On the centenary of the Representation Of The People Act which gave certain eligible women in the UK the right to vote for the first time, MP for Wirral South Alison McGovern hails the progress made, but reflects on the implicit bias that still exists in the continuing battle for universal acceptance.
Many of the worst conversations I have about feminism are with the men I love most in the world.
It is easy to be angry with Donald Trump when he says feminism is “going too far,” after all he has done for women; it is hard to be angry with your friend because he has just blamed the female members of juries for not convicting more rapists. Because even though there may be evidence of bias of women jurors, the act of men blaming women for sexism, is, in the end, just more misogyny. It is hard to be angry with a close family member because they have called your little girl ‘bossy’ again. And to make them see that even though he wants to be kind to her, the constraints he is unwittingly applying to her behaviour contrast wildly with the easy acceptance he has of all manner of aggression from little boys.
What’s more, it is harder still to challenge the women you love when they tell you your skirt is too short, that they are really enjoying their new diet, and that they can’t imagine how you work so late, given how much your child must miss you.
Thankfully, the current centenary of the first women voting in 1918 will involve no such hard conversations. It will involve myriad easy conversations. Women should be allowed to vote. Thankfully, now it is so obvious that this should be the case, we can gleefully celebrate the 100 years since, and we can gloss over the fact that 2018 is only the anniversary of middle class women over 30 getting the vote.
We can have easy conversations about how right the suffragettes were, even though by today’s standards quite a few of them would still be considered violent arsonists. We can have easy conversations celebrating the number of women MPs, while we gloss over the fact that one of our main political parties can elect two women Prime Ministers but cannot stop making women in the country financially worse off; and the other main political party – much though Labour should be proud of – cannot elect a woman to lead it at all.
We can have easy conversations about the past, because it is a different country, and no one need think about what they would have done if in the shoes of men in the House of Commons 100 years ago, even though at the time 55 Members of Parliament (all men, of course) voted against the bill to give women the vote. We will gloss over all of this, because it is only right that the people who gave their lives up to campaign for women to vote are remembered and properly celebrated. These are the easy conversations, and we should have them in great volume and length.
Much harder are the conversations about death.
I have heard the often repeated statistic that, ‘two women a week are killed by male violence’, so like most of these things you hear all the time, I assumed it was bullshit. It turns out it is. It’s actually numerically closer to three women a week (the yearly total in 2017 was 138). I am not an expert, so I cannot tell you why men kill women. But they do. And hard though that fact is to face, it must stop. We cannot live anymore in a country where one of our gender defaults is that women who seek a life partner take their life in their hands.
I don’t think the suffragettes took hammers to smash Parliament’s windows because they thought it was a great way to raise awareness of their issue; they did it because the power of that hammer in their hand was the only channel they could think of capable of expressing their emotional fire at women’s oppression. Imagine how their anger would burn if they knew that, still, 100 years later, in the minds of many men, women are expendable. If they knew that, too often, women are just a feature in a man’s control and power over his world. I can tell you that the people I have met who have suffered from such abuse are deeply and rightly angry. And anger must not be wasted so change must come. And we should not hold back in protesting until it does.
But one thing that I have learnt from my past eight years as a Member of Parliament is that, whatever my legal rights – to vote in an election, to be a candidate in an election, to take my seat in the House of Commons and represent my constituents – the single hardest right to exercise is the right is to be seen as an equal amongst my peers. This is the unconscious bias that holds women back. Whether it is the assumptions that are made about our knowledge and interests, or the manner in which we are interrupted, or the frankly patronising tone that is taken about women who use their position to campaign for equality, this bias against women is the biggest problem we face.
And that is what makes it the very hard conversation we must have this year. The suffragettes won a victory in law: to make their victory one of lived reality, people who harbour a bias – conscious or unconscious – against women must leave that state of mind behind.
Sadly, though, I cannot make that happen. Women cannot make it happen. It is – as it was in 1918 – in the gift of men to change their minds.