Suffragettes remain campaigning role-models a century later

A century on, the Suffragettes remain exemplary role models for effective campaigning, and occupy a unique position in our national consciousness.

Our guest writer is Deborah Grayson

A century on, the Suffragettes remain exemplary role models for effective campaigning, and occupy a unique position in our national consciousness. So I was very pleased to learn at the first Take Back Parliament rally that the reason they had adopted the colour purple was because it was one of the Suffragette colours. Having spent half of 2009 talking about climate change with the Suffragette-inspired environmental activist group Climate Rush, I know the power that those formidable women still hold over people one hundred years on. The group has been a little quiet since Copenhagen, but we have organised a public ‘Rendezvous’ on Wednesday 13th October to plan our next steps.

The suffragettes hold a unique position, but an ambivalent one. On the one hand, they are commemorated with plaques and praised for their spirited resistance in contrast to today’s ‘voter apathy’. On the other they are dismissed as having been incidental to the process of winning the vote, as it was ‘really’ a reward for women’s work during the First World War.

In this second version of history, people that change things, but blind economic forces. The Abolitionists did not end slavery, the Civil Rights Movement did not end segregation and women’s libbers didn’t win equal pay, it just became financially advantageous to have free workers, educated black people and women in the workplace.

This narrative has come to dominate ideas about social change, and is incredibly disempowering: you can march all you like, it says, you can make banners, hold rallies, boycott, chain on, get arrested. Until some impersonal force decides that your demand is ‘economic’ you might as well have stayed at home watching repeats of Top Gear on Dave. It’s a narrative that helps us deal with the liberal guilt about the privileges we enjoy, and justifies us giving up the fight for a more equal world. And it clearly works to the advantage of those who already hold power by dissuading people from taking any kind of action to challenge them.

But the narrative is fundamentally untrue. When I mentioned the ‘reward for war work’ theory of women getting the vote to Dr Diane Atkinson, a Suffragette specialist who’ll be speaking about them at the Rendezvous, she told me part of their history I hadn’t heard before, which turns the narrative on its head.

The Climate Rush Rendezvous is at 7pm in Toynbee Hall on October 13th. Visit www.climaterush.co.uk for more details.

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