Why does the Vote 100 centenary matter?


It’s almost International Women’s Day and we want to continue celebrating the centenary of women’s partial suffrage. Dr Julie Gottlieb is a Reader in Modern History and was a historical adviser to the statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett, to be unveiled in the spring. Following the Vote 100 celebrations on 6 February, she shared her experience of the project and her research:

Tell us about the statue of Millicent Fawcett:

It’s actually an interesting story how the statue came about. Feminist activist and journalist, Caroline Criado Perez, who campaigned to get a woman on the ten-pound note, was jogging with her dog through Parliament Square one day, only to notice that every figure on a plinth was male.

She was determined to get a woman in the square facing Parliament – the historical centre of our democracy, so she campaigned tirelessly including using online petitions, much like the suffrage campaigners collected signatures in their day. In the end, tens of thousands supported, including Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London. The statue was eventually co-curated by 1418 Now, the Arts Project commemorating the First World War, and the Mayor’s Office.

Last spring, I was approached to be one of the historical advisers to Gillian Wearing, the Turner-prize winning artist commissioned to create the statue. Millicent Fawcett - the suffragist leader of the non-militant campaigners, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, had already been chosen as the subject, but Gillian needed historians to help her decide the list of 59 suffrage campaigners to be commemorated around the plinth of the statue, including some men.

Over the course of last year, I met with Gillian, we worked on a criteria for the list and spoke on the phone on a number of occasions. A group of us met at the Mayor’s office in July to help Gillian finalise the list.

Criado Perez was determined to get a woman in the square facing Parliament – the historical centre of our democracy.

You can now see the maquette of the final statue of Millicent. She’s holding up a banner saying ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere’, her words following the death of suffragette Emily Wielding, who threw herself in front of the King’s Horse at Epsom in 1913.

On the actual centenary of the Representation of the People’s Act, it was the big reveal of the list we drew up. You can find out who’s on it here. It includes a definite representational diversity along class lines, gender lines, ethic and regional. I hope people will understand that the decisions were very difficult for Gillian and those advising her, and there was a strong feeling that the list should be as representative as possible without distorting the reality of the demographic of suffrage campaigners.

There are two women from Yorkshire, Mary Goldthorpe and Isabel Ford. However, we weren’t able to put Anne Knight, who formed the first suffrage society in Sheffield, nor Sheffield suffrage campaigner John Stewart Mill, as our criteria stipulated the figures included had to be alive at the time when the suffrage movement was at its height.

What were the Vote 100 celebrations in Westminster like?

My “centenary day” started very early. I was in Trafalgar Square on a very crisp and cold, sunny morning. It was an appropriate place to meet as so many demonstrations start from Trafalgar and march to Westminster. I was partly dressed in the suffragette colours - purple and white, but I was missing green. The suffragist colours - Green—Give White--Women Red—Rights – were also rightly represented.

It was awe-inspiring to be there with the Mayor of London, the co-curating team and TV historian Lucy Worsley, who fronted the campaign, with journalists and TV cameras everywhere. After a tense few months, during which there had been a lot of curiosity about the statue, it was very satisfying to finally be unveiling the figures on the list.

It was awe-inspiring to be there with the Mayor of London, the co-curating team, TV historian Lucy Worsley and journalists and TV cameras everywhere.

I was then invited to the Vote 100 reception in Westminster Hall - the big inaugural event for the centenary. It was televised and they invited all present and former women MPs, many of whom wore suffragette colours, and Prime Minister Theresa May and John Bercow, Commons Speaker, gave speeches. Although it was absolutely freezing in Westminster Hall, there were warm and joyful hearts everywhere.

After leaving the event, I was on the tube home when I met two men wearing rosettes in suffragette colours. I pointed out that we must have come from the same place and it turned out to be the Deputy Mayor of Leicester and the great-grandson of Alice Hawkins, a well-known suffragette who features on the statue plinth, and now has a statue in Leicester. He gave me one of the rosettes and now we’re in touch. I’m hoping to get Alice’s great-grandson to join a session for a strand I’m curating on the centenary for ‘Off the Shelf’ literary festival this autumn.

What does the centenary mean for us now 100 years on?

Anniversaries are not just moments for indulging your antiquarian curiosities; they’re not just moments where we look back and reflect. They’re moments where we mobilise, where we think about what it means for our future not just the past.

That’s not just wishful thinking. If you look at how the Representation of the People Act was celebrated at various points in history, you see how mobilising anniversary celebrations were. Its 21st birthday in 1939 was on the eve of war, and then of course the 50th anniversary is 1968 – the moment of greatest radicalism and re-thinking, and very much the trigger for the Women’s Liberation movement.

Anniversaries are not just moments for indulging your antiquarian curiosities...they’re moments where we mobilise.

So here we are in 2018 where gender and women’s issues are very, very high on the agenda, sometimes for the wrong reasons. That kind of antagonism is often what motivates us to do better and hopefully unleashes a new wave of the women’s movement.

I don’t think it’s accidental that this has coincided with the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and objectification of women. I think that the way young and older women have the courage and vocabulary to speak out, and speak up for themselves, is because of that very live and current language of the suffrage movement.

After 1918 why did it take another ten years for all women to get the vote?

The 1918 Act granted universal suffrage to men and to certain women - property-owners over the age of 30. The decision was taken not to grant it on equal terms to women because after the First World War, women would have outnumbered men at the ballot box. The war almost became a ‘sex war’; it alienated men from women and created this gulf between male and female experience. There was the fear that after a war of total annihilation, men would come home to find that the women had taken over. That’s everywhere in the documents, and it determines the terms by which the Representation of the People’s Act comes to fruition.

Both extensions of the franchise to women in 1918 and 1928 are the beginning of a process not the end.

After the Act was passed there was disappointment and a sense of anti-climax. That’s what much of my research considers, including a collaborative book ‘The Aftermath of Suffrage’ and my more recent monograph ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Inter-war Britain’. My research has been preoccupied with the question of what happened next, and with suffrage afterlives if you like. There was this real sense that now we have the vote, what now? This was coupled with frustration over so many other issues where progress wasn’t being made. So both extensions of the franchise to women in 1918 and 1928 are the beginning of a process not the end.

After 1918 there was still a women’s suffrage campaign, but it was much more muted and wasn’t militant. One of the reasons it takes another 10 years is because the Conservative Party has to be convinced that the equal franchise will not disadvantage them at the ballot box. This suggests that many of the issues had been resolved, the sex war been pacified.

Have we made enough progress in 100 years, especially in terms of women’s representation in public life?

Many of the politicians were saying at the Vote 100 reception that we have come far, but not far enough, and broadly I agree with that. But let’s not forget how far we have come. Although it doesn’t suit everyone’s party political preferences, we have a second woman Prime Minister, and after the last election women represent more than 30 percent of parliamentarians. Clearly it’s not good enough, but if you compare it to the period that I studied, when between the two world wars there were only 36 women who became MPs, you can’t deny the strides that have been made.

It’s a shame we still need to plough our energy into initiatives to get equal representation, but these messages are not falling on deaf ears.

Let’s also think about the initiatives and campaigns working across party lines to increase women’s representation. There are a number of non-partisan organisations like 50:50 Parliament which uses #AskHerToStand to encourage women candidates, and every political Party has its own women’s group which agitates for more female representation. It’s a shame we still need all these kinds of initiatives, we still need to plough our energy into that, but these messages are not falling on deaf ears.

What’s the difference between a suffragette and a suffragist?

Both groups had distinct identities and this often gets blurred. The suffragists were part of a longer tradition dating from the 19th century, based on peaceful protest rather than militancy. The militant acts of the suffragettes were a response to the slow progress of democratic suffragism. Although suffragists don’t get as much attention, we can’t ignore the less spectacular but much longer campaign. There are historians who argue that the constitutionalists were in fact the more effective of the two wings, and the credit for the vote belongs to them. But, as I say, this is a heated debate to this day.

The acts of martyrdom of the suffragettes...makes this anniversary so poignant, so rich and so inspiring. But that should not come at the expense of acknowledging how constitutional democratic practices can achieve the same goal.

The suffragettes endured great suffering – violence, imprisonment, hunger strike and force feeding. We just have to be careful that their considerable sacrifices shouldn’t overshadow the breadth of the movement and the effectiveness of campaigning, petitioning, canvassing, and writing that came from the suffragists.

We also need to remember that there weren’t just these two organisations, that’s another misconception-- there were dozens. There were suffrage organisations representing different religions, and each political party had their own movement, including the Conservatives, which you might not expect. There were dozens of occupationally-based and regionally-defined suffrage societies too.

This was a much broader movement than the NUWSS and the WSPU, which speaks for the inevitability of women’s suffrage. Was it the result of suffragettes or suffragists, or was there an inevitability about franchise extension – an argument some historians have made? Ultimately, after a traumatic war it was no longer tenable to leave the men and women who had served their country so faithfully without the vote.

The acts of martyrdom which are being widely acknowledged on the part of the suffragettes shouldn’t be underplayed because this is what makes this anniversary so poignant, so rich and so inspiring. On the other hand, that should not come at the expense of acknowledging how constitutional democratic practices can achieve the same goal. Nor should that deradicalise the suffragists – their fight for universal suffrage was already radical enough, they were just using different means. Fawcett was not just a stiff, Victorian figure - she was a real radical, who had greater faith in the system.

Moving on to your research and your career. What brought you to research the suffrage movement?

My route to suffrage history was somewhat unusual. Back when I was doing my PhD on women in extremist politics, I came across these three suffragettes who joined the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. At the time, there was a pretty prevalent assumption that the misogyny of fascism repelled female participation but, sadly, this wasn’t the case.

To this day, you find women on the extreme Right - both UKIP and Britain First have had prominent women and women leaders. It has taken a long time to understand that women are not just progressives - look at the higher percentage of white women voting for Trump. So you have to fight against those presumptions and accept that the women involved in the suffrage movement, as with any political movement, are politically, spiritually and morally far more complex than a one-dimensional picture might show.

If we avoid research topics that don’t gel with our own views and sensibilities, we run the risk of not understanding the other side, not getting the full picture.

Another thing I find troubling is talk about the “women’s vote” - women are allowed to be conflated and collectivised when we don’t talk about the “men’s vote”. There aren’t pink and blue ballot papers nor are there pink and blue attitudes towards politics. Gender can be a much more fluid category than we expect.

In America and Britain, women’s history as a distinct discipline grew out of second-wave feminism and tended to look for subejcts of research who did credit to the women’s movement. Right-wing women were overlooked and dismissed, but at our own peril. If we avoid research topics that don’t gel with our own views and sensibilities, we run the risk of not understanding the other side, not getting the full picture.

Finally, what challenges have you faced as a woman in academia?

Some of the challenges for women academics are the same as those stopping women from entering public life. I’ve just finished my term as Chair of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee for the Faculty of Arts. Throughout my time in this role there was a real theme running through the events and discussions, which was the abuse that women and minorities are exposed to, both in academic and even more so in political life.

This increasingly poisonous culture of abuse for anyone in the public realm seems to carry on without much check, and in fact Theresa May spoke about this at the centenary celebrations. As academics, we regularly engage the public in our research and put ourselves out there on many platforms, so we need to make sure that we’re protected, men and women, from abuse.

We are recognising more and more the validity of issues, and that gender issues are worthy not only of our practical consideration but of our research.

There are also structural challenges facing women in academia. I would have a lot less time to do what I do, if I didn’t have a supportive partner. Our colleagues who are single parents and carers need our support in the workplace. Women often have to work a lot harder to achieve the same results in terms of status.

But we are recognising more and more the validity of these issues, and that gender issues are worthy not only of our practical consideration but of our research. By doing this we are able to historicise and contextualise the struggles that women face in the workplace and hopefully improve it now and for the future.


Julie V. Gottlieb is Reader in Modern History in the Department of History at our University. She has written extensively on women's political engagement in 20th century Britain, and presented her research to diverse audiences around the UK and abroad. Her most recent publications are her new monograph 'Guilty Women', Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Inter-war Britain (2015) and the co-edited volume with Clarisse Berthezene, Rethinking Right-Wing Women: Gender and the Conservative Party, 1880s to the Present (2017). She organised a number of conferences and events related to suffrage and women's politicization here at the University of Sheffield, including 'The Aftermath of Suffrage: What Happened After the Vote Was Won' (2011) and 'Gendering Peace in Europe' (2017). She will be giving a talk on the centenary later this month and is curating a strand on the centenary of Off the Shelf literary festival in the autumn.