STOP teach­ing girls men are the EN­EMY

Daily Mail - - Femail Magazine - by Belinda Brown

They’re the hero­ines of the hour. The brave women who fought so hard to win us the equal­ity we en­joy to­day. Ask any school­girl who won women the vote 100 years ago and they will be quick to an­swer: ‘The suf­fragettes.’

They’ve been the sub­ject of a hol­ly­wood film star­ring Meryl Streep, they fea­ture in girls’ bed­time sto­ries, and last week, em­me­line Pankhurst and her corseted fol­low­ers were li­onised in a BBC doc­u­men­tary pre­sented by his­to­rian Lucy Wors­ley.

Such is the hero-wor­ship of this band of ‘ gen­der free­dom fight­ers’ that when last Sun­day thou­sands took to the streets to com­mem­o­rate the cen­te­nary of votes for women, many were hold­ing ban­ners call­ing for the ‘bat­tle’ to con­tinue.

‘Fight like a Girl’ read one (right). ‘Deeds, not words’ said an­other, echo­ing the slo­gan of the suf­fragettes, who were re­spon­si­ble for 337 acts of ar­son or bomb­ing dur­ing 1913-1914 alone. But while gain­ing the vote 100 years ago was a huge achieve­ment, I also be­lieve that it’s time we started telling young peo­ple the truth.

For the real ac­tion did not lie with the suf­fragettes and their shame­ful vi­o­lence. It lay with an­other group of women, the suf­frag­ists led by Mil­li­cent Fawcett, and their col­lab­o­ra­tion with men in the Labour party.

It was Mil­li­cent Fawcett and her 50,000- strong suf­frag­ists whose peace­ful and per­sis­tent work turned the tide: Pankhurst’s suf­fragettes (es­ti­mated to num­ber only be­tween 2,000 and 5,000) were an ag­gres­sive off­shoot from which Fawcett re­peat­edly tried to dis­tance her­self.

yet some­where along the line, the tale has been twisted. To the ex­tent that when a statue of Fawcett was un­veiled in Par­lia­ment Square this year, they used suf­fragette colours (white, green, pur­ple) when Fawcett her­self es­tab­lished suf­frag­ist colours (red, white, green) to dis­tance her­self from the vi­o­lence.

Sim­i­larly, the pro­ces­sions march­ing through Lon­don, Cardiff, edinburgh and Belfast were a sea of white, green and pur­ple, the suf­fragette colours. Once again, Mil­li­cent Fawcett and her more suc­cess­ful, peace­ful ap­proach was erased from the story.

Why? I sus­pect it suits to­day’s fem­i­nists to por­tray the suf­fragettes as hav­ing to fight and suf­fer for women to get the vote. That meant strug­gling against the en­emy — men. em­braced by the Me Too, Time’s Up cam­paign and the gen­der equal­ity brigade, it’s all the rage to iden­tify with the suf­fragettes.

But the story they want to tell is of a pitched bat­tle be­tween free­dom-fight­ing hero­ines and the men who stood in their way, when the truth just isn’t as black and white.

It wasn’t that men in power specif­i­cally didn’t want women to have the vote. Be­sides, only 56 per cent of men (those who owned prop­erty) had the vote.

An­other fact that has been qui­etly dropped from the story is that the suf­fragettes were only cam­paign­ing for women like them­selves, mid­dle- class prop­er­tied women, to gain this priv­i­lege. As one critic pointed out, it was ‘not votes for women’, but ‘votes for ladies’.

This was why Prime Min­is­ter her­bert henry Asquith and his Lib­eral party didn’t want to give votes to women — be­cause if it was only prop­er­tied women, they were un­likely to vote Lib­eral. Their ob­jec­tion was po­lit­i­cal, rather than based on gen­der. As for the suf­frag­ists, they had been pe­ti­tion­ing Par­lia­ment for many years, and in 1897 suf­frage so­ci­eties came to­gether un­der the lead­er­ship of Mil­li­cent Fawcett, co-founder of Newn­ham Col­lege, Cam­bridge.

They formed the Na­tional Union of Women’s Suf­frage So­ci­eties and used peace­ful tac­tics such as lob­by­ing MPs. It was a tire­less jour­ney, and its slow progress is what trig­gered em­me­line Pankhurst to set up a ri­val fac­tion in 1903, ar­gu­ing dras­tic ac­tion was re­quired.

Over the next decade, the suf­fragettes dreamed up count­less vi­o­lent and ex­hi­bi­tion­ist stunts. Burn­ing rags were stuffed into let­ter­boxes, chairs flung into the Ser­pen­tine, and en­velopes con­tain­ing red pep­per and snuff sent to every Cab­i­net min­is­ter.

As the gov­ern­ment re­peat­edly stalled all at­tempts to push fe­male suf­frage through Par­lia­ment, the vi­o­lence in­ten­si­fied. Win­dows and street lamps were smashed, golf greens burned with acid, bombs placed near the Bank of eng­land and an axe was thrown at Prime Min­is­ter Asquith.

Largely, how­ever, the suf­fragettes re­sorted to cow­ardly hit- and- run at­tacks against or­di­nary peo­ple. They started fires at postal sort­ing of­fices us­ing phos­pho­rus, the fumes from which caused per­ma­nent lung dam­age to sev­eral work­ers.

Mean­while, the suf­frag­ists were toil­ing away. In 1912, they made a pact with the Labour Party: they would can­vas for them and fund can­di­dates in re­turn for sup­port for women’s votes.

The gov­ern­ment knew they had to re­draw the elec­toral regis­ter af­ter World War I. And many re­turn­ing sol­diers didn’t have the vote be­cause they were not prop­erty own­ers. ‘If they are fit to fight, they are fit to vote,’ was what they said in Par­lia­ment.

And it is worth re­mem­ber­ing that while the 1918 rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Peo­ple Act gave the vote to eight mil­lion women, it also gave the vote to five mil­lion men for the first time, too.

So, how did it come about? Fawcett’s friend in the Labour party, Arthur henderson, said he would only sup­port the new Bill if it also ex­tended the vote to women. (If he re­signed from Cab­i­net, it would have brought down the gov­ern­ment.)

But Mil­li­cent Fawcett’s ‘bor­ing’, slow work court­ing male as well as fe­male sup­port doesn’t make ex­cit­ing tele­vi­sion view­ing. The fact she worked along­side male MPs does not toe the fem­i­nist man-hat­ing line.

True equal­ity was achieved by men and women work­ing to­gether to over­come party po­lit­i­cal re­sis­tance. This is what we should be re­mem­ber­ing and teach­ing in schools. rather than pre­tend­ing that vi­o­lence achieves great things — and that men are the en­emy.

The Pri­vate Rev­o­lu­tion: Women in the Pol­ish Un­der­ground Move­ment by Belinda Brown is pub­lished by the hera Trust, £9.50, ama­zon.co.uk.

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