Christabel Pankhurst was four years older than me when she interrupted a Liberal Party meeting to shout about the voting rights of women. Yet at twenty years old, it’s taken until the last six months for me to develop a genuine interest in politics. I remember asking my Dad to explain things to me during the last general election, intent on sounding infinitely more sophisticated if I could reel off phrases like ‘hung-parliament’ or ‘welfare state’. Since then I’ve spent nearly three years at a university that helped foster the women’s suffrage movement, accidentally launched an international feminist campaign and experienced the politically-fuelled chaos of twitter warfare. Looking back, these were probably pretty strong ingredients to convert me from an ignorant young person who pays no attention to the political sphere. My recent education has not only come just in time but has also made me determined to see more young and particularly female voters at the polls this May.
As part of Women’s History Month (March), I’ve also been lucky enough to host Professor June Purvis and Kate Willoughby at Royal Holloway. The difference between the talks given to us by these two women, is what struck me as particularly powerful. June is a renowned historian specialising in research on women’s suffrage, having written a critically acclaimed biography of Emmeline Pankhurst. Speaking to a room of students at Royal Holloway of all places, she still managed to stun us with a fabulously articulate hour-long education on the suffragette movement. You can’t help but find your emotions stirred, especially as a privileged, white woman in modern day England, when hearing about individuals like Kitty Marion who was force fed 332 times until she begged for poison. Force-feeding was one of the most horrific things suffragettes experienced, being arrested even for peaceful protest and hunger striking in prison as an attempt to continue the fight. When I asked June to sum up why it’s important for young women to vote, she said this; ‘Young women should vote in the forthcoming general election since votes for women was hard won, particularly by the suffragettes who endured violence, even when engaging in peaceful political protest, and the torture of being forcibly fed when on hunger strike for their political rights. To not vote is to say to all those women who campaigned so hard for the political rights we enjoy today that their efforts do not matter. They do matter. We women must make our democratic voice heard, through the ballot box.’
But as if June’s talk in itself wasn’t moving enough, about two weeks after our education on the hardships suffragettes experienced, we listened to Kate Willoughby, the founder of the immensely popular #Emilymatters campaign. The campaign has nearly two thousand followers on twitter, with support from the House of Commons and Charities like Women’s Aid; Kate works incredibly hard to encourage young people and particularly women to vote and the fact that her work is so necessary says everything. You’d really think, that considering the many turbulent years of campaigning for women’s suffrage, it wouldn’t be so hard to get female votes today. When asked the same question as I asked June, her response was this: “Don’t let anyone silence you or make you feel that your vote doesn’t matter. It does. Suffragette Emily Davison was once a student like you. She believed, as I do, that you have every right to be heard, to be equal. Our democracy is far from perfect, but if you decide not to vote, it won’t get any better, in fact it will only get worse. By registering online and then voting, not only will you be doing Emily proud, you’ll also send a message loud and clear to the next government that young women matter. And the more of you who vote, the more that government will have to listen. #Votingmatters”. It was enormously inspiring to see such passionate belief in the fact that the vote of today’s women is crucial, from a respected and well known historian and the founder of a very current campaign. It told me everything, to see that so much hard work went into securing the vote, but work is still necessary to sustain its power.
A personal example for me is my sister, who is within voting age but wasn’t even aware of how to register, in fact I’ve noticed that unless you are involved in a student environment it’s pretty hard to find the information you need. Universities including my own have launched #votebecause and other campaigns to encourage young people to vote, as only forty four percent of people aged eighteen to twenty-four vote compared to a massive seventy-six percent of people aged sixty-five and above. This is absolutely horrifying considering how important the younger voice is and how much it gets ignored, particularly with constant campaigning against education cuts and rising tuition fees. But what is even more astounding is the enormous gap that still exists between male and female voters with only thirty-nine percent of young women voting in the last general election compared to a solid fifty percent of young men. Women are massively underrepresented in parliament and very few female candidates stand, so it’s easy to see why the younger female generation are still put off, with the political world remaining male dominated and uninviting. The Telegraph published an article back in January, which even suggested the gender gap is widening when it comes to general elections, which is frankly terrifying as we near the one hundred year mark of having the vote. If you identify as a woman and are not yet sure whether to vote in the forthcoming elections, I’d recommend taking a moment to consider not only those who died and/or endured horrific torture to gain us the vote, but also the women of countries like Iraq who risk their lives by posting their ballots. What I’ve learnt in the last six months is how incredibly lucky I am to have the opportunity to vote and do so safely. The bottom line is, if women don’t vote, they can’t expect to be represented in politics or have a say in the future of our country. There are many issues specific to women, for example pay gaps, childcare, sexual harassment, FGM, domestic violence or frequency and mistreatment of rape cases, which will not be addressed unless women are politically active to push them as priorities. This is why the suffragettes valued the vote higher than their own dignity, because these problems must be acknowledged and because women are just as worthy of representation as men. It’s 2015 and almost a century since we secured the vote, it’s our job to make sure their work wasn’t in vain and to ensure that attention is paid to inequality.
So in light of what I’ve learnt this year here is a little more information;
As long as you know your national insurance number it takes five minutes maximum to register to vote here – https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote (You have until the 20th of April).
This is a BBC article on where parties stand on key issues based on manifestos: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29642613.
If you trust it, this is the political compass test that a lot of people have used to make themselves more aware of where they stand and who they align most with: https://www.politicalcompass.org/test.
UKFeminista also produced these wonderful info-graphics on women’s issues in politics: http://votefeminist.ukfeminista.org.uk/toolkit/.
And of course the page for #Emilymatters by Kate Willougby which is a really helpful campaign, Kate is also particularly helpful if you need anymore information: