The 6th of February 2018 represented a very special day in the history of women’s struggle for equality in Britain, starting with the most basic of rights, the right to vote. The passage of the ‘Representation of the People Act (1918)’ gave only partial rights to women; they had to be over 30 and conform to certain property qualifications. The Act to reform the electoral system was passed, not as a direct result of the titanic struggle that women had waged over the previous fifty years, but because millions of soldiers returning from the First World War were not entitled to vote due to property and residential restrictions. Women had to wait another ten years before sex and class differences were removed and both men and women were entitled to vote once they reached twenty one.
It would be difficult to underestimate the importance of ‘the vote’ as an ‘issue’ for early feminists, or the political significance of the franchise in creating an international movement which would unite women across the world in a common cause.
The International Alliance of Women (IAW) played no small part in this struggle. For example, Margery Corbett Ashby (1882—1981) attended, with her mother and sister, the great meeting in Berlin (1904) during which the International Women Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), (our original title) was born. Inspired by Millicent Fawcett, Margery joined some of the great processions of women which filled the streets of London during the early 20th century. During the next few years she attended Alliance congresses in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London and Stockholm.
Activists were divided into two camps; the ‘suffragists and the suffragettes’. The former, like Margery, believing in a peaceful campaign and the latter, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, took to direct action, including violence and militancy.
My mother, Dr Constance Rover (1910-2014), also a long standing member of IAW, published a key text on this political movement (‘Women Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain 1866-1914’) one hundred years from its inception in 1867. As we all know, women have made great advances but there is still plenty of work to do before we achieve full equality.