Visible Women

We’re all signing up for this amazing free course on women’s history

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Moya Crockett
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Brush up on your feminist knowledge ahead of the centenary of women winning the right to vote. 

Be honest: how much do you really know about the women’s suffrage movement?

You probably remember that Emily Wilding Davison died after throwing herself in front of King George V’s horse at Epsom Derby in 1913, and that suffragettes were regularly imprisoned as a result of their activism. You’re also likely aware that the centenary of the Representation of the People Act – the landmark legislation that gave voting rights to some UK women – will be celebrated on 6 February 2018. But when it comes to the finer details of the fight for the right to vote, it’s fair to say that most of us could probably do with brushing up on our knowledge.

That’s the rationale behind the creation of a new, free online course on the history of women’s rights. The course, titled Beyond the Ballot: Women’s Rights and Suffrage from 1866 to Today, is available to anyone who’s interested in learning more about women’s suffrage in the UK, and is run by Royal Holloway, University of London and FutureLearn.

“The centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act this February provides a great opportunity to look back at women’s struggle for rights and equality,” says Claire Kennan, Citizens Project Officer at Royal Holloway, University of London, who is leading the course.

“That’s what we’ve tried to do with Beyond the Ballot, looking back not just at the struggle for the vote but to the decades before and after the Act to see what other changes women were campaigning for and how they made a difference.”

Glynis Johns as Mrs Banks (centre) in Mary Poppins

While some primary and school students in the UK are taught about the women’s suffrage movement, the subject isn’t a mandatory part of any history curriculum – meaning that for many British adults, their knowledge of the votes for women movement starts and ends with a hazy image of Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins.

The Citizens Project at Royal Holloway is dedicated to exploring the history of liberty, protest, rebellion and reform, and the desire to make women’s history accessible to everyone was one of the driving forces behind the Beyond the Ballot course.

“Things are certainly starting to move in the right direction, but women’s history remains sketchy outside of higher education,” says Kennan, citing a school textbook – published in 2016 – that referenced 82 male historical figures and only 14 women by name. “By making the course free and online it means that anyone, anywhere can take part.”

Royal Holloway, University of London

A wide range of experts have contributed to the course materials, including archivists, academics and curators from the Houses of Parliament, the National Archives and The Women’s Library at the London School of Economics.

Participants will learn what life was really like for women in the 19th century, read up on the courageous activists who fought for the right to vote and think about how people would respond to the suffragettes’ militant approach toda.

Also covered will be the women whose activism on other issues paved the way for the suffrage movement – such as Josephine Butler, an early advocate for family planning and sex workers’ rights, and Helen Blackburn, who campaigned against discriminatory workplace laws. 

“We wanted to look beyond the familiar story of the Pankhursts and the militant campaign of the suffragettes to give due attention to the peaceful, law-abiding efforts of the suffragists and some of the forgotten organisations like the Actresses’ Franchise League,” says Kennan. 

Leading suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a rally on Wall Street, New York, in 1911

Beyond the Ballot only requires three non-consecutive hours of study a week for three weeks, so it’s easy to fit in around everyday life: just swap three hours of Netflix or social media scrolling for three hours of learning, and you’re done. 

“Hopefully the course will inspire people to find out more about women’s history, whether that’s taking another short course, visiting their local museum or archive, or attending one of the many fantastic events or exhibitions that are happening across the country this year,” Kennan says. 

The course launches on 5 February; find out more and sign up here.

For more ideas of how to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote, check out our 2018 calendar of feminist events.

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Rex Features