Women’s Right to Vote (Centenary)
6 February 2018
Today we commemorate an important milestone on an important journey.
We celebrate a crucial victory in the fight for equality and we remember that those things worth fighting for the most demand struggle and sacrifice—and what sacrifice there was.
Many paid with their health and some even paid with their lives to secure women’s suffrage, yet we cannot say today in this Parliament or outside it that this long march to equality is over.
The path that those campaigners first trod at the beginning of the last century still has many miles to run.
While this afternoon we look back, we must also face the future.
We must face the future with a renewed commitment and a renewed purpose to deliver real equality in our society and in our time.
The women’s suffrage movement had many members and martyrs.
The Pankhurst sisters, Emily Davison and Millicent Fawcett are just some of the women whose tireless fight for equality has seen their names written into the history books, but many others remain hidden from history, such as Janie Allan, a member of the Independent Labour Party in Scotland, the Women’s Social and Political Union and the Women’s Tax Resistance League, who, addressing the courts in 1913, while refusing to pay taxation, said:
“Government rests upon the consent of the governed, and that consent I consider women are justified in refusing until they are enfranchised.
I object to pay this tax, my Lord, because I hold that taxation without representation is tyranny, and so long as women are denied any voice in the expenditure of the money derived from taxation, so long are they perfectly justified in refusing to pay taxes.”
The first leader of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie, was also one of those who valiantly took up the cause of a woman’s right to vote.
For the prophetic Hardie, equality was paramount to improving both society and the economy, yet he was one of just a handful of men in Parliament who stood four-square behind the women’s suffrage movement.
Hardie believed emphatically, as his 1905 pamphlet on this topic attested, that it was
“Only by removing the disabilities and restraints imposed upon women; and permitting her to enter freely into competition with man in every sphere of human activity, that her true position and function in the economy of life will ultimately be settled.”
While Hardie’s detractors accused him of focusing on the wrong idea—of trying to prevent universal suffrage for all men—Hardie knew that if women were not given the franchise in their own right, any further extension of adult voting rights would continue to exclude women.
That message should be our continued calling today, because when just one woman is paid less than a man for the same day’s work, all society is short changed. When just one woman suffers abuse or discrimination, all society is degraded. When just one woman is denied the same rights as a man, all society is unequal.
The scale of the struggle before us is huge but, just as it did for those women and men a century and more ago, the magnitude of our task should serve not as an excuse for inaction but as a motivation for action—not as a reason to back away, but as a cause to move forward with renewed vitality.
While we may have a female First Minister, only 45 of our 129 MSPs are women; while we may have a female Prime Minister, just 208 of our 650 MPs are women; and while the Equal Pay Act 1970 may be on the statute book—introduced by a Labour Government and driven by Barbara Castle—we know that pay inequality remains stubbornly widespread.
Let us today commemorate and celebrate, but let us also continue that work.
Let us harness the spirit of the suffragists and the suffragettes to fight on for equality and to fight on for justice in our society.
A century has passed since some women won the right to vote; we should not let another century go by before women and men are equal in all things.
I move amendment S5M-10285.1, to leave out from “, and welcomes” to end and insert:
“; commends the many organisations and individuals that continue to work to realise women’s equal representation in public office as parliamentarians, local councillors and across society, and accepts that there is more work to be done to achieve equal representation for women.”