Celebrating the Centenary of Women’s Suffrage in Britain and Ireland Journal of Gender Studies

Journal of Gender Studies

Editorial by Dr Rachel Alsop

The 6th February 2018 marks the centenary of women first gaining  the parliamentary vote in Britain and Ireland. The Representation of the People Act 1918 accorded women over the age of 30 the right to vote in parliamentary elections, as long as they were married to, or were themselves, a member of the Local Government Register, a property owner, or a graduate voting in a University constituency. Around 40 per cent of women – notably women of a certain age and class - became eligible to vote.  The  same Act extended voting rights to men over 21 years of age and loosened the property criterion related to male enfranchisement.

From 1918 it took another 10 years for gender equality in voting to be achieved in the UK (Britain and Northern Ireland) and for suffrage to be extended to all women regardless of property ownership. In 1928, via the Equal Franchise Act, women in the UK gained voting parity with men. By extending the vote to women over the age of 21 the number of women eligible to vote in UK general elections was increased to 15 million. In Ireland, women over the age of 21 had been given the vote  six years earlier, when the constitution of the Irish Free State was drawn up in 1922.

Women gaining the vote was a victory for women’s activism, and stands as a landmark achievement of British and Irish first wave feminism. Prior to World War One campaigning for the vote had been taken up by a well organised network of social and political organisations spanning a range of political perspectives and diverse campaigning tactics. While many women (and men) engaged in peaceful campaigning for the vote, the militancy of the suffragettes and their preparedness in their struggle for suffrage to engage in civil disobedience, under immense personal risk, have become emblematic of the sacrifice and dedication at the heart of the movement for women’s suffrage.

In 1918  women were also allowed to stand as parliamentary candidates for the first time and to be elected as MPs. In the 1918  General Election Constance Markievicz became the first woman elected but as a member of the Irish Republican Party, Sinn Fein, did not take up her seat. In the following year Nancy Astor was elected and became the first woman MP in the House of Commons. A century on, women MPs remain in the minority in the House of Commons. In the 2017 General Election the number of elected female MPs reached a record high, yet still only 32 per cent of returned MPs were women. Similarly, in Ireland record numbers of women were elected to the Dail Eireann in 2016 but still women constituted just 22.2 per cent of Deputies.

Looking globally, we can see that the enfranchisement of women has rarely led to equality of representation in political structures (an exception being Rwanda). According to UN figures, in June 2016 just under 23 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women; 38 states had less than 10% female representation in single or lower houses. In January 2017 under 20 per cent of government minsters worldwide were women. Women who did make it to ministerial office were concentrated in areas related to the environment, resources and energy, education, the family and social affairs.

This Special Issue

To celebrate  one hundred years of women’s suffrage in Britain and Ireland this virtual special issue features eight, now free-to-access, articles from the Journal’s back catalogue, embracing a range of topics pertaining  to women’s political representation. In commemorating female suffrage this issue celebrates women’s political achievements, while at the same time acknowledging the persisting challenges, barriers and discrimination women face in the political field, which continue to shape and constrain their participation.

Three of the articles focus on the role of the media in reproducing gender bias, illustrating the ways in which media coverage of  women in politics is quantitatively and qualitatively different to that of men. Dustin Harp, Jaime Loke and Ingrid Bachmann (2017) point to how ‘female political figures receive less coverage and reduced prominence in news stories, are less likely than men to be quoted, and are regularly dismissed, marginalized and trivialized […] Their platforms have a hard time becoming first-tier material, in contrast with the focus on their domestic lives (including family circumstances), physicality, sartorial choices and personality’ (228). In their analysis of the newspaper coverage of Texas Senator Wendy Davis’ 2013 filibuster to block abortion-restricting legislation, they demonstrate how the media focused more on the Senator’s personal life and what she was wearing than the issue at stake. Using Debord’s concept of spectacle, they show how the ‘celebritization’ of Davis ‘minimizes her authority and weakens her position as a politician able to take on a serious issue’ (235).  Similarly, Yasmine Dabbous and Amy Ladley (2010) illustrate  how news coverage of Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker in the US, concentrated predominantly on her personal life and her attire. In their examination they consider the strategies open to female politicians in engaging with such gendered mediations. As they put it, ‘the choice between taking advantage of  the stereotype, by emphasizing effective management through femininity, or rejecting it by masculinizing message’ (191). In the coverage of Pelosi, a mother of five and a grandmother, her children and grandchildren were regularly featured. Pelosi, they argue, attempted to deploy this media preoccupation with her family life to convey competence and authority. In the third article, Christine Christie (1998), in her analysis of media representations of feminist politics, shifts attention to how messages are received by audiences. While acknowledging that ‘the tendency of the media in their role as agents of public knowledge, to offer inadequate and  negative representations of feminist politics and politicians is clearly a matter of concern for feminists’ (212)  she suggests that we need to understand more how audiences relate to such messages. Christie argues that even when the media conveys feminist politics and politicians more sympathetically, how they are received ‘is  dependent upon the extent to which an audience can access the assumptions that underpin non-mainstream feminist discourse’ (223).

A common thread running through the articles is the persisting cultural perception of formal politics as a ‘man’s game’ even when there has been a long history of female enfranchisement. Lindsey  Cormack (2016) in her analysis of campaigning and re-election strategies focuses on how female legislators in the US communicate their voting decisions to the electorate. She asserts that female politicians have to work ‘harder to stay even’ (627), to show to the electorate that they are sufficiently  competent and qualified for political office. Her research indicates  that ‘female legislators expend extra effort highlighting  their policy credentials to voters  by revealing more voting decisions in communications’ (635).

One strategy adopted in some countries to counteract male bias in politics is the implementation of female quotas. Quotas are introduced to ensure a minimum level of female representation and, in turn,  to encourage a change in gendered assumptions within politics. Alexandra Girard (2015) examines the effects of female quotas in local governance in rural India in which 33% of seats are reserved for women and every third term the local leader must be a woman. She indicates that, despite the increase in female representation, gendered assumptions persist, with women usually having more leverage in areas seen as traditionally female – such as health, education and domestic water. Women’s ‘influence leverage’ she argues is  ‘restricted by notions of local reputation and to areas congruent to their gender’ (545).

Two of the articles included in this virtual special issue consider the relationship between liberal democracy and gender equality. Gurpreet Mahajan (1996), also writing on women in Indian politics, focuses on the capacity of democracy in India to represent women’s interests, when community interests, particularly the rights of religious groups,  are prioritized in some instances over the rights and interests  of the (female) individual. In the absence of a shared Civil Code (except in Goa) ‘we have a peculiar situation in India where although all individuals, as citizens, are equal before the law (caste, religion and gender notwithstanding), on the issue of Family Law, which concerns everybody, distinctions are made between citizens […] Thus, individuals are, according to their religion, subject to different Personal Laws; and, more importantly, on most occasions Personal Laws sanction and justify different treatment for men and women of the same faith’ (171).

In the following article, Elin Bjarnegård & Erik Melander (2011) illustrate the complex relationships between democratization, gender equality and peace. In terms of the link between representation and equality, they argue that higher numbers of women in parliaments alone do not necessarily indicate greater gender equity overall– women can be included tokenistically or the parliaments may have limited political influence. However, in societies undergoing democratization, they suggest, a focus on issues of gender equality can potentially  aid successful and peaceful democratic transitions.  Using the example of political violence in South Thailand they argue that ‘had Thailand’s democratization been more thorough, had democratic institutions and political parties been reformed to the extent that old-boy networks were shattered, with the military restricted as a political power, and had mechanisms been introduced to let new groups enter the political sphere, the old persistent logic of using military means to solve the conflict in the South might have been abandoned’ (151).

The final article shifts attention to women’s grassroots political struggles. Shereen Pandit’s (2002) standpoint piece, through an eloquent mixture of storytelling, autobiography and political commentary, gives voice to black women’s experiences of oppression in South Africa, to both their persecution and their political resistance under Apartheid and beyond.  She highlights the importance of telling women’s stories:

‘I write about black South African women’s experiences, past and present, for reasons as hugely personal as political. I want us to become visible. I want to flesh out the skeletons of the sociological statistics, the political platitudes […] I want to give faces and names and feelings to the women’ (76).

Her writing, thus, speaks more broadly to the ways in which women’s political acts are often written out of our history, hidden from view, and rendered invisible in our cultural memories.  In celebrating the centenary of women’s suffrage in Britain and Ireland it is therefore important that we think not only of the women involved in this political struggle (both women recognised in our official history and those that remain hidden) but also that we use this historical moment to engage with wider and ongoing issues of women’s political participation. It is to this endeavour that this special issue seeks to make a contribution.