The suffrage campaigners believed, and the Women’s Liberation Movement hoped, that their victories would be followed by further progress towards a world where the needs of women would be given the same importance as the needs of men. It did not happen. In each case the revolution stalled; in the late 1920s as a result of the Great Depression; in the 1980s with rising unemployment following Margaret Thatcher’s accession to power.
The work of the campaigners was never completed.
Creating a society which gives as much importance to the needs of women as to the needs of men and where power is more equally shared between the sexes is not easy. It will entail overturning the cultural norms that sustain male supremacy and changing the way women and men see themselves. It must be understood for what it is. We are not proposing some modest process of reform. This is a revolution.
Equality with men was the cry of the Votes for Women campaigners and it found an echo in the demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Achieving equality is necessary but many female activists have realised that equality with men is not enough. Many men lead cramped and depressing lives. There is no advantage in joining them in their misery. A new liberation campaign should have a loftier utopian purpose.
It is not just the symptoms of inequality and discrimination that must be dealt with. As Veronica Jarvis Tichenor writes: “To strike at the heart of the gender structure, we must… aggressively disrupt and reconstruct assumptions that lie at the very core of who we think we are.”
What inspired the Votes for women campaigners and the supporters of the Women’s Liberation Movement was that deep belief in the rights and entitlement of women which we call feminism.
Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of London’s South Bank Centre says, “I’m convinced that feminism needs to be a big, bold, baggy overcoat that can accommodate each fully rounded female.”
Unfortunately many women still find the coat to be uncomfortably restrictive. The concept of feminism as a liberating force is still misunderstood and mistrusted. Attitudes vary from acceptance of the word as a beacon signalling an empowering sense of freedom from past shackles to doubts and fears about humourless harridans challenging the very notion of womanhood.
Throughout this book we endeavour to rehabilitate and reclaim feminism.
The feminism we espouse is straightforward and should be uncontroversial. Brenda Hale, who is now President of the Supreme Court, put it this way when we met her:
“A feminist is someone who believes women are equal to men in terms of potential and entitlement.”
The revolution must have a strong political element but it would be very optimistic to imagine that such a radical change might be driven by politicians. During the last twenty years most politicians appear to have lost confidence in their ability to make fundamental changes in our society. They will have to be pressed hard by women campaigners, who in turn will need the help and support of other enlightened and progressive forces in our society.
Music, words – on the page or in the theatre – paintings, sculpture and dance help us to express emotions vital to our intellectual and emotional growth and wellbeing.
The Arts can help us to query long-held and often unquestioned assumptions about the way we conduct our lives. Separate from the political establishment itself, they can prompt us to think about the effect of politics in our daily existence. They have the power to encourage us to dismantle cultural norms.
During the 1970s, at the height of the Apartheid era in South Africa, the Royal Court Theatre in London staged plays like ‘The Island’ and ‘Siswe Banzi is Dead’ by the South African playwright, Athol Fugard, criticising that heinous regime. Fugard’s plays provoked a personally felt visceral shock in the audience. What we were reading and hearing about in the media was brought to life through drama.
The Arts have the potential to open the minds of the people of Britain to the possibility of creating a society where the needs of women are just as important as the needs of men.
As professional singer Elizabeth Roberts told us: “The arts reflect back to us what is and also what could be.” In a society where the entitlement to equal rights and opportunities is taken seriously, we need to invest in and promote the Arts as instruments of change. They help us to imagine a better future.
We were surprised at how many practical lessons are provided by those past campaigns. A stream of publicity ideas kept the suffragette cause constantly in the news and their opponents forever on the defensive. On a summer afternoon they hired a balloon and dropped several thousand leaflets from the sky over London. On another afternoon a suffragette sidled into Lambeth Palace to lobby the Archbishop of Canterbury. Somewhat nonplussed, he offered her tea.
The Women’s Liberation Movement had wide ambitions. The Movement certainly wanted the Government to introduce reforms but they saw their main purpose as creating a grass roots community of women, with scores of support groups in towns and cities across Britain. The Movement was also an important self-help organisation. Members of the Movement opened over sixty Women’s centres: protected spaces where women could find refuge, support and stimulation.
The lessons from our history provide bedrock principles. Appeal to all women; be democratic and inclusive; be relentless in achieving success; always remember that while reforms are useful, what women really need is a fundamental change in the way society is organised. Most important of all, a new liberation campaign must be an organisation of women, led by women, with its policy and priorities determined by women.
The biggest lesson of all is that a new liberation campaign must have an appetite for success. It must convince its members that victory is not only possible but, with enthusiasm and relentless campaigning, victory will be assured.
This is an extract from The Stalled Revolution.The Stalled Revolution by Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds (Emerald Books)