‘Suffragettes’ and votes for women…


Impossible to get it all right, of course, but films based on historical incidents and political movements can’t help being superficial. I have not seen Suffragettes but from reports I have heard and read this film is no exception. At least it focuses on a fictional working class women instead of perpetuating the idea that the Pankhursts carrying the entire burden.

But why not use the factual working class woman from Lancashire, Annie Kenney, the only woman of her class to break into the Pankhurst hierarchy? Still, it was a complicated movement in a turbulent era and for film-makers some facts need enlarging for dramatic effect while others are best forgotten.

The haughty Emmeline Pankhurst seems a fascinating character. Her book, My Own Story, is yet another read on my to-do list. She was no friend of the lower orders. As a poor law guardian she was in the habit of authority. Single women property owners had been able to vote in municipal elections since 1869. In 1870 they became eligible for election to school board and in 1894 they were allowed to sit on local councils. We tend to forget that in those days what we now consider social services were run locally rather than nationally and that central government had a much narrower role than it enjoys now.

Given her negative attitude to socialist aspirations, it is hard to imagine Mrs Pankhurst being interested in parliamentary votes for all women. And when women finally got to vote in parliamentary elections (in England) in 1918, the win was confined to woman aged 30 years and over.

The vote for men is another matter often forgotten. My paternal grandfather, a sergeant in the British Army, was forty-six years old when he was killed in the early part of the first world war. Had he lived until 1918 he would have been allowed to vote for the first time in his life.

I have often wondered how, as a soldier away from home so much, he managed to impregnate my grandmother fourteen times. And perhaps more surprisingly, all the children survived: thirteen girls until my father broke the pattern. I wonder too how my grandmother managed her children, alone, and if she thought, supposing she had time to think such thoughts, if votes for women would change her life.

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Chris Horan

Chris is a former social worker, probation officer and Family Court counsellor, living in Hawea in the South Island.