100 years after women were given the vote, it’s time to recognise lesbian, bi and queer Suffragists
Today is the day that women have come out in force to celebrate the landmark achievements of the Suffragists in securing women the right to vote.
100 years has passed since women over 30 were legally permitted to vote in general elections after the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) fought for fifteen years for womens’ democratic rights.
Yet the tides of the Suffrage movement are still surrounded in misinformation and confusion, with several leading members and activists in the movement identifying as lesbian, bi, or simply as women who were attracted to other women.
Even now, we use the term ‘Suffragette’ to talk about the movement as a whole – when in fact, the term was a demeaning epithet coined that was used to discredit the movement by The Daily Mail.
Leader of the movement Emmenline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel are said to have had relationships and attractions to other women cataologued during the movement, as well as the likes of Chief Organisers Annie Kenney, Grace Roe and Olive Bartels; and leading militants Emily Wilding Davison, Mary Leigh and Lilian Lenton.
A lot of this information was found in activist Mary Blathwayt’s diary, who also detailed the trysts of Annie Kenney, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Ethel Smyth. But why is it it important?
According to Labour MP Cat Smith, we have been presented with a “sanitised history” of the movement over the years, which has exaggerated the more amenable traits of the activists. If an activist wasn’t heterosexual, white, or middle class, they have tended to be erased from the annals of the Suffragists’ history.
“When it comes to looking back at the history of the Suffragette and Suffragist movement it’s obvious it’s a sanitised history that is known by the majority of the public. But this wasn’t just a history of purple and green sashes and of middle class women. In fact acts of direct action and civil disobedience played a key role in winning the vote. Women were sexually assaulted by police and force fed in prisons, a practice we now acknowledge as torture,” said Cat Smith MP.
“We see working class women, women of colour and queer women pushed out of the history books in favour of the heterosexual, white and middle class women. I hope we see the centenary of property owning women over the age of 30 winning the vote as an opportunity to acknowledge that the movement included queer women as well as working class women and women of colour,” she added.
It can be difficult to find the role models that we need and deserve in the limited stories of history.
While most of us will remember our history classes circling around a homogenous group of people written in one textbook by one man, we know that history doesn’t fit into a box, and is brought to life and understanding by representing as many histories as possible.
Although none of us are particularly privy to detailing the exact relationships each woman had with other women, knowing that they existed in the positions they do can empower us to see our own role in society a little bit differently.
Former leader of the Scottish Labour Party Kezia Dugdale believes that now the anniversary is upon us, it’s time to start reshifting the focus on the Suffragist movement to include more women.
“On Tuesday I will be speaking in a Scottish Parliament debate to mark 100 years of women securing the right to vote. It’s a date worthy of commemoration and chance to reflect on how much progress has been made, but also an opportunity for women to get angry and use their voice to strive once more for that long eluded equality,” she said.
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