In February 1918, the government of the United Kingdom passed the Representation of the People Act. This initial step towards full voting rights for women, entitled women over 30 who owned property (or who were married to a man that did), the right to vote. It would take another 10 years before women were given full parity to men. Yes, this was a crucial step in progressing towards equality, but only the beginning of an ongoing fight for liberation.
This most important of anniversaries is something we should certainly celebrate. Just over 100 years ago, most women in this country were without agency over their own lives and living under a government in which they were not represented. Some were seen as property, unable to work or support themselves financially. Over the past 100 years, so much has changed in terms of equality. Women are now equal in the eyes of the law, legally entitled to equality of pay, able to get abortions and have control over their own bodies, able to be educated.
But legal changes do not mean societal ones. In the last few months alone, the #MeToo movement has brought to light the continuing abuse of power by the men who wield it. On average in this country, two women a week are killed as a result of domestic violence. Only 32% of our MPs are women, only 6.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. Arguably the most powerful man in the world, the current president of the United States, believes it is acceptable to boast of sexually harassing women. Despite equal pay being a legal requirement, the gender pay gap is still very much real, with men on average earning around 18% more than their female counterparts.
Above are only those issues which affect us, that is, those of us living in the west. Across the world, women face high levels of violence, and low levels of education and opportunity, purely because of their gender. FGM continues to destroy women’s lives; in Russia, certain forms of domestic abuse have essentially been decriminalised; in Nepal, women are removed from society when they are menstruating. Millions of young girls worldwide are married before they reach their eighteenth birthday. In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that no country on the planet has achieved full gender equality.
Of course, we must celebrate the changes we have seen in the 100 years since the first British women were able to vote. The struggle of the suffragettes and all they sacrificed should be remembered and celebrated. We have come so far in the fight of equality, but we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that it has been fully achieved. Certainly, we are far closer than we were 100 years ago. We must remember, however, how far we have left to go.
Indeed, it is not without celebration that we mark 100 years since the British government took the first steps to allow women the vote. However, it would be remarkably dangerous to become complacent and comfortable with current equality. Yes, women now have the vote in the West and enjoy those freedoms, as they should. But we should not ignore the ongoing inequality that still persists in many streets of Britain and in high offices of government, academia and corporations.
It is also narrow, even ignorant to focus on our own history and the liberties of British women. Many countries around the world such as Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates offer little or no suffrage or allowances for women. As much as we can celebrate our own victories, we should not ignore the vast inequality that is still occurring around the world. For as women, we are as one and when equality is fully achieved, it will be universal.
In the age of popular, historical narratives it is easy to assume that 1918 was the beacon of universal women’s liberation and the end of the fight. However it was just the beginning. Both in our country, and all around the world the fight still goes on, and it is imperative that it does.
Co-written with Violet Daniels