209 Women is an upcoming exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery, launching at the end of February. This exhibition marks one hundred years since the first British women gained the right to vote in 1918.
This piece was written by Alisha Snozwell, currently on placement at Open Eye Gallery. Thanks to Alisha and Open Eye for sharing it with us
Throughout the last century the role and rights of women have advanced significantly; the twentieth century saw more achievements for women’s rights in the UK than, perhaps, previous centuries combined. These advancements were not just political but social too, such as women’s workplace and reproductive rights. These achievements were milestones in the ongoing move towards gender equality in the UK.
2018 marked a hundred years since the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918, the first of a number of political achievements for women. This act allowed British women to vote in UK Parliamentary Elections for the first time, although only certain women were granted the right to vote. Yet, despite the initial inequalities, the years of suffrage campaigning finally led to the right to vote for millions of women. In 1918 the Parliament Qualification of Women Act was also passed, allowing women to be elected into UK Parliament, making 2018 the centenary of one of the most significant milestones in UK political history, for women anyway. Yet, over a hundred years later British politics remains overwhelmingly patriarchal, with women making up only 32% of MPs. 209 Women aims to acknowledge how far we’ve come but also to illustrate just how much further we need to go.
With continued suffrage campaigning after 1918, women finally achieved universal voting rights with men in the UK by the 1928 Equal Franchise Act. The Life Peerages Act was passed in 1958 allowing women to sit in the House of Lords for the first time. This inclusion of women kickstarted the the breakdown of this traditional patriarchal system. By 1979 the first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was elected. This illustrates the progression of women’s rights: at the beginning of 1918 women couldn’t even vote, yet in just over sixty years a woman is elected to represent the country.
As well as political achievements, women have also achieved social rights. In 1961 the contraceptive pill was made available to all on the NHS, sparking the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The pill has been called the ‘greatest scientific invention of the twentieth century’ by some due to the freedom it awarded millions of women. Similarly, the 1967 Abortion Act granted women the right to an abortion under certain conditions. This enabled women more autonomy over their own lives, not to mention their own bodies. Both allowed for choice and increased sexual equality with men. Women could now be freed from inescapable motherhood. This parliamentary act gained serious opposition, ‘the bill came under attack almost immediately, and this has continued to the present day with fifty attempts to restrict it’. Both the contraceptive pill and the Abortion Act received opposition, mainly from faith groups.
As well as reproductive rights, women also fought to secure gender equality in the workplace. In 1968 the Ford Dagenham sewing machinists’ strike over the lack of ‘sex equality’ led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act. The fight for equal pay often divided opinions as ‘not every trade union representative was initially supportive of what now seems obvious, that women and men should be paid the same rate for doing the same job.’ Yet in 2018 the gender pay gap in the UK was 17.9%, this again proves how far the UK has to go to achieve gender parity.
By the 21st century the inclusion of women in UK politics reached a record breaking level: there are currently 209 elected female MPs out of a total 650. Although this is a cause for celebration I can’t help noting that this is still only a fraction. UK politics is still dominated by men, we need more women in the political picture.
By Alisha Snozwell, University of Liverpool
Image: Yvette Cooper, MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, by Hannah Starkey