of the monarchy (under that remarkable chap Charles II) present just one speed bump.

Of course, certain people were always going to be excluded from the right to have a say in who governs them (Lords – they ARE part of the government; criminals – they’ve broken the law of the land and therefore forfeit the right to influence that law; ‘lunatics’ – lord knows who someone declared insane might want in power). And until fairly recently, women.

What’s the big deal about women’s suffrage

Much is made of the fight for women’s right to vote, for a number of reasons.

  1. It is the last great human rights struggle which involved a significant percentage of the British population
  2. It took place at a time when newspapers and photography were gaining influence, giving us a stunning insight and connection to the events and people involved
  3. The people involved are as dazzling a selection of personalities you could ever hope to discover, orators, artists, terrorists, idiots, rabble-rousers, idealists, and martyrs.

The more you learn, the more astonishing the women’s suffrage movement appears

I read a wonderful book several years ago, which I wholeheartedly recommend for anyone interested in understanding this campaign. It is called Votes for Women, and it is still in print (buy it here). It is largely a collection of contemporary extracts and reports, presented with a small amount of editorial input, but mainly leaving the letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, and speeches to tell their own story. Popular misconceptions, eg that women’s suffrage was all a very jolly outing for a few rich women to support by shouting at men, are exploded on every page. Some of the things I learned from this amazing book include:

  • How many men supported women’s suffrage, to the detriment of their own interests
  • Just how feared the movement was by many, including women, who were afraid that their gender was losing its collective mind
  • How many women from the ‘lower classes’ were involved, but because they were less articulate and literate, their stories were not told so often
  • How brutal the treatment of women taking part in peaceful demonstrations was
  • How some of the police forces tasked with keeping demonstrators at bay were basically hired thugs with no control or oversight
  • How suffragettes were seen as a complete embarrassment by many, and having one in the family had a significant impact on your social standing
  • How families were effectively ruined by support for the suffragette movement – there is one heartbreaking letter from a woman in prison to her son and her husband apologising for the fact that the boy cannot return to school, and the husband to his club (which sounds incredibly elitist, but was where business was done, and careers made in those days) because she has been arrested.
  • How women’s prisons owe a huge debt to the well-to-do women who were imprisoned during the campaign, as such establishments were previously invisible to the wealthy. Once a rich women was thrown in jail, the inhuman conditions were more widely reported. Wealthy women also donated huge sums to improve services such as prison libraries, to help their fellow inmates.
  • How the force-feeding of hunger-strikers, and the violence with which activists were treated, were viewed as entirely justified until brought to light by articulate campaign supporters. I recall a marvellous letter in The Times from a socialite wishing to correct the newspaper’s reporting that a suffragette had been released from prison due to some random illness, when in fact she was nearly killed by a botched force feeding which had poured liquefied food into her lungs rather than her stomach.

Please vote, and vote for people/parties who you think will be best for the country.

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