I consider myself lucky to have been born and raised during the last third of the 20th century for many reasons.
Of course, living in the U.K. and now America has given me the blessings of good nutrition, education, sanitation and medicine.
As a female, the timing is even more fortuitous because I have been given significant freedoms to choose how to live, work and whether and when to reproduce – rights that were denied to women for centuries.
The constraints of law, biology and tradition have largely been swept away in Western societies to give us equality with men.
This brings me to last week’s significant anniversary in the land of my birth: on Feb. 6, 1918, women were finally given the right to vote. This preceded the right of American women, who were granted the same privileges in 1920 under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
As a university history major, I have always taken the right and responsibility of women’s suffrage seriously. As a nationalized American citizen, I worked hard to achieve the right to vote in the U.S., and I have always exercised my legal right to vote on both sides of the Atlantic since turning 18 years of age.
I thought I would share some historical context about the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the U.K., which was enshrined in law in the months leading up to the end of the First World War.
Emmeline Pankhurst, a British political activist who was focused on this issue, organized efforts and recruited other "suffragettes" in the earliest years of the 20th century. While they certainly contributed to the quantum leap of securing the vote for women, many historians believe that it was the impact of war time that made a difference to public opinion.
Great Britain lost almost a million young men during the war, with double that number wounded. Having a population of only about 46 million at that time, this had a huge impact on British society as women were left to take on the traditional work and tasks of men, who were away fighting and dying on the fields of France.
The U.S. was also impacted in this way, albeit not as statistically dramatic as Great Britain.
However, the roots of the movement for women to vote go back much earlier. The first petition to the British Parliament was presented in 1832, although it was rejected.
The next serious attempt was over 30 years later in 1866, when parliamentarian John Stuart Mill tried again. After this also failed to pass, formal suffrage societies began to form in the larger cities.
After more legislative failures, many women became impatient and angry. Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia in 1903. Members became increasingly militant with marches and acts of defiance, such as chaining themselves to public buildings and hunger strikes.
Things escalated further when a parliamentary bill to allow women the vote was narrowly defeated in 1912. The suffragettes then resorted to arson and bombing, and many were injured during protests, repeatedly imprisoned and force fed when they starved themselves.
In 1913, a suffragette named Emily Wilding Davison committed very public suicide by stepping in front of the King’s horse at the Derby horse races in an effort to draw attention to the suffrage cause.
This gets us back to the First World War. When war was declared the following year, suffrage prisoners were set free and the suffragette leaders stopped militant campaigning and instead urged women to join the war effort as unified patriotism became the priority.
In 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed, allowing men over 21 and women over 30 to vote. Ten years later, women were given true equality in suffrage when they were also allowed to vote at the age of 21. This was lowered to 18 in 1970. There is more information at www.historicengland.org.uk.
I will leave you this week with an amusing and thought-provoking quote from the era before women could vote. Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and one of London’s most popular playwrights in the early 1890s, said, "Women have a much better time than men in this world; there are far more things forbidden to them."
How things change.
God bless America and our right to vote!