The battles of 1918 go on

Ninety years after the suffragettes' first victory, June Purvis reflects on wars still being fought on behalf of women's rights

August 7, 2008

Last month, on a warm summer's evening, I attended in St George's Chapel, Westminster Abbey, the annual wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial to Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, the constitutional wing of the Edwardian women's suffrage movement.

The ceremony was not just to remember the suffragists who campaigned for the parliamentary vote for women but all those others, including members of the Women's Social and Political Union, who fought for women's right to citizenship. All 30 of us present that evening were there to remember 2008 as a special year for women in Britain. It was 90 years ago, on 6 February 1918, that certain categories of women over 30 years of age - householders, wives of householders, occupiers of property of £5 or more annual value, and university graduates - were granted the parliamentary vote, and 80 years since women had been given equal voting rights with men, at the age of 21, on 2 July 1928.

The short service at St George's Chapel was poignant, and a time for reflection. It was taken by Canon Jane Hedges, the first woman to be appointed in that capacity at the abbey. As she mentioned in her short address, we were meeting at an historic time because the General Synod of the Church of England would soon be deciding whether or not women could become bishops. Thankfully, the vote went in women's favour. I read, with incredulity, the arguments advanced by traditionalists who opposed the appointment of women to the episcopate. Have we not heard all this before?

When women seek to enter male enclaves they inevitably meet fierce opposition, especially from diehards. This was so in the 19th century when women struggled to enter our universities, a bastion of male privilege. It is often forgotten that it was not until 1947 that the University of Cambridge awarded women degrees on the same terms as men. Another case in point relates to another political struggle with a noteworthy anniversary this year, the entry of women to the House of Lords.

Following the 1918 Representation of the People Act, women could stand for election as MPs, Nancy Astor being the first woman, in 1919, to take her seat in the House of Commons. But the House of Lords, a chamber reserved for male peers of the realm, was more resistant to change. As pressure grew for reform of the Upper House, support gathered pace for the introduction of life peers as a way to create a wider diversity of social mix, including women. But not all peers saw it that way. In 1957, during the debate in the Lords of the Life Peerages Act, the Earl of Glasgow angrily exclaimed: "This is about the only place in the kingdom where men can meet without women. For heaven's sake, let us keep it like that!" Fortunately, he did not have his way. The Life Peerages Act of 1958, in setting up the creation of life peers, which also included women, thus permitted women for the first time to sit in the House of Lords.

So how far have women come in our society now that, theoretically speaking, they have political and educational equality with men? The picture is somewhat depressing. Despite the passing, in the 1970s, of the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts, women in this country earn on average 17 per cent less than men. Able women in professional jobs find that they hit a glass ceiling, while two thirds of the low paid are women in jobs traditionally defined as women's work - catering, cleaning, caring, cashiering. And women hold only 20 per cent of parliamentary seats.

Nor is the situation in our universities rosy. Although women now make up 57.2 per cent of the student population, they are concentrated not in the highest-ranked institutions but in the bottom ten. Women constitute less than half of our research student population and hold only 17.5 per cent of professorships. The number of black women professors, just nine in total, is especially shocking.

The waste of women's talent in our universities is phenomenal. The more equal society that the pioneers in the women's movement sought has not come to pass. We could do no better than to begin a debate in higher education about why this is so, and develop a plan for action.

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