How far have women’s rights advanced in a century?
This year marks the centenary of women gaining the right to vote in Great Britain and Ireland. But while the feminist movement has made monumental strides since, the campaign for equality still continues today.
The watershed moment for the British women's suffrage movement, came 100 years ago when the Representation of the People Act was given Royal Assent from George V on 6 February 1918, giving approximately 8.4 million women the vote.
Introducing the bill against the backdrop of a united country fighting the First World War, the Home Secretary George Cave said: “War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides.
“It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise.”
It meant women over the age of 30, who met specific property qualifications, could vote for the first time - however it would take another decade for women over 21 to be given the same voting rights as men.
The 1918 act, championed by suffrage pioneer Millicent Fawcett and suffragette leaders the Pankhursts, is considered a pivotal moment for women’s rights and helped lay the foundations for progress towards greater political, social and economic equality.
But, a century later women, still face gender equality barriers and prejudice, as highlighted by the gender pay gap, Time's Up movement and countless examples of everyday sexism. The Fawcett Society says there is still much progress to be made.
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“As the BBC pay scandal shows, the law must change so that more women can exercise their right to equal pay and we must place greater emphasis on the organisation’s responsibility to prevent discrimination. And as we are still stuck at only a third women MPs, all political parties must set out clear action plans to get more women in.”
While there is still significant progress to be made, the achievements and evolution of the feminist movement and the sea-change in attitudes towards women’s rights over the past century will be celebrated with commemorative events around the country in 2018.
The fight for women’s suffrage
During the 19th century, women held an inferior position to men in British society, both socially and legally.
Before 1870, married women were required to relinquish all property and earnings to their husbands, effectively giving them the same legal status as an insane person or a criminal. It would be another 120 years before rape within marriage would be made a criminal offence.
Women were also excluded from being elected onto borough or county councils or as an MP. They were also prevented from accessing higher education until 1878.
In 1866, the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, presented a petition to Parliament asking for women to be granted the vote.
“When Millicent Fawcett and other campaigners were handing over their petition for women’s suffrage to Parliament, women had few legal rights,” say the Fawcett Society.
“They could not vote in national elections, had no access to higher education, were subject to state endorsed violence from their husbands and were the property of men, usually their fathers or husbands.
“150 years later we have seen our society transformed.”
Support for the movement had grown substantially by 1888, with 1,400 women protesting against poor wages and working conditions at a factory in London’s East End.
Twenty years later, 300,000 to 500,000 activists gathered at a rally in Hyde Park, London, in support of women’s suffrage.
“From the point of view of numbers yesterday’s women’s suffrage demonstration in Hyde Park will rank among the biggest gatherings ever made in the metropolis,” The Daily Telegraph reported.
“Christabel Pankhurst, speaking with pride of the success of the huge gathering, expressed the hope that this would be the last meeting of this kind and that it would convince the Government that public opinion demanded that the Parliamentary vote should be given to women.”
In 1913, suffragette Emily Davison gave her life in the fight for women’s rights when she was trampled under George V’s horse after running onto the track at the Epsom Derby, the most famous act of an increasingly militant campaign
Women finally gained the vote in 1918, with the act paving the way for universal suffrage ten years later and far-reaching equal rights legislation introduced over the next 100 years, with progress in education, work, violence against women and at home.
In the workplace
The Sex Discrimination Removal Act 1919 meant women could no longer be disqualified from certain professions on the grounds of sex.
It gave women access to the legal profession and accountancy for the first time and meant they could also hold any civil or judicial office or post.
In 1922, the Law of Property Act allowed both husband and wife to inherit property equally, legislation passed four years later meant women could hold and dispose of property on the same terms as men.
Before 1870, women were required to give up all property rights and money earned to their husbands upon marriage. The Married Women's Property Act gave wives control of their own possessions and meant any money which a woman earned would be treated as her own property.
Women become ‘people’
In 1929, women became ‘persons’ in their own right under Canadian law following a ruling by the Privy Council.
Canadian Emily Murphy, the first female magistrate in the British Empire, and four others, led the fight after lawyers challenged her right to pass sentence, arguing that as a woman she was not qualified to sit in the Senate of Canada.
A plaque created in their honour in the chamber reads: “To further the cause of womankind these five outstanding pioneer women caused steps to be taken resulting in the recognition by the Privy Council of women as persons eligible for appointment to the Senate of Canada.”
A strike by 187 female workers at a Ford car factory in Dagenham in 1968 is cited as being instrumental in the passing of the 1970 Equal Pay Act.
The machinists walked out and went on strike for three weeks in protest against their male colleagues earning 15 per cent more than them.
Former Labour Party MP Shirley Summerskill said the women played a “very significant part in the history of the struggle for equal pay”.
The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 made it illegal to discriminate against women in work, education and training. It also meant women could apply for a credit card or loan in their own name.
The Equality Act 2010 would eventually replace a number of different anti-discrimination laws.
Equal pay for equal work
The Equal Pay (Amendment) Act 1983 allowed women to be paid the same as men for work of equal value.
It was not until 1991 that the House of Lords made rape in marriage a criminal offence in the UK.
Women's rights today
Last year’s women’s march and protests were attended by more than five million people in 81 countries worldwide. It was the largest single-day protest in US history.
In a statement before this year’s march, the organisers said: “We are coming together to pledge that we are going to make change in big and small ways. We will stand side by side, once again, in solidarity with our sisters, brothers and siblings around the world. Together we are strong and if we all work for a better world then time is really up for oppressors of women.”