Only middle-class women won the vote in 2018. A successful modern women’s movement must work for all women, says Lucy Mangan.
When the women’s suffrage movement began, it started among middle-class women who aimed at getting the vote for… other middle-class women. Then crazy radicals started thinking that maybe working-class women were worth including too, and the movement grew to a critical mass that led to… middle-class women getting the vote.
This is often the problem with political movements. As the journalist and author George Orwell put it, they tend to start with “those who can pronounce their aitches”.
In other words, it’s often the people with enough social and financial capital who can afford to agitate for change, and not those whose energies have to be expended in simple survival. And so it’s the former group who get to dictate terms.
Of course, once the genie is out of the bottle, good things tend to happen. We all know that sh*t rolls downhill, but we forget that progress can percolate that way too. Just as, in ye truly olde times, the barons getting the right to trial by jury led to yeomen, then peasants, then – gosh – everybody, even the wives, reckoning theye wouldde quyte lyke thatte too, thank ye.
Likewise, female suffrage eventually took in those on every rung of the socio-economic ladder and became universal.
But while sh*t tends to have its own momentum, progress usually needs a conscious push. Amid all the – totally deserved – celebrations of the vote’s centenary (you will see that I even dressed for the occasion), we should remember that political movements need to be inclusive.
This embracing of all doesn’t happen on its own – no, not even with the gorgeous, brilliant, side-of-the-angels feminist movement that we love. For Orwell’s aitches, read “white, heterosexual, able-bodied, relatively rich” women. These are the women who (and I am talking in broad-brush terms here) have largely shaped feminism and its concerns.
And without casting aspersions on all the gains made, it’s worth reflecting on how that still affects the movement today. Maternity rights take up more bandwidth than access to contraception. You hear more about work-life balance than the debilitating effects of unemployment or zero-hours contracts. Problems of choice rather than lack of choice take precedence. Different cultures are expected to share the same priorities and goals despite experiencing different levels and types of handicap and prejudice.
This fourth wave of feminism that we are currently riding (and do take a moment to feel the wind in your hair, the invigorating salt spray in your face. You’ll probably have beachy waves at the end of all this, as well as full emancipation!) is already doing better than ever before at reaching out to groups who have been neglected by earlier incarnations.
From the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund aiming to fund representation in sexual harassment cases for women less privileged than Weinstein’s Hollywood victims, to the proliferating awareness of our cultural and sexual differences, things are slowly changing.
But those of us in the traditional mould of the movement need to be aware of our privilege, keep remembering that our world view is not the only one, and change our focus as necessary. We must keep pushing to outpace the sh*t. I vote for that.
Why deeds not doubts are what count
Feeling underqualified stops women doing a lot of things. Stops a few men too. But not many. And I’ve never heard of a single man who didn’t vote because he wasn’t sure he understood the finer details of every issue. But I’ve heard several women say it and I want to do an Emily Davison and throw myself under a horse every time.
No. You should never silence yourself about anything because you feel you don’t understand enough. Keep this guide handy so the next time the voice in your head says you don’t know enough, repeat:
a) You do.
b) Fear of inadequacy isn’t stopping anyone else, and they’re worse people for not even considering it.
c) You can always find out about stuff.
I’m often embarrassed by how little I know about a billion things so I start with Google and children’s books, then ask basic questions of an informed human.
So, go and look up how to vote for the least terrible twunt and we’ll take it from there.
Stylist is celebrating the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. See more of our commemorative content here.
Images: Rex Features