Thinking about voting?

// 6 May 2010

Obviously, along with most people, my mind is on polls, voting, and the exercise of democratic rights today. It got me thinking about the women’s suffrage movement, and realising that I don’t know a great deal about it. Distracted from work, I had a quick look on Wikipedia to find out more. This paragraph from the page on Women’s Suffrage in the United Kingdom really struck me:

Hunger striking and force-feeding, particularly, were undertaken by individual people and served as points of battle carried out on the individual body. Starting in the summer of 1909, Suffragettes employed the hunger-strike as a method of protest while they served time in British prisons against the government that imprisoned and mistreated them. Hunger striking, as Jane Marcus points out, was a way for the British women to refuse her role of mother and nurturer of the country. Authorities responded to their protest with force-feeding, an invasive and painful procedure performed within the confines of their cells. The resistance of the suffragettes to this procedure caused such encounters to be extremely violent and painful in nature – prisoners were held down while their mouths were pried open and instrumentation for force-feeding was shoved into their throats by male doctors. Looking to the firsthand accounts of the force-feedings, as evident in June Purvis’ work, The Prison Experiences of the Suffragettes, one can easily start to see where this form of response took on a quality of rape. This element of forced sexuality was exacerbated in the incidents when these forcible feedings were conducted through the rectum or vagina of the prisoners. So great was the trauma of such an experience, that several women were permanently scarred – mentally and/or physically – by this experience. Still, Suffragettes, despite having fore-knowledge of these force feedings and fearing potential damage to mental or physical capability as a result, remained loyal to their cause. Suffragettes devoted their minds and bodies to achieving the pearl of freedom for women in Britain.

Votes for Women poster

I’ve voted with pride in every single local and national election since I turned 18, and I always get a little thrill from doing so. I’m always shocked when women say to me that their vote doesn’t count or that all politicians are the same. Not because they’re wrong (in many cases they’re not), but because that makes no difference to me: women fought and died for my right to vote. I have a duty to use it. It’s a cliche, and I’ve said it so many times I’ve almost ceased to really think about what I’m saying but just reading that short bit of history about the movement has suddenly made it very real for me. This is not somewhere back in dim and distant history. This happened in my Grandma’s lifetime. I’m off to vote.

Comments From You

kinelfire // Posted 6 May 2010 at 12:37 pm

I would argue that the Suffragettes fought for the choice of women to vote as they see fit. If a woman chooses to abstain, whatever the reason, that is still her choice.

While appreciate the value of my vote, and the fight to gain it, I don’t think the Suffragettes fought so that women would be guilted into voting regardless of how they actually feel about it. And I really don’t think their struggles and violations should ever be used as a stick with which to beat other women into the polling booths.

Lauren // Posted 6 May 2010 at 12:58 pm

So sad to think about…

I love that revolutionary feel that feminism had in those days though..Now it’s kind of like we don’t know what we’re doing or where we’re going! Sometimes I just want to do something substantial but 1) there’s no one to turn to, every group is in London, 2) the stuff done makes no difference, no one’s willing to get in the papers for anything apart from Object.

Jessie // Posted 6 May 2010 at 1:05 pm

Just to agree with Kinelfire – no one should be guilt tripped into voting (and therefore condoning) a system which patently isn’t working.

Yet another argument for the none-of-the-above movement!

Lynne Miles // Posted 6 May 2010 at 1:10 pm

Lauren there’s a whole list of groups – lots of which are non-London – here: /resources/lists_and_groups

As for whether we’ve lost our way … I would say that one of the reasons progress feels slow or maybe directionless is that it’s so much easier to act and get things done when you behave as if there are no grey areas, and you have a one uncompromising goal. That makes it inherently easier for right-wingers (I’m going to go ahead and make a sweeping judgement that they are generally less interested in nuance) or for single issue campaigners such as Object to get things done (this is in no way a criticism of Object, who do great work).

What I think you have with today’s (at least online) feminism is a (sometimes painfully) slow process of coming to understand intersectionalities with other oppressions and how crucial it is that we make sure we’re not a narrow movement. I think that does inevitably end up with battles being fought on multiple fronts, and it leads us to a point where you can rarely say “the issue is x” because the issue is different for different women with different positions and experiences. That’s important for understanding the world and the way oppression operates, but I guess you could argue it’s harder to organise around, simply because of its multiplicity?

Mephit // Posted 6 May 2010 at 1:28 pm

I think not going to the polls is a bad thing, it says to politicians not that you are disaffected and disillusioned, but that you can’t be bothered. Voter apathy suits them just fine.

I think going in and spoiling your ballot paper expresses discontent better and shows it’s not about disinterest or not being bothered to go to the polls. I’d rather people protested in that manner than didn’t use their vote at all.

Ros // Posted 6 May 2010 at 1:37 pm

I agree that choosing to abstain is a choice but it is important that this is done by spoiling your ballot not merely by staying home.

Not going to the polling station at all or not registering to vote are not effective ways of saying you don’t approve of the system.

Jule // Posted 6 May 2010 at 1:38 pm

Thanks for this post, Lynne. That awful photo of the suffragette lying there surrounded by brutal, grinning men. Really focuses my mind.

I love what the suffragettes used to do, like smashing windows in Oxford Street and using loudhailers to shout insults at politicians from the river while they were having afternoon tea on the terrace. And Mary ‘Slasher’ Richardson having a go at Rokeby’s Venus. That picture is still hanging in the National Gallery.

They were so brave to do stuff like that then. I’d be far too frightened to do anything like it now. I’m too much of a coward. I am deeply admiring of and SO grateful to these wonderful women.

Lauren // Posted 6 May 2010 at 1:39 pm

Thanks Lynne! I think I agree about multiplicity of the movement meaning progress is slow but a part of it..

Even in yesterday’s movement we had all that, though. I guess feminism is a contentious issue and it’s always hard to get onto the frontline.

Ideally the masses would get less heated about feminism so it can be discussed, realised – it wouldn’t be something feminists themselves had to argue over time and again if everyone joined in. But that’s what resistance to a movement is – people aren’t going to say, ‘yes, oh I see that now!’

Rose // Posted 6 May 2010 at 2:34 pm

“forcible feedings were conducted through the rectum or vagina”?

Either that’s a serious ignorance about anatomy – or a desperate attempt to claim ownership/rights over the bodies of deviant women.

Why is this not part of the school education? We hear alot about ‘great men’, that killed and ruled, and maybe a little about one women that nursed men. But we had nothing about ‘great women’, that were stong, brave, and abused – but won.

My old schools history lessons were such a fail.

Wendy // Posted 6 May 2010 at 2:48 pm

my view has always been I should vote because others fought so that I could.

I just wish there was a no faith in any of the above box!

Lauren // Posted 6 May 2010 at 3:35 pm

I agree Rose. To say not too long ago at all these really important events happened, women being jailed, force-fed, knocked unconscious, for protesting.

None of that’s on curriculum, even though it’s a reaally important part of our history. Nope, but they like us to learn about the Nazis for every single exam we ever do from age 11 to 18.

I think it’s such a shame what these brave women did, and most women today are completely ignorant and/ or ashamed of the word ‘feminism’. I wouldn’t say anything’s been won when things like page 3 still exist and the attitudes (in the form of irony) towards women are probably just as bad as back then.

Kate // Posted 6 May 2010 at 3:36 pm

Non-voters are politicians’ favourite members of the public, they pose absolutely no threat and can be completely ignored.

Lets carry on being thorns in their sides like suffragettes.

Hannah // Posted 6 May 2010 at 3:47 pm

Good point about history lessons, Rose. I’m sure I would have been more likely to take history post-14 if it had consisted of more than men having wars with each other or inventing new kinds of plough. It’s sad that the kind of recovery of women’s history that’s been taking place in academia for quite a while hasn’t really made it into the schoolrooms. It’s not like suffragettes are just an obscure feminist interest either, they changed the whole voting system! Elaine Showalter has written interestingly about suffragettes in Holloway jail in her book The Female Malady, with some great/disturbing pictures.

sas // Posted 6 May 2010 at 4:24 pm

I voted a few hours ago. I found myself saying a silent thank you to Emily Pankhurst and all of the Suffragettes.

I voted standing on their shoulders.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 6 May 2010 at 4:40 pm

I was taught about the suffragettes at school- I think that was the only think I was taught on women’s history. And perhaps it’s not on the under 14 curriculum (and probably should be), but I understand that women’s suffrage is meant to core unit of GSCE, A-level, S-Grade and Higher history.

As a women’s historian, I am usually more frustrated that the *only* part of women’s history that seems to be taught in school is the suffrage movement.

The Women’s History Network Blog has a couple of pieces on suffrage- http://whn.jones5publishing.co.uk/blogs/?tag=wspu

though perhaps not great if you know nothing about it all.

sianmarie // Posted 6 May 2010 at 4:40 pm

kate and sas – well said.

however bad the politicians are, apathy and refusing to vote is never the answer. look what happened with the low turnout last year – the BNP win seats.

i don’t think the work of the suffragettes should be used to beat people with to get them in the polling booths. but i think we need to recognise how lucky we are to have the vote. i can’t imagine growing up without it.

in terms of history lessons – i did the suffragettes for GCSE coursework in 2001? you didn’t get to choose your c/w either so it was part of the syllabus. a long time ago now tho i guess.

SAM // Posted 6 May 2010 at 5:15 pm

I always vote. And I have turned up in the past, and written VOTE OF NO CONFIDENCE across my ballot paper if I was dissatisfied.

To not vote, is not to participate and not get a say. To turn up and vote, or purposefully spoil your ballot, is to take part and have a right to fight against, or with, the system.

I’m always grateful that greater women than me have fought so I can have a free life.

LonerGrrrl // Posted 6 May 2010 at 5:45 pm

I echo those who have argued for at least turning up to the polling station and spoiling your ballot paper, than not turning up at all.

I respect a person’s choice not to vote for any of the parties and to express resistance towards the way the system works. What I can’t stand is apathy – ‘I can’t be bothered’, ‘I don’t know what it’s about’ etc. The way I see it, if 90 years ago there were women – working long hours in factories & raising large families – who still gave enough of a shit to go out into their communities to campaign for women’s right to vote, the least a woman can do nowadays is read the leaflets she gets through the door and make whatever mark she likes on a ballot paper for the all of 60 seconds it takes.

And re. the teaching of the herstory of women’s suffrage in schools – I think if school pupils from an earlier age were taught about this it would interest more young women to vote when they reach 18. It’s a fascinating and lively herstory which should be shared with those of a younger age.

Alex T // Posted 6 May 2010 at 5:50 pm

I always think too of the men and women around the world who even today do not have the right to vote. I’m so, so grateful to the suffragettes and suffragists (my son would have been called Emmeline if I’d had a girl!) and their struggle illustrates just how much there is to be done in human rights around the world still. To be honest, I find talk of guilt-tripping and abstaining rather insulting to those people who have no say in how their country is run. I can’t imagine how they would feel knowing that there are people here who choose not to vote, even though others fought and died for them to have that right.

Rose // Posted 6 May 2010 at 9:30 pm

My bad, I didn’t know that some people did get to study the womens movement in history lessons.

I did GCSE history in around 2002 ish, and the four subject we had to study were Isreali/Palistinian (male) conflict, American west (where there were no women, apart from the occasional ‘and the cowards even killed defenseless women’ remarks), medicine through time, (no women, no childbirth), and a local site study, (no people!).

In AS level ‘government and politics’ – no womens movement, in fact Maggie was only even mentioned in debates!

A student could leave that course thinking that women had never been in any way politically active.

I wasn’t impressed. Unfortunately, having now moved to science, women still don’t actually exist – not even Rosalind Franklin, or Marie Curie.

Is it just me that feels that womens progess and achievements are constantly being ‘hushed up’?

FeminaErecta // Posted 7 May 2010 at 10:13 am

I did my GCSEs in 2000/2001, we covered the suffragettes in studying propaganda before the first world war. We did a project on women’s suffrage in Yr 8 (I think), we never covered the Chartist movement, which got the male working class the vote.

I became a suffragette when I was 7 at Beamish Museum in the North East as part of a Edwardian day- I still have the certificate and badge proudly framed on my wall. Although I do not agree completly with Direct Non Violent Action (I would have been the one selling the newspaper, not the one throwing the stone) the way the suffragettes were treated was disgusting. I am proud that in Britain we now consider societies that do not allow women to vote abhorant, when it was less the 100 years ago that tax money would have been spent torturing women. I am doubly proud that Emmeline Pankhurst was one of the trending topics on Twitter for a good four hours. People are awesome.

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