It is not so much the cause of feminism to provide a shining walkway for a female leader… as it is to arrive at a governance that takes women’s issues seriously.
Dear Sojourner Truth, Susan Anthony, Elizabeth Stanton, Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Davison, Edith Garrud, Kate Sheppard, and every woman who gave so much of her life to votes for women,
Thank you for the battle that you fought, all those years ago, to gain women the vote. Lobbying, smashing windows – having to sacrifice friendships, relationships, work, so much of your lives. You took huge risks: disrupting campaign speeches, supporting strikes, charging through police guards at the polls – burning feminist slogans into golf courses and cricket pitches. You were all amazing. Susan B. Anthony, thank you for breaking the law in 1872 to vote, so that the way was paved for for the rest of us to do the same as a matter of course. We take it for granted, now, would you believe.
The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – what a gutsy organisation, dedicated to “deeds, not words”. When the prime minister once said he didn’t really believe most women wanted the vote – you organised “Women’s Sunday” in 1908. On June 21, women from all over the country gathered to demonstrate that the suffrage campaign was not some spinster rent-a-crowd. Half a million attendees, it was estimated. Then in 1911, you organised a 40,000 strong, seven mile long procession – with music, floats, embroidered banners and historic costumes, including a Joan of Arc on horseback!
We know that you suffered for this work. Emma Davison, your life was taken for it. You all suffered pathologising – being called hysterical and frigid. You suffered tension in every sphere of your lives, close monitoring, trashing and mockery, sleepless nights, imprisonment, hunger strikes, force feeding. Sojourner – escaping slavery to become a campaigner for the rights of black women. Edith, training a WSPU self defense unit in jiu jitsu, to counteract police brutality – the legacies you have left are astounding.
I know that none of you did all of that just to gain women the right to choose in what form our oppression would come. As Rae Story (you would love her) says in my epigraph above, it wasn’t to “provide a shining walk way for a female leader” that you fought, either. It’s not often discussed, but feminists remember – we remember that you fought for the vote to take a step toward women’s liberation.
You wanted women to be subjects with rights and the means to shape society, not objects who were men’s property. You fought for the legal rights and entitlements of women who were married. (Can you believe that in New Zealand, it was not until 1985 that it became illegal for a man to rape his wife!) You fought for prostitution abolition and against the abuse of children. You lobbyed to raise the age of consent, and you lobbyed for women-only toilets and restrooms so that we could engage in public life. There are fights like this happening in India at the moment, being fought for many of the same reasons you fought. Elisabeth Elmy, Frances Swiney – you wrote about how the sexual use of girls and women was at the heart of women’s oppression. You were called prudes for saying that, but you were not wrong, and you stood your ground. Thank you.
You gained us so much.
You would have known though, wouldn’t you – that once the battle was over, the backlash would begin.
It has escalated constantly up til now. The objectification of women, it has just intensified and intensified. In 1990, Naomi Wolf wrote a book about that, called The Beauty Myth. She said that when women started gaining status, after the period you were active and after the world wars, “the higher women climbed… up the rungs of professional hierarchies, the harder the beauty myth has worked to undermine each step.” We can vote, but this aspect of women’s oppression is worse than ever. It’s so insidious too – it seems to seep in everywhere.
This has never stopped me voting though. I never thought it would – whether to vote or not has never been a question for me. Until now.
You wouldn’t be able to guess what they have done most recently. I wish you were here to talk about it with!
They have taken some of the ideas that you developed, about how sex is biological but sex roles – gender – are imposed. Being chattel isn’t the natural state of affairs, as we are told. Rather than opposing the power structure though of male dominance, by fighting things like marriage and prostitution like you did – they have become even more essentialist, deciding that gender is is innate, a kind of spiritual thing, disconnected from sex. What this means – I hope you’re sitting down – is that men are most oppressed by gender, because some men are women, like, trapped in male bodies. And these men say that women are being violent if we question this whole notion. Then they go and muddle and move these definitions of sex and gender around themselves, to suit their own aims, but never in the interests of what you fought for. Never in the interests of women’s liberation.
As I am describing this to you, it’s almost becoming hard to believe it myself, but here, let me illustrate. These are pictures from the Labour Party campaign. It’s great they have a women leader, but look – “gender affirming healthcare”! It’s exactly like the way that women who didn’t conform in your time, had to be brought to the doctor, have forced hysterectomies, later even lobotomies, or just take valium and medications to be palatable in a time and place that actually needed non-conforming, angry women to reject society, not themselves. Now, they say that women who don’t like the gender roles we are served up – are men! These women are offered breast binders and testosterone – and look, this is even marketed as eradicating self harm, and “suicide prevention”. And they take it into schools. They hand out free breast binders, that crush girls’ lungs, in schools, and tell the girls they will become boys this way.
They’ve convinced so many women this stuff is all true. There are women who work for some of the Women’s Refuges, even, who deal with male violence every day, and who still believe that rapists, male rapists, should go to women’s prisons if they say they are women! And oh, the women’s prisons are overflowing. You would be so devastated. I am sorry.
It’s like living among those anti-suffrage women’s lobbies you had to deal with, but they are everywhere. That must have so hurt and annoyed you, to have women working against you, against their own interests – not just in a kneejerk way, but organising to do it. How did you manage that? It’s happening at such a huge scale now.
So, in short, I don’t know what to do. There is a conservative party, that you would hate and so do I – that’s not a viable women’s vote. Then there is the Labour Party, with a woman leader – but policies that, if they were implemented, would potentially erase the existence of women as a legal category. That’s happening in Canada. You certainly did not fight for this. I’m not sure that you would have even voted for a woman leader, if that was the price.
I’ve been feeling somewhat torn between honouring the battle you fought for my right to vote, and honouring the spirit in which you fought that battle. But the latter, to me, is a more important thing to keep alive, and that is the thing that is dying. Without being precious – it’s politics, after all – that spirit of women’s liberation struggle just cannot be reconciled with any option on the table. I don’t want to give up this spirit in myself, by voting for the eradication of women’s rights.
I feel so sorry, not to vote, because of you women, and so many others. But you fought for us. No vote I can make right now allows me to do the same; no vote that I can cast represents the interests of younger generations of girls in my country.
I cannot see an option. I wish that you, or some other battlers older than me, were here to discuss this us. We’d have a lot of catching up to do, but I think I would like to know what you’d say about what things look like now.
I think you would support me not to vote in the election this year. Like you said, Susan – “No self-respecting woman should wish or work for the success of a party who ignores her sex.”
This year, September 23, I will wear a black armband for you, to mourn the loss of the women’s vote. And then, I will keep working to try to help restore it.