Votes for women, the working classes, men, and the dangers of a single story

Ruth HartleyHuman rights, Politics, Race, Slavery, Storytelling, Votes, Women's suffrage2 Comments

Women, the vote, and the stories told about it 100 years later

On March 8th I will join friends to celebrate International Women’s Day. It is always fun.

Its great to be celebrating a centenary since British women got the vote. The vote was only for women then, who, like me now, had property – but hold on! 100 years ago my peasant grandmother didn’t get the vote. My middle-class grandmother wouldn’t have been granted a degree. That vote for middle-class women eventually benefited not only me, but all the men and women of Britain. It wasn’t easy or straightforward or done perfectly right. Working-class men at the time felt cheated but change for the better is always a process. Why, I ask, is there still negativity about it today?

Deceptive, defective, but delectable single stories

We do like to keep our history simple so we know who was good and who was bad – who to honour and who to blame. That allows us to criticise the achievements of the suffragists and suffragettes without understanding how difficult it was to change things for the better without making compromises. The film Suffragette has a working class woman, Maud Watts, as its protagonist. The film shows how complicated it was for the men and women of the time. Working class men wanted the vote and feared that women’s rights would threaten their livelihoods. Maud would not get the vote for another 10 years when it was extended to men and women over 21 years of age. It took courage to fight for the right to vote if you were a woman but it was in your interests. It was right for men to support women’s right to vote but fewer men did. Was that because they feared for themselves or because they were misogynist? No doubt there were many reasons. What I find significant is that votes for women and working-class men grew out of the movement to abolish slavery.

Can we ever know all the stories?

A group of working-class men, women and children in their best clothes walk down Bow Road with placards and banners in the rear.

An East London Federation of Suffragettes march passes Bow bus station, June 1914. Photograph: Norah Smyth/Institute of Social History

Black and white photo of a handsome black man in a white cravat and black jacket

Frederick Douglass, an Abolishionist who supported women’s right to speak in public


There are so many interesting and varied stories – Frederick Douglass, once a slave spoke in support of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s demand for female suffrage in 1848. He was an advisor to President Lincoln. British women fought to end slavery before they themselves had any rights to their own children or to property. Sarah Jackson wrote an excellent article on working class women activists in the 1900s in The Guardian.  Jackson quotes Chinamanda Ngozi Adichie about single stories. There were working class women in the Suffragist movement and there were men who supported them too. In 1968 however, women would go on strike at Dagenham because  male trade unionists did not support their demands for equal pay.

Several stories from Miss World in 1970

The cover of Women's Weekly has a portrait of Jennifer Hosten.

Jennifer Josephine Hosten

I demonstrated outside the Albert Hall against the cattle parade of beautiful women with my young and good-looking friends from the Women’s Movement. We objected to the objectification of women’s bodies and we wanted control over our own bodies. It was the apartheid years. Inside the Hall there were two winners – a white South African and the first black winner of a beauty contest – Jennifer Hosten from Grenada. We couldn’t have known how ironic that was. The extraordinary, beautiful and talented Miss Hosten graduated, became a diplomat, and is, of course, a feminist. So all stories, if they are truthful, will be complex and complicated and should make us slow to take sides or judge harshly.

Is the story of the fight for women’s rights over? Is it the end?

A young bearded man with a backpack holds a banner which says "Men of quality support Gender Equality.“The door is open for women,” said one (male) commentator recently.” Why do women have to come in shouting and waving placards?”

Why indeed? Must we enter the room that was once a male preserve and behave as ordered to by its doyens? Must we be quiet, modest, keep our knees together, not demand equal pay for equal work, and not complain about sexual harassment and rape?

What do you think?

2 Comments on “Votes for women, the working classes, men, and the dangers of a single story”

  1. John Corley

    As would be expected, there is a whole literature on the rôle of working class and colonial women in the women’s suffrage movements. Entry into this interesting field can be made via,, to name but three.

    The words ‘bus station’ and 1914 jar with me. Isn’t it a bus (and tram) garage that the protesters are marching past?

    1. Ruth Hartley

      This is so much rich and fascinating history about the east end of London – thanks for posting this John – there are 100s of stories to be written around this material that might make us rethink our accepted ideas

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