100 Years After The Vote, What Does The UK Really Look Like For Women?

Photo: Sage McAvoy
Today will be filled with images of suffragettes smiling and marching, sashes flung across their bodies, defying their high society expectations and happily being frogmarched to cells. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave the vote to around eight million British women (though not all, it’s important to remember), beginning a conversation about entitlement that would span decades. One hundred years later and it’s a point worth making again: that vote was the beginning of a conversation. It would lead to a diverse range of societal needs, from the affordability of the morning-after pill to the threat of deportation, pay gaps, and hate crimes.
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In 2018, we must see this conversation as one that is still happening – that any woman treated like a second-class citizen today is part of the same resistance that tore through 1918. Now a shifting population and a modernised culture mean that women’s issues are diverse and nuanced – and the voices not always heard. Just 32% of MPs are women, while a report published last year by the Fawcett Society's Local Government Commission reveals that many female BAME councillors in England experience discrimination, and that only 4% of local councils have a maternity, paternity or parental leave policy for councillors.
The challenge to overturn the lack of representation in government comes courtesy of the Centenary Action Group, a collective which aims to highlight and challenge the disparity with the hashtag #stillmarching, to reinforce the fact that there is still work to be done. Edinburgh-based Talat Yaqoob is the director of Equate Scotland and chair of Women 50:50, which advocates for "at least 50% representation of women in our parliament, in our councils and on public boards" – which seems fair, given that the UK population is just over 50% female. Yaqoob says that radical action is crucial for change to happen.
“I think there's a misconception about quotas and targets,” she says. “I think people seem to think that equality will happen by itself. Simply doing some training or some confidence building for women is not actually going to do anything about the cultures in politics or the labour market, or wherever it might be."
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So advocating for a shift in diverse political representation is a start, as the obvious logic dictates that having more women (and BAME women) in parliament might see women's needs move higher up the political agenda. But what are those needs and what are the most pressing issues that need tackling via policy?
Charlotte Kneer is a campaigner for women’s refuges and domestic abuse survivor, and highlights the specific need for her work on the ground. “Part of our ethos is to fight for women’s refuges everywhere,” she says. “Theresa May has said that the violence against women and girls agenda is a priority for her and I’d really like to see her really do something about protecting refuges in the long term. What is happening at the moment is really contrary to that statement about her personal priority by putting us in a position where our funding is even less stable than it was."
Refuges are not the only area where central government cuts could have dire consequences. Many fear that the rise in food banks (between April and September last year, the Trussell Trust, the UK's biggest food bank network, handed out 586,907 emergency boxes, up 13% on the same period the year before) disproportionately affects women in need, who particularly struggle to access sanitary hygiene products (campaigners are also challenging the cost of the morning-after pill). The prohibitive cost of things like tampons hits marginalised groups of homeless women in hostels or on the streets, refugees and low-income single parents hardest, and demonstrates that the UK really does have a ‘period poverty’ problem.
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Many vulnerable women in the UK who feel unsupported by the Home Office are reliant on activist groups like Sisters Uncut to help challenge the reports of sexual and gender-based violence in such places as Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Outside these walls, increasingly insecure status means that women are unlikely to report things like domestic violence for fear of deportation, which is why bodies like the Migrants' Rights Network exist, to try and combat these inequalities.
For all the discussions about inequality in the labour market regarding maternity leave and insecure hours, the biggest point of contention for activism is the gender pay gap but little is discussed about the ethnic pay gap, which disproportionately affects Pakistani and Bangladeshi women at 26%, while black African women experience the largest full-time gender pay gap at 19.6%, according to the Fawcett Society. Meanwhile, recent statistics reveal that hate crime disproportionately affects Muslim women and members of the LGBT community in Britain (police data showed a 48% rise in school-related hate crime flagged as race-related and a 167% increase in transgender-related hate crime).
Eradicating institutionalised barriers in marginalised groups is, of course, a long road. It will require a combination of solidarity, applied pressure and collective activism to shift change for women on the ground.
For activists like Yaqoob, making the crucial point that all issues are women's issues is paramount: “We need to have a really serious conversation about the labour market and the fact that women are often locked into undervalued and unpaid work, hugely unrepresented women in STEM, where a huge number of jobs in the future will be, and create justice systems that believe women victims and sexual violence.”
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Photo: Sage McAvoy
There have been many landmark moments. Kimberlé Crenshaw's TED talk about intersectional feminism was the beginning of a conversation that would change the way we look at the intersections of class, ethnicity and sexual orientation privilege and preoccupations. And let's not forget abortion laws, the advent of the pill and, of course, women's suffrage, which we commemorate today.
Making these issues universal is the next step to continue the activism that galvanised a movement 100 years ago to achieve real change. The power now is in diversity of voices, access to information and a real sense that women's issues are everyone's issues. The work to be done must happen from the ground up, just like in 1918. One foot in front of the other, slowly gaining ground.
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