This week, we have been celebrating 100 years since suffrage was finally given to all men and some women, marking a radical change in the British political landscape and a landmark win for the gender equality movement.
At Royal Holloway this celebration is particularly important, as famous suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was previously a student on our very own campus.
It is interesting, while looking back through the history of the suffrage movement, to note how closely educational rights were linked with the right for suffrage. For this reason, as an educational institution steeped in feminist history, Royal Holloway feels the impact of this historical moment all the more strongly.
Often noted as being the first women’s college in the UK, Bedford College (which later merged with Royal Holloway) was pioneering in the right for equal opportunity for people of all sexes to access higher education.
However, the ability for women to be awarded degrees didn’t actually come about until much later when the University of London introduced a charter in 1878 that allowed them to award female students degree qualifications.
Because of the elevated status of degree holders and the indisputable intellectual challenge of obtaining a degree, higher education rights were intrinsically linked with the fight for women’s suffrage and, in fact, many suffrage activists campaigned for both education and voting rights for women.
Royal Holloway is celebrating the centenary in a number of ways, from the opening of the new exhibit ‘Suffrage: Education, Activism and Votes for Women’, to the newly written play ‘Emily’, all the way through to a series of lectures and even a free online course. All details for upcoming events can be found on the college website.
However, whilst it is important to celebrate these early reforms and acknowledge those who fought hard to secure fundamental rights to some, it is equally important to remember that they did not campaign for all.
The suffragette movement and some of their most famous activists were notably racist. Emmeline Pankhurst was very vocally supportive of colonisation in her later years and the suffrage of Maori women in New Zealand, before those of white British women, caused uproar throughout the movement.
As well as this, much of the rhetoric behind the suffragette campaign compared women’s lack of a vote to the slavery experienced by people of colour throughout history. It is therefore our responsibility to acknowledge that for many women, and other marginalised people, the Representation of the People’s Act, did not bring about change, nor did it give them any more agency or respect within the community.
So while we celebrate this year of the centenary and how far we’ve come, take some time to reflect on how much further we need to go. Movements like Black Lives Matter are the suffrage movements of today that we will look back on in 100 years and thank for fighting for a better future. Remember that steps towards equality mean nothing if we leave our marginalised friends, family, and citizens behind.
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